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The curious tale of Boaty McBoatface may soon be forgotten, but it might possibly mark a significant moment in the history of participative democracy. The Natural Environment Research Council invited members of the public to put forward and vote on names for its new polar research vessel. Someone suggested ‘Boaty McBoatface’ and I guess lots of people thought, that’s a laugh. Through digital media, endorsement is almost effortless, and it easily topped the poll. Personally I’d have favoured one of the alternatives, ‘It's Bloody Cold Here’ – but anyway it doesn’t look as though the vote-winning suggestion will be adopted. This modestly silly saga reminds us of the manifest lack of wisdom of crowds, which is effectively what Stuart Heritage seems to be on about in this recent Guardian piece. More pointedly I think, it is a little reminder that the ways in which organisations push notions of ‘public engagement’ and democratic participation can lead them into difficulties: and in so doing, perhaps they are exposing the limits of democracy. As Sophie Blake noted on the Involve blog, ‘engagement that hasn’t been thought out can damage the reputation of public engagement as a whole.’ Meanwhile, there’s been much ado about today’s 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, a man who understood clearly that crimes (or sins) and their forgiveness or payment of dues are often not equalised. In this respect, I do wonder with what forcefulness he might have written about the ways in which global corporations can buy and sell the right to pollute. Here I just want to draw attention to further, and more powerful, insights into the evolution of democracy, with reference to Gabriel Chanan’s marvelously lucid and readable book Shakespeare and democracy. Gabriel explains how Shakespeare played a fundamental role in building the culture that underlies modern democracy: he also argues that that contribution ‘continues to be essential to its survival and further progress’. This point is well worth pondering on the day when Barrack Obama visited the Globe Theatre in London. At its conclusion, the book offers a delightful reading of The tempest, first performed before King James and his courtiers. Gabriel suggests that perhaps the playwright is saying: ‘As for me, Shakespeare, all I have done is write harmless plays and given free rein to my imagination. You kings and nobles, on the other hand, have made aggressive wars, oppressed the poor, condemned the innocent and killed helpless people.’ Continue reading
Posted Apr 23, 2016 at Neighbourhoods
Just as I’ve been pondering the impact of the neo-liberalist project lately - in reviewing The Divide and also in a review of social media and community action that I’m working on – up pops George Monbiot with an analysis based on his forthcoming book, How did we get into this mess? What fascinates me about the effect of neo-liberalism is the way in which it enforces its punishment through claims about freedom and by the rhetoric of distributing power, for example through insistence on the empowerment of the consumer. The widespread (and lingering) disaster that was New Labour managerialism must have felt like a total endorsement to those of the neo-liberal faith. So to return to the question raised earlier in the week, can anyone see the beginning of the end of neo-liberalism? I think if he could see it, Monbiot would tell us. Here’s what he writes in the article: ‘What the history of both Keynesianism and neoliberalism show is that it’s not enough to oppose a broken system. A coherent alternative has to be proposed. For Labour, the Democrats and the wider left, the central task should be to develop an economic Apollo programme, a conscious attempt to design a new system, tailored to the demands of the 21st century.’ Continue reading
Posted Apr 15, 2016 at Neighbourhoods
Here’s a short message. The Divide, a film about the damaging effects of income inequality, is about to be released and there are screenings scheduled up and down the country. The sub-title is ‘What happens when the rich get richer?’ There’s an intro clip here. Get your eyeballs on it, encourage others to do likewise, and encourage screenings wherever possible – here’s the how-to info for community screenings. I was lucky enough to see it last night and was hugely impressed. Given that the film was inspired by The spirit level I was expecting a kind-of glossed-up Richard Wilkinson lecture (not that there's too much wrong with that) – but it’s reassuringly accessible, a cleverly woven mixture of human stories combined with some raw political and economic context. It’s essentially a mini-exposure of the devastating effects of the neo-liberalist project. It’s also superbly, sensitively made. When you’ve seen the forceful monologue from the imprisoned man (seen in the image above) you will not forget it, either for its artistic power or for its moral and socio-political resonance. Here’s a longer message. Last week I was at a conference on ‘the future of community work’, arranged following the