George Monbiot wrote that bottom-up community activism could be one of the ideas that prevent the further decay of UK communities. What he was referring to is a series of community initiatives that together create momentum around community regeneration and resilience. So he says,
“Turning such initiatives into a wider social revival means creating what practitioners call “thick networks”: projects that proliferate, spawning further ventures and ideas that weren’t envisaged when they started. They then begin to develop a dense, participatory culture that becomes attractive and relevant to everyone rather than mostly to socially active people with time on their hands.”
Monbiot pointed to research conducted in Lambeth on the development of ‘thick networks'. In this article, I'm going to hone in more closely on this research, identify the key points of best practice, and then ask, what are the barriers to community resilience in the UK outside of gentrifying urban hubs?
The project was called Open Works, and it was based in West Norwood in South London. The report they produced was called Designed to Scale: Mass participation to build resilient communities. The Executive Summary and Report are worth reading, but for the sake of speed, I've summarised the findings below.
The aim of the project was to test whether a ‘participation’ culture (otherwise known as DIY culture or community co-creation) could engineer lasting social change. So Lambeth Council and Civic Systems Lab launched Open Works, which, with 1000 residents, co-created twenty practical projects in the West Norwood area. It wasn’t targeted toward specific groups. The projects were open to all, without qualification, and the aim was to benefit everyone in the community.
They observed that some community projects were achieving high levels of community participation. These tended to be projects that were appealing to many people, such as gardening, cooking, learning and making. So these types of initiatives were trialled. Children’s activities also featured high on the list of projects initiated.
They also observed that, while state support was a necessary and valuable aspect of supporting communities, the top-down approaches tended to disempower people. Councils were, however, reluctant to let go of their control. To the researchers, an entirely new way of conceiving state to people community cooperation was needed – community should be created together, not imposed. It was all about creating a ‘dense participatory ecology’ that would lead to fundamental changes in community resilience; in other words, it is about rebuilding civil society. Resilience, of course, is an increasingly called upon concept related to sustainability and psychological wellbeing.
So what were their practice-based findings?
First, that it is possible to build a dense participation ecology, and it may even be achievable to scale it upwards.
Second, that the prototype would take three years to properly construct and evidence.
Third, the kinds of ‘micro-participation' advocated by the project had the potential to impact the entire community, even beyond those directly involved.
To achieve this, however, there is a ‘threshold' of involvement, which they estimate to be 10-15% of residents. This threshold level ‘greatly exceeds any current level of participation through existing models.'
Fourth, that they envisage a two-stage process of revitalising communities. The first stage is an ‘accessible and inclusive network of commons-based co-production built into everyday life.' And the second, that this foundation would evolve into the ‘development of community businesses, co-operatives and hybrid ventures through platform incubation programmes.’
In other words, the precondition for a successful local economy to emerge is community resilience and local government seeding. Society and governments cannot expect local economies to sustain themselves spontaneously. Business does not arise from nowhere. The catalyst for business and other economic models comes from already established community networks.
Fifth, that this model would be significantly cheaper to maintain than existing models of local government activity, and more sustainable.
Sixth, although this point is not explicitly made, the project utilises the ‘density’ approach to placemaking. So they say,
"Within a 5 to 15-minute walk from your home, you would have approximately 140 opportunities every week (20 opportunities every day) to participate in free activities with neighbours. These might be spaces on your nearest high street, or in kitchens, workshops or gardens on your own housing estate.’
Density matters. Jane Jacobs argued that density was needed for multiple forms of footfall on the one hand (different social groups using spaces at different times). Further, that a density of related activities would actively encourage the use of space (it is why, for examples, businesses don't lose if what appears to be a competitor – for example, another café, restaurant or bar - moves nearby). People are more likely to use a space if there are multiple choices or a similar product. The ‘social law' of density to communities means that engineering these projects needs to be focused on small spatial areas in the first instance, creating a lattice-like network of popular and co-related activities.
The Open Works model of community participation and power sharing is an extremely valuable one. Applying these principles to the traditionally ‘rationalist’ and centralised models of local government planning, regeneration and social services to lead to a genuine power sharing and co-creation that could liberate communities and, I agree, would lead to greater resilience and economic activity.
The project was based in West Norwood, an area that has undergone significant investment already, largely due to the activity and openness of its local councillors over the years. Previously home to a moribund high street, the area had experienced rapidly rising house prices, and also had some artisan businesses set up over the past 15 years. New community projects, like a new leisure centre and free school, had inspired optimism in the incoming middle-classes.
In other words, it had already stopped being a ‘marginal' or ‘undesirable' place to live and was increasingly being ‘turned over' to young, affluent families. Given the complexity of London and its non-segregated social mixing between communities, this wasn’t a bad outcome, since those same families brought wealth and energy into this traditionally listless area. It just means that they were already working from a higher bar.
Lambeth Council also had a readiness toward adopting new ways of thinking after it was placed under significant pressure from corruption charges, poor policing and changes of political hue before the Millennium. Governance matters, and in London, Labour Council’s have become very good at experimenting and working with cultural and social regeneration strategies as being the best way to manage centrally imposed decline. London has also had a significant boost from the Greater London Authority, particularly when a more active Mayor is in charge of the show.
Other areas seeking to make change, outside of the London context, may encounter significant barriers as a result of a different cultural and political make-up. Conservative ideology, gripped as it is by the free-market and a romanticised view of rural idyll, views with suspicion this kind of cultural regenerative activity and believes that local business ‘just happens.'
Conservatives are more likely to favour working with big business than co-create with communities, and they also are not geared to view environmental or cultural DIY projects with favour. Hence, the application of these techniques in London will be far easier than in Conservative-controlled areas, unless there are some key Conservative modernisers active in the particular locality (and they do exist, in the same way that Labour-controlled local government resisters also exist).
Lastly, populations who regularly vote Conservative are more likely to favour the inward looking values of family and home, and while this in itself isn't a sin, it does not favour community development and the successful inhabitation of public space.
Communities looking to revitalise themselves should, therefore, think carefully about their political allegiances and which candidate or party would be most likely to enact social and community change. Political parties are very much influenced by local factors, so central government leadership should not be an impediment to making different local choices. It's more what local parties say or promise, and with whom they are prepared to work. And in turn, local government, no matter what its hue, should be aiming towards a perspective of inclusivity and co-creation.
As we enter a precarious economic period and further austerity, these issues matter more than ever.