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Kevin Harris
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Recently I’ve had the privilege of meeting several clients of good neighbour schemes. I thought I’d share a couple of insights. I met I man, I’ll call him Danny, who had experienced mental health difficulties for many years following crushing in a crowd incident, which left him so damaged and with so many broken bones that he was assumed dead. He now can’t face people very easily, yet spoke to me with a lively, if battered, intelligence. Vulnerable to encounters on a difficult estate – he’d had an intruder a few nights previously - he lives with his dog in dismal poverty. He could do his shopping on the internet but makes himself go out to get it, between three and four in the morning. So how does he use the internet? His next door neighbour lets him use his wifi password. Isn’t that brilliant? I’d love to know about the conversation that led to this. Talking about poverty, Danny said it’s a blessing he has no relatives, Christmas would be such a trial if he had to buy things for people. Danny told me he’d like to go and live at the sea-side. “Even if I lock myself away I could still open the window and see people.” When was the last time you saw the sea? “I’ve never seen the sea.” “Without the helpers from the scheme, I don’t see anyone, except once a fortnight I see my mental health worker.” The organiser told me he had said to her – obviously reluctant to make demands of the scheme, “I need someone to come round once a fortnight, in case I die.” This relates to the ‘request scruple’ – the reluctance to ask for help – which I have mentioned before with reference to the research of Lilian Linders. This arises also in the second instance. One woman who uses the scheme, I’ll call her Annie, talked about her hesitation: “Why should they have the time for me? … I grew up the old-fashioned way, ‘thou shalt not ask’. It’s not pride. It’s just not proper. You don’t beg… I’m not feeling sorry for myself, I’m just frustrated because I can’t do the things I used to do.” Following a serious fall, Annie needed help of various kinds, and first had to overcome the misunderstanding that the scheme was just about providing transport. She takes care not to risk over-demanding: “I work out what’s important, don’t pile it up.” She spoke with delight about how a simple bathroom shelf had made so many things easier for her. Annie says she has learned that “If you have a problem, talk to them about it. If they can’t help then they will tell you what you can do.” This points to the importance of information-sharing and advice that arises in the way the schemes work. The scheme organiser told me it is not uncommon for people to assume they could make only one request of the scheme. Under this misconception... Continue reading
Posted Nov 17, 2015 at Neighbourhoods
I’ve been wondering what happened to Margaret. I used to see her in her powered wheelchair with the wee dog trotting along. A few words, then on. And John, I’d see him on the corner down by the bank. And that woman with the funny walk, who would sit outside the pub with a beer in hand, on a summer’s eve. Sometimes she’d say hello, sometimes nowt. These are people I came to recognise in my neighbourhood. They are not weak ties; they’re not ties at all. We have or had no particular responsibility towards each other beyond that of common humanity. But the acknowledgement in passing encounters, the occasional greeting - these always contribute to the sense of neighbourhood, of context and belonging. And these in turn contribute to the accretion of potential support that in theory could be called on in time of need. Except I don’t know enough about them. This is a category of people who I would not say I ‘know’ (as in survey questions like ‘how many of your neighbours would you say you know?’) And since I don’t know where they live or lived, unless perhaps vaguely, then in most cases of need I couldn’t have ‘called on them’ in any sense. They are acquaintances not neighbours: they occupy the space on the continuum between intimates and strangers. Of course, I can easily think of relationships that have graduated from this kind to friendship. But there are many passing acquaintances that remain just that. When they stop appearing in the neighbourhood, it may take a while to miss them, until something makes you think… I wonder what happened to her? For some people, faith groups or clubs or third places can help to make such relations recoverable. But in most cases you’re not in a position to find out: they’re untraceable. Previously : Acquaintances: book review Continue reading
Posted Nov 3, 2015 at Neighbourhoods
I’ve not seen this done before (although Google helps me discover that there have been a few comparable examples) – a construction company has engaged positively with local schools and parents. Apparently this has involved site visits from infant and primary school groups – what a great learning opportunity – and the chance for some of the children to have their pictures displayed on the boarding. From what I can see, this doesn’t seem to have come from the NHBC or any other industry lead. But I think it’s brilliant. For many people in urban and suburban areas, rapid change in their visible environment often goes on at bewildering pace without their knowing much about it, which is disempowering in a vague, creeping sort of way. This goes some way to addressing that. Usual apologies for the wretched quality of my hurried photography. Continue reading
Posted Oct 23, 2015 at Neighbourhoods
How much do tensions between formal and informal modes of operating affect what happens in the community sector? People in community groups tend to feel more comfortable with informality and may be intimidated by formal processes, codes and context. But formal regulations, structures and policies, as Alison Gilchrist made clear in her William Plowden Fellowship lecture at NCVO this week, can rightly be seen as ‘necessary mechanisms for mitigating risk and maintaining standards’. Red tape and the sins of bureaucracy can restrict, delay and hinder progress. But if emotions are curbed and personal biases constrained, sometimes that can be a good thing; and formality may well protect collective goals so that these can be pursued regardless of the individuals involved. Likewise, reflecting on the effect of informal processes we may see that while they can be liberating and creative, allowing people to nurture trust and loyalty, they can also mask and perpetuate hidden power imbalances. Alison set out to challenge the default position of ‘formal as normal’ and concludes that ‘informal and formal modes are best regarded as neither opposite ends of a spectrum nor a dichotomy. A more nuanced, dialectical approach is needed.’ Watch out for her report and hopefully a few short articles expounding on this work. For the moment, I’d select the following from her recommendations: For policy: seek to enable, not control Informal as valid and valuable; Be aware of power/status issues; For practice: uphold responsive flexibility Encourage opportunities for informal learning and exchange; Use ‘just enough’ formality where functionally useful; Build in conviviality - fun, food and face-to-face interactions. Continue reading
Posted Oct 22, 2015 at Neighbourhoods
The good folk at the Glasshouse have announced a new series of debates, ‘around the common elements in place that bring us together, the points of tension within them, and the role of the individual and the community.’ ‘In partnership with the Open University and the Academy of Urbanism, we want to explore how we design and shape our environment today to create a place for everyone and what that means for concepts like shared assets and common good, alongside individual aspirations, ownership, diversity and, rights and responsibilities.’ Edinburgh / 21 October 2015 Place: designed for sharing? Manchester / 11 November 2015 Place: the sum of parts? Nottingham / 3 February 2016 Place: a shared responsibility? London / 9 March 2016 Place: who belongs here? Continue reading
Posted Oct 13, 2015 at Neighbourhoods
Here’s a wee tale about responses to incivility in public space. I was on a train the other day – corridor carriages, seats facing – and sat almost opposite a young couple who were dozing, the young man rather slumped with his legs sticking out. Some ticket inspectors came through, and then at the next stop a woman got on and the first I knew was to hear her cursing the young man: “tuck your legs in you silly sod! What am I supposed to do, jump over them!?” Etc. But she sat next to him even though there were other places available. He apologised quietly and pulled himself up. She was still cursing. I stared at her dark glasses and suggested that if she took her glasses off she might be able to see well enough to notice that there is plenty of room to pass. I said that her remark was unfair. She said “I’ve got arthritis.” The young man kept saying “I’m sorry.” Then one of the ticket inspectors appeared from beside the doors – I had not realised he was still with us – and suggested to the woman that she apologise. “I thought that was very rude,” he said. And she did. Continue reading
Posted Oct 11, 2015 at Neighbourhoods
Hi Lorna, thanks for your comment. As I understand it the whole supermarket model is in decline and some of the opportunity is being taken by small entrepreneurs, eg farmers' market movement. To me supermarkets illustrate how formidably interlocked so many aspects of capitalism are. Supermarkets thrive on the car culture. But a culture that de-emphasises cars and convenience in favour of local access and quality is a realistic possibility in my view (we have come an enormous distance in that respect in my lifetime I think).
Toggle Commented Oct 11, 2015 on Supermarket snobbery at Neighbourhoods
‘Supermarkets are crucibles of snobbery’ wrote Harry Wallop, author of a book on ‘how we buy class in modern Britain’. I came across two examples of supermarket snobbery recently – the first of which still has me chuckling. Apparently there is a pseudo-posh neighbourhood in the west midlands where residents are ‘up in arms’ (i.e. community action has been mobilised) because their Tesco is threatened with closure, to be replaced by an Aldi. I’m quite a promiscuous and experienced food shopper meself and I suppose favoured in having branches of most chains within easy reach. Tesco is the nearest but always the very last resort in desperation, largely because I find their implied assumptions about food quality insulting. Call it reverse snobbery if you like. Aldi and Lidl always impress me. I know that for certain things (but not everything I need) I can get unfussy good quality – and without all the extra layers of packaging that certain outlets like to use (naming no names, the phrase ‘Marks and Spencer’ would never come to mind in this context). According to Wallop, drinking coffee is an indicator of social class, and ‘even within coffee there are gradations of snobbery.’ It's probably worth noting though that interest in - even proccupation with - the relative quality of something is not the same as being snobbish about it. My second anecdote came a while ago when I was staying in a guest house and complemented the hostess on the coffee she served at breakfast. She told me I was the third guest recently to have made that observation - since she had switched from buying Waitrose coffee to Aldi’s Italian. Image from Lucas Varela. Continue reading
Posted Sep 9, 2015 at Neighbourhoods
It’s a while since I wrote about Lost possessions and the reassuring tradition of considerate behaviour towards complete strangers who may have lost things in public places. Now here’s a rare example of community communication where someone apparently announces the end of a search – a dog re-united with its owner. I counted at least six of these identical notices – each of which had been laminated and stapled - in the vicinity where I took this picture. I can’t help thinking that if so much trouble was taken at the conclusion of the episode, then a fair amount of community energy must probably have been mobilised in the initial search. But strangely there’s no reference to any efforts that others might have put in. Previously: How to thank your neighbours Continue reading
Posted Sep 2, 2015 at Neighbourhoods
About a week ago I picked up information concerning two curiosities. First, that the five members of a family that I happen to know, readily share precise location data online and look at what each other is doing during the day, some of them separated geographically by many miles. Some people will find this odd because it sounds like sanctioned tagging. Secondly, I learned from Robert Macfarlane’s delightful book The Old Ways, of the existence of the Formby footprints. The prints, baked hard into soft mud where the beach is now, have emerged on the shore at Formby Point because of environmental conditions and we are told they are approximately 5,000 years old. Among numerous prints, human and animal, it is claimed that the parallel steps of a man and a woman can be made out clearly. (The pic, by Macfarlane himself, is on the Formby Footprints website). By coincidence I was in Formby for a couple of days last week, and spent time on the beach at low tide. The prints are hard to find – conditions change and, having been exposed, it seems they are unlikely to last long – but I saw several and yes, they are exciting to a closet anthropologist like me. I happened to speak to a woman who has lived for nearly fifty years within two miles of this extraordinary find, and who knew nothing about them, so I did not feel too ignorant in my belated learning. The next day in Liverpool, I couldn’t resist this shot of the upturned sole of a shoe that seemed to have been washed up on the dock just outside the Tate Gallery. Paul Carter in his challenging book Dark writing wrote that ‘Our world is composed of the traces of movement’. Carter was asking why so much of our cultures (he begins with cartography) represents the world as static, when our experience of it is mobile. And so I go back to thoughts of that family who have and welcome the capacity to examine each others’ traces constantly, using their smartphones. It seems like a form of voyeurism that, being approved - just as the revelation of ancient footprints on a beach, and seeking them out and gazing at them, is culturally approved - perhaps exemplifies a fundamental human curiosity for the traces of others. Does this echo themes of privacy, curtain-twitching and looking-out for others in the neighbourhood? We still have the instincts of hunters. Continue reading
Posted Aug 29, 2015 at Neighbourhoods
In time of shifting economic fortunes, the flexible use and re-use of space and buildings can play a valuable part in helping local businesses and other agencies to survive and flourish. It sometimes seems as if ‘temporary use’ is a contemporary phenomenon associated with the 2008 economic recession. This may not be true, but there’s certainly been a significant recent emphasis on how planners can use redundant spaces and assets to help local economies and town centres resist the depression and thrive. The spin-off benefits – often associated with arts, third sector organisations and community development – are not trivial either, as was illustrated in the Compendium for the Civic Economy for instance. Now we have some research, recommendations and a charter to show our local planners and regen officials, thanks to the SEEDS project (‘Stimulating Enterprising Environments for Development and Sustainability’), a European Regional Development Fund initiative. The argument is that temporary use and re-use should not be seen as a short-term sticking plaster solution, but has to be written into town and city planning if local economies are to grow and thrive; and this requires something of a mindset shift among planners and policy-makers. So it’s a bit like the old problem of formalising the informal – make ephemerality a permanent feature of policy and practice. Continue reading
Posted Aug 21, 2015 at Neighbourhoods
Here’s an unfortunate article by Oliver Wainwright in the Guardian, describing Preston’s 1960s bus station as ‘majestic’ and deriding a new alternative design. No, it’s not a spoof. Preston bus station is among the more unpleasant environments I’ve had to spend time in and I know I’m not alone in having had that experience. Through a link to one of Wainwright’s previous articles, I find a picture caption claiming that ‘Preston Bus Station is rightly recognised as one of the country’s most dramatic public buildings of its time.’ ‘Rightly recognised’? Well it may be among the most dramatic, given much of the architecture we had to put up with from those years, but it’s not healthy to go on about it. What we have here, I suspect, is another example of the Robin Hood Gardens phenomenon, where architects tell ordinary people that they have no taste. RHG was manifestly a disaster and a disgrace to civilisation, but architects were telling us to the death that it was some kind of masterpiece. There's a regrettable professional closed-ranks-refusal to accept that brutalism was a mistake. In a postscript on RHG I noted ‘What's most depressing about it though is that the louder the architects clamour, the less faith the rest of us can have that they will in future pay due account to what it's like to live there.’ It’s the old problem of architects seeing their output as objects defined by a mathematical aesthetic and not as occupied space that plays a part - often a huge part - in the everyday lives of people who (guess what?) can't afford penthouses and chauffeurs. People deserve public space that affords a sense of humanity. I don't understand why this is still such a problem. Image from Continue reading
Posted Aug 18, 2015 at Neighbourhoods
The latest PSI report on children’s independent mobility covers data from 16 countries and ranks England seventh among them. The study found that the greatest degree of independent mobility was granted to children in Finland, where the majority of children aged eight are allowed to cross main roads, travel home from school and go out after dark alone. The report includes this fascinating table showing variations in perceptions of whether neighbours look out for children in their area. The findings for several countries, including England and Australia, are noticeably mixed: but most striking to me are the very low levels of disagreement with the proposition in Japan and France. However, it seems that 'looking out for others' - desirable though we may think it is as a factor in quality of life - does not correlate with measures of children’s independent mobility: ‘Of the three factors examined, traffic seems to be the strongest factor affecting the granting of independent mobility, with ‘strangers’ showing a weak effect and community supervision not being a factor.’ Continue reading
Posted Aug 12, 2015 at Neighbourhoods
On the subject of the Other and the shame of Calais, here's Frankie Boyle in yesterday’s Guardian: “If we can look at another human being and categorise them as 'illegal', or that chilling American word 'alien', then what has become of our own humanity? To support policies that dehumanise others is to dehumanise yourself. I think most people resist that, but are pressed towards it by an increasingly sadistic elite. If you’re worried about threats to your way of life, look to the people who are selling your public services out from under you. The people who will destroy this society are already here: printing their own money, printing their own newspapers, and responding to undesirables at the gates by releasing the hounds.” Continue reading
Posted Aug 4, 2015 at Neighbourhoods
I set up Local Level in July 2005 and in some ways it’s surprising to find that we're still going in spite of the recession – indeed we've won three new contracts in the past couple of weeks, in addition to several ongoing, so business could be described as healthy. (But I can still justifiably describe it as an unintentionally non-profit organisation). Looking back, I’m struck by three things: The diversity of the work we’ve covered without (I sincerely hope) losing sight for a moment of our values and principles - empowerment, equalities, inclusion, collaboration, and shared learning. Their meaning has been reinforced and refined by so many of the inspiring people we’ve worked with. The lack of improvement in the processes of public sector procurement – still a focus for a lot of poor information-sharing, grotesquely exaggerated bureaucratic caution, and questionable (sometimes downright lamentable) project briefs. The importance of having worked with a range of consortia, associates and other companies, from solo operators to large consultancies. Apart from helping to ensure work this has served to share knowledge and experience, and I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. There ought to be an award for best client over this ten year period, but I find it impossible to decide from this list. Perhaps rashly I'll narrow it down to seven, and if there were a cake, they could share it: The British Council – thank you Sarah Metcalfe Caloundra City Libraries, Queensland - thank you Louise Bauer and Gail Robinson Fontys University, Eindhoven – thank you Jan Steyaert Shipley College and Shipley Streets Ahead – thank you Margaret Robson and Jonathan Hayes Third Sector Research Centre, University of Birmingham – thank you Angus McCabe Watford Council for Voluntary Services – thank you Bob Jones WoodGreen Community Services, Toronto – thank you Diane Dyson. I don't think we should read too much into the fact that three of these are overseas clients, but it's curious. There are fewer candidates for the 'Worst Client' award. These will not be revealed just yet. Finally I want to thank the various good folk who have been ready to call themselves Local Level associates and with whom I have worked on projects over the years: Martin Dudley (pretty much from day one, thanks for the support mate), Bev Carter, Cathy Herman, John Vincent, Rebecca Linley, Hugh Flouch, Sarah Chapman, Linda Constable, Alison Gilchrist, and Jackie Black. I do not include the many inspiring colleagues with whom I have worked under some other aegis, who are rather too numerous to mention, but my thanks go to them all. My sincere apologies if I have left anyone of this list, let me know and I can remedy it. (I ought also to offer sincere apologies to anyone who is on the list and doesn’t want to be: ditto!) Here's to another ten years, if I'm spared. Continue reading
Posted Jul 2, 2015 at Neighbourhoods
I had a fascinating conversation the other day with Tobias Jones, author of A place of refuge and this recent Observer article on communal living. I am in quiet awe of what Tobias and his family have achieved at Windsor Hill Wood and how they have gone about it. I’m also hugely impressed by the openness of his thinking and the clarity of his writing. Tobias is exploring commonalities in different approaches to ‘community,’ from communalism to community development to neighbouring in its most manifest - and presumably least manifest - forms. As I understand it, he is searching for ways of strengthening those commonalities. We scratched the surface of a few issues. While I would have my doubts about attempting to package insights into evidence of a lasting contemporary grassroots movement – I’d love to be proved wrong – I think there is much to be said for a more systematic sharing of understanding. I look forward to what Tobias is writing next, an essay for New Statesman. Just thinking about communal living in comparison with neighbouring is helpful. The amateur anthropologist in me is immediately muttering about how communal living is where we all came from: in the evolution of humankind, neighbouring is a rather more recent way of organising social relations. Tobias neatly offers communal living as ‘an alliance with the past to critique the present in the hope of a better future.’ This lived experience of time eludes most of us, however neighbourly our locality. In the contemporary neighbourhood context, it is much harder to remain immersed in ways of doing things that are mutual and sustainable. Allotment gardeners might have a grasp of it, commuters are less likely to. We struggle to appreciate how to do things sustainably in the sense of reducing emotional and spiritual damage as well as environmental damage. It’s no coincidence that gardeners do most of what they do outdoors, and commuters do most of what they do indoors or cocooned in vehicles. We often get the pace of living wrong and we lose much of the vocabulary of stewardship. I’m reminded of a quote from the wonderful Erri de Luca: ‘Holy man of Africa, I think, you come to impart your wisdom to a European savage who follows the moon on the calendar and the clouds on the radio and can’t read a word without an alphabet.’ Communalism comes with the category heading ‘Lifestyle’: neighbouring does not. I note also that the settlement co-residents described by Tobias are there at least partly to establish or regain a sense of stability in their lives. The context of neighbouring is different: much of it is about asserting and retaining – and often defending – stability. Tobias and his family welcome ‘visitors’ – some for a day or two, some for months: this is about transience – again, acknowledging the natural passage of time, not the generally implied permanence of neighbourhood relations. There is much to be learned I think from this path... Continue reading
Posted Jun 29, 2015 at Neighbourhoods
Here’s a real delight – a new book by Riika Kuittinen on street craft as a global art movement. It covers guerrilla gardening, yarnbombing, light graffiti, street sculpture and so on. Packed with uplifting inventiveness – like this example from the work of Mark Jenkins - it sends a very clear message about creativity in the public realm and the resilience of a democratic approach to art. ‘Street craft is interwoven with the unexpected, offering a prism through which the everyday environment can be perceived differently.’ These artworks are usually un-commissioned, seldom legal, ‘donated’ to the public on the streets, generally removed without trace once they have been documented for display on the world wide web. They are often playful, sometimes challenging, occasionally provocative. They offer what Kuittinen calls an ‘intimacy of experience’ while reflecting the ordinary universal context of the street. Of course, the book is not riddled with examples of bad street craft, and yet such examples doubtless exist. But the ephemerality is the defense here: if we come across mediocrity on a local pavement, we’re not likely to be stuck with it – unlike so much municipally-funded public art. So is this is an art movement (Kuittinen describes it as a 'fluid genre') that can resist the assimilators? Needless to say, wealthy people and trendy commercial enterprises want to own some of it (we think of Banksy’s stencils appearing at auction), completely missing the point. Am I being over-optimistic to suppose that street craft at its best will remain just out-of-reach of global capitalism and the high art industry? Continue reading
Posted Jun 9, 2015 at Neighbourhoods
This man’s pointed finger could be a gesture drawing his companion’s attention to the passing Google vehicle. To me, it looks more like a sharp accusation pointed at Google for the sense of intrusion he feels. The chevrons, contrasting with the wheelchair by implying freedom of movement in all directions; and the blurred faces – a dull concession to the tatty notion of ‘privacy in public’ that some of us grew up with – emphasise the layers of symbolism in this image. And there’s another. The location is on a seafront in southern England, where in previous centuries members of ‘society’ would have promenaded at certain times in order to ‘be seen’. Continue reading
Posted May 25, 2015 at Neighbourhoods
According to Children and Young People Now, Barnardo’s analysis of Department for Education figures show that annual expenditure on children’s centres fell by 35 per cent between 2010 and 2015. This is not entirely surprising. But I note that in a recent general election, people voted for more of the same. It strikes me as simply barbaric. Continue reading
Posted May 22, 2015 at Neighbourhoods
There I was, needing to write something about resilience and not looking forward to it. I distrust the careless fashionable use of the term in community development and regeneration. When a respected publisher begins the blurb for a new book with a sentence like this – ‘”Resilience” has become one of the first fully fledged academic and political buzzwords of the 21st century’ – I reach for my scepticism. Then into my mailbox someone drops a link to a curious mixture of blog posts on the theme of ‘How do you measure resilience in cities? How would you know if your city or your community was resilient?’ Scrolling through, I’ve found myself returning to a piece by Tom Henfrey from Bristol. Part of his concern is with the sociological use of the term without any appreciation of the scientific understanding of resilience in the ecological study of complex systems. This may be an accusation that can fairly be leveled at academics; but in defense of practitioners it seems to me wholly reasonable to be thinking about, say, ‘resilient communities’ just as we talk about people who show resilience in the face of disadvantage. Wholly reasonable – up to a point. The problem is that the language has been appropriated and is tainted. As Henfrey notes: ‘Most treatments of urban resilience are overtly or covertly complicit with the appropriation of the concept by conservative forces seeking to reinforce inequalities of wealth and power.’ He elaborates on this with reference to the notion of resilient cities: ‘In their current form, cities inherently lack resilience. They depend on throughputs of matter and energy that are utterly unsustainable, and consequently endure only because they externalise the consequent social and ecological damage: in other words by systematically undermining resilience elsewhere. Their primary function—reflecting the main, unstated, policy goal of almost every government in the world—is to ensure that wealth and power accrue disproportionately to those who already have both in excess, at everyone else’s expense. An inevitable consequence of increasing inequity is to intensify resource flows to even less sustainable levels, further undermining resilience in the city itself, its constituent subsystems, and connected systems elsewhere.’ Indeed: if we use the term, there’s a risk of doing so in collusion with forces and ideologies that seek to embed ‘resilience’ within the status quo. This in turn – to develop Henfrey’s point - effectively undermines other forms of resilience. I wonder if we should be talking about ‘counter-resilience’? – the capacity of those without access to wealth or power to resist, in positive ways, the imposition of resilience. Continue reading
Posted May 20, 2015 at Neighbourhoods
This is fun. Stuart Heritage in the Guardian speculates that Mark Zuckerberg’s acquisition of properties neighbouring his own house, in order to ensure a degree of privacy, might just be a consequence of what he has unleashed… ‘This is the man who created Facebook, remember. When Zuckerberg looks down at the fruits of his creation, what does he see? The very worst of humanity, that’s what. Narcissists. Drunks. Racists. Joke stealers. Complainers. People who wouldn’t know the difference between “their” and “there” if you wrote it on a cricket bat and attacked them with it. If you spent your day endlessly scrolling through 1.3 billion soul-deadening hen party photo uploads and infinite multilingual variations of “U OK hun?”, you’d want to run as far away from people as you could too.’ An alternative view might be that Zuckerberg has played a role in helping people communicate and just wants a bit of peace and quiet. I’ve no idea. But I’d hazard a guess that he is frustrated that he may never again have an idea to compare with the one he had at the age of 21. Continue reading
Posted May 20, 2015 at Neighbourhoods
Yesterday evening I had a charity doorknocker. I’m always courteous but never encouraging with these people. It helps if they appear when I’m obviously cooking but it doesn’t help if they don’t get the message; nor if, when I mention that I give to certain charities in a deliberate way over periods of time, full stop, they don’t get that message either. True to the standard, this one used the phrase ‘I’m not asking for money’ almost immediately and then proceeded to suggest I gave 20p per day ‘like your amazing neighbours’. It’s possible he knows something I don’t, but I suspect not. If I’d had the patience, perhaps I might have asked him (a) where he lives, and (b) in what ways he has been amazed by my neighbours – things that have perhaps eluded me all these years. But unbeknown to this man and his well-trained phoney positivity, my neighbours are fairly special because a lot of informal mutual support goes on amongst us. There’s nothing unique about that of course, but it is noteworthy. What was striking about last night’s encounter was how it illustrates the gulf between informal neighbourly support and philanthropy. People think of them as close together on the pro-social spectrum; and our government likes to promote this notion because it suits them that philanthropy serves to reinforce disempowerment. But having a clown delivering this sort of patter on my doorstep will remain for me a symbol of the ideological contrast. Continue reading
Posted May 15, 2015 at Neighbourhoods
The baseline report for the SMILEY evaluation of community development and digital inclusion (Social Media Initiatives in Local East York), co-authored by Alison Gilchrist and myself, is now available here. The report explores the results of a survey carried out in Derwenthorpe and the neighbouring areas of Tang Hall and Osbaldwick. Joseph Rowntree Foundation is developing a programme to deliver digital inclusion interventions and support existing digital inclusion initiatives in these areas. Our role is to assess the impact of the programme activities, which are intended to support the development of social links and networks between residents within and between these three localities. Our results suggest a sharp contrast between those who recognise and appreciate the potential of digital media to contribute to local life, and those who do not. We found that for almost half of those who have been involved in a local community issue, this has come about as a direct result of online contact ('once', 'a few times', or 'often'). But at the same time, a significant 40 per cent of respondents did not see any potential in local community uses of the internet, either through connecting with active local groups, or as a way of raising and influencing local issues. In several respects we found that approximately 20 per cent of respondents seem to experience digital exclusion. For example, eighteen per cent say they are ‘not very’ or ‘not at all’ comfortable trying out new digital technologies twenty-two per cent say they lack, or lack confidence in, their online digital skills one person in five does not expect that the internet could help them to keep in touch with friends or social contacts locally. The baseline survey was conducted between November 2014 and January 2015. It was carried out by five community researchers in Derwenthorpe and the surrounding areas. Download the full report. There’s more on the SMILEY project here. Our evaluation will go on to examine if and how JRF's interventions lead to the improvement of digital skills and literacy, generate a positive online identity for the area, and support community development and the integration of Derwenthorpe residents with neighbouring communities. Continue reading
Posted May 11, 2015 at Neighbourhoods
A couple of weeks ago I turned on my phone at about seven o’clock and it rang almost immediately. BBC Radio London - had I seen the pictures in the papers of the candy-striped house in Kensington? They gave me a few seconds on air without time to say anything meaningful, but since then there’s been a new twist to the story. The owner, a property developer called Zipporah Lisle-Mainwaring, found that there had been objections from neighbours to her modest plans to demolish the building and replace it with a five-storey house, including a two-storey basement – nothing much, swimming pool, media centre, that sort of thing. Planning permission was originally approved but then withdrawn after objections. It is believed that the deck-chair décor was a statement of revenge at this decision. One resident was reported as saying ‘Without sounding very pretentious, it isn’t very Kensington.’ Of course it’s entertaining to hear about squabbles among the Haves, and it did strike me that the house might not look out of place in Amsterdam. Also I’d like to note that the owner didn’t paint her house: she had workers do it for her. But this story exposes serious issues of ownership and privacy which as a society we struggle to deal with. The first point to make is that if you create the cultural conditions in which houses are treated as commodities, you are going to get people treating houses as commodities. Logically this could mean total disregard for the interests of anyone else in the vicinity. Writing in the Sunday Times(£), India Knight argued that a neighbourhood ‘needs as much, if not more, maintenance than the housing it contains. If you want to live somewhere “nice” – clean, friendly, well-maintained, cheerful – then you need to play a part in making it so.’ What this means is that we need to do away completely with assumptions that the individual owner has the right to do what they like with their house. I’ve discussed this sort of thing before with regard to Christmas decorations and the constraints that home-owner associations can impose on residents. The space around the house affects others in all sorts of ways and their views have to be taken into account when changes are proposed, temporary or not. How we do that is another matter, and from the little I knew at the time of this story I couldn’t see how the authorities could stop or have stopped the resolute Kensington developer from having her house painted whatever colours she chose. Well it turns out that the house is situated in a conservation area and planning law has something called a Section 215 Notice, tada! One of these has been served (I love the language): “The owner has the right to appeal the notice by 5 June in the magistrates courts but, if no appeal is forthcoming, the owner must repaint the front elevation white and carry out repairs to the windows by 3 July. “If... Continue reading
Posted May 1, 2015 at Neighbourhoods
Back in the early 90s I got disillusioned with being part of a circus of people talking about those who experience exclusion, too frequently in their absence. I tried (largely unsuccessfully) to get funding for what I called ‘Voices’ projects, whereby people’s own experiences were recorded and this constituted the text, with or without context. At one point I had a list of eight or ten sub-projects, but funders could not be persuaded. The nearest I came was with a project in Derry, Northern Ireland, but I don’t know what happened to the small amount of content created. More recently, I was part of a successful example, A series of doors, presenting the experiences of young people in poverty. It’s tempting to say now that ‘Liverpool has done it’, because a range of Liverpuddlian agencies have worked together to produce the Getting by? report. And they’ve done it supremely well. Try and get your hands on the hard copy. The project has documented 12 months in the lives of 30 families living in poverty in Liverpool where one or both parents are working. The website has included video clips as well as monitoring the political context and providing a clever connection between sources of help and advice, and the advisors’ take on the provision of that support. The report shows what you’d expect: these families are invariably hard-working, financially astute, and often enormously resourceful, but still have insufficient means to raise themselves out of poverty. And these are families with paid employment. The foreword quotes Beatrice Webb up-front: ‘Poverty is not due to a weakness of individual character, but is a problem of social structure and economic mismanagement.’ With a frankly unpromising general election in view, what chance that those who are in positions to do something about the social structure and the management of the economy will take any notice? Continue reading
Posted Apr 21, 2015 at Neighbourhoods