announcement of the closure of my former organisation, Community Development Foundation (and before that, Urban Forum). In between the organising and the event itself, we heard the announcement of the closure of Community Matters. Despite the sense of crisis given the collapse of so much community development infrastructure in England, one of my former colleagues was arguing with fervent optimism that the battle is not lost. I must admit that - without analysing what any of us means by ‘the battle’ (was it just a skirmish? Some skirmish) – my sense has been for some time that the neo-liberals have won. There’s a lot of wound-licking and dazed regrouping to be done. Then following the premiere last night, in discussion with Kate Pickett, Richard Wilkinson and the film’s director Katharine Round, someone asked if The Divide represents the beginning of the end for neo-liberalism. And again I confess that, like a few others in the theatre, I chortled momentarily at what seemed like naïve optimism. But I wonder. It’s hard to detect the beginnings of things, perhaps the seeds will take. Neo-liberalism was quite strategic, as Noam Chomsky emphasises in the film. And it’s not that we need an alternative vision. We now have our sustainable development goals and as Kate Pickett pointed out last night, they include ‘Reduce inequality within and among countries’. The Divide website includes a Take Action section. We need roles that we feel we can play. As I crossed London on my way home, a squatting figure asked me if I could spare some change. I gave him roughly the value of the glass of wine that I had been given at the reception after the film. ‘Good luck,’ I said, feeling immediately how pathetic were my gesture and words, in the context of what I had seen,... Continue reading
Posted Apr 12, 2016 at Neighbourhoods
Last autumn I referred to Alison Gilchrist’s work on formal and informal modes of operating. Alison’s main paper is still under revision, but the TSRC have just published a 4-page summary which – albeit necessarily somewhat theoretical – offers a wealth of insights into a theme that is both broad and complex. It’s also downright fundamental to community development. This paper crystallises a range of aspects in very clear language and I think it will be read and referred to for a very long time. Meanwhile I can point immediately to one application, by referring to my recent post about formality and informality in relation to Good Neighbour schemes. Alison rightly draws attention to the significance in community development work of negotiating between and managing these modes. She calls this practice ‘blending, braiding and balancing’: ‘Astute choices are needed as to how formal and informal modes are blended or balanced against each other. The study revealed a praxis – bringing together skills, judgements, techniques and understanding - that is applied in specific situations. This praxis may be a ‘knack’ acquired over a lifetime’s experience or it may be a deliberate strategy implemented through a combination of conscious decisions, group exercises and behaviours. It involves judicious braiding of informal processes with formal procedures to create the optimal conditions for collective discussion, agreeing goals, making and measuring progress, involving people, keeping going, being fair and so on.’ Continue reading
Posted Mar 28, 2016 at Neighbourhoods
I’ve been interviewing several development workers in rural areas, about how they develop and support Good Neighbour schemes. Inevitably, a key set of tensions that they have to negotiate is around formal and informal arrangements. These schemes sit sweetly in the space between the ancient informality of neighbouring and the post-industrial formality of organised care services. Central to the tensions that arise in this space is a widely-anticipated (though not always evident) negative response from community groups to expectations that they should adopt formal procedures. Formal procedures can range from requiring safeguarding checks to maintaining monitoring records. There are a couple of issues to disentangle here. The first concerns the unpredictable variety of responses at the area level, which I do not think can readily be explained by the worker’s approach. Thus in one county, in helping about half a dozen new schemes to become constituted, one worker told me that there had been no difficulty in getting groups to accept the requirements of systematic evaluation, for example in administering questionnaire surveys; in another county, I was advised to reduce my expectations to the minimum, because the groups would not take to it. In a third county, one of the schemes was not interested in any form of preliminary information gathering about client needs or availability of volunteers, they just decided to get on with it. I was told of another scheme whose representatives had decided to go beyond just a committee and constitution, turned their first meeting into an agm, and were set on applying for charitable status. It also seems to be the case that most groups expect if not demand safeguarding checks, and this can extend to some non-risk roles for which it is illegal to have someone checked. It's not clear to me how this variation can be explained. The second issue is even more nuanced and rather more tricky. It concerns the risk that sensitivities to community groups’ responses can come across as patronising: you don’t want to be implying that they should be protected from some kinds of information because it’s too complex for them or too demanding. Within the groups that express an interest in forming Good Neighbour schemes, it’s common to find retired people with professional backgrounds – often from the medical and care professions – for whom the generation of a little administrative bureaucracy is an expectation not an issue; who would anticipate the requirement for monitoring data; and who, if it were not provided to them, might well invent their own system for evaluation because they can see in advance that it would help to demonstrate their achievements with a view to future funding. I am told that this configuration and outlook can often be found in low income areas as well as the more affluent neighbourhoods. At the same time it’s unsurprising that many groups might find administrative tasks a burden; and anything that threatens a group’s sustainability might need rethinking. But it’s fair to say that lack of... Continue reading
Posted Mar 28, 2016 at Neighbourhoods
I’ve lived in the same street for almost 30 years. Last week was the first funeral we’ve had, from these few homes, in all that time. I suppose a higher proportion of these rituals take place from care homes, than used to be the case. This was the funeral of my next door neighbour: a straightforward, intelligent, easy-going working-class Irishman for whom I had a deep respect. We had a sound neighbourly relationship of mutual support and keeping an eye out. Last week I asked my fellow neighbours to join us at the end of the street, when the cars left to go to the church. There were about 20 of us, not arrayed like soldiers but stood informally in silence, as the cortege passed. It was just a simple gesture from residents to one of their own and for the family. And the simplest of community organising exercises. Continue reading
Posted Feb 22, 2016 at Neighbourhoods
This looks fascinating: ‘The first session of The Living School, a mobile project on questions of living together, will focus on the theme of The Expelled, and will include presentations by Jane Rendell and Irit Rogoff. They will consider the question of expulsion, eviction and displacement, giving a broader view onto the systematic upheaval of people. In addition, a participatory workshop called 'Gentrifiers Anonymous' will be led by the urban art collective zURBS, which will engage with the local neighbourhood and open up a dialogue between our own positionality and spatial politics.’ Unfortunately I only just found out about this and it takes place tomorrow – 12.00 – 18.00 in London, SE15 5DE. More here about zURBS. Continue reading
Posted Feb 5, 2016 at Neighbourhoods
It’s sometime since I blogged anything about popular surveys of neighbouring, but this detail offered in a news-related source today caught my eye: ‘29% homeowners aged over-45 leave a key with a neighbour, compared to just 19% aged 25-44 and 18% aged 18-24’. Unfortunately the article seeks to make an issue out of the fact that younger people tend to be less active at neighbouring than do middle-aged and older people – tsk, I know, astonishing – and doesn’t give a total percentage. Thus far, the sponsors of the survey have not made any information about this available on their website. So I’ve dipped back into some of the examples I’ve accumulated over the years from this peculiar popular statistical genre, and I find very little consistency. Here is a summary table of those I came up with, giving percentages of people who let their neighbours hold a set of keys to their home (NB: in several cases the exact question wording is not given): % Source Date Note 63 ICM for BBC 2008 The figure for over 55’s is 68% 55 Neighbourhood Watch 2006 Note that respondents were members of Neighbourhood Watch schemes 45 Fresh Minds for Gumtree 2010 The figure for over 55’s is 59% 31 Up My Street 2010 27 YouGov for Co-Op UK 2010 The figure for over 55’s is 39% 23 Opinium for the Big Lunch 2015 This figure combines responses for ‘Neighbour’ or ‘Friend who lives nearby’ 22 HSBC Neighbours Survey 2012 20 Age UK 2011 12 HSBC 2011 The figure for over 55’s is 23%. A surprising proportion of the links for this information have rotted. Looking at the ‘negative’ side doesn’t seem to help, with a range between 78 and 36 per cent. In a 2013 survey for Swinton Insurance, ‘nearly two thirds of the adults polled said they wouldn’t dream of leaving a house key with a neighbour.’ For Legal and General in 2010 - another insurance company, you notice – ‘78% of respondents said they do not share keys with their neighbours’. For the BBC in 2008 – a more neutral client, you might say - ICM asked ‘How many of your neighbours, if any, would you trust with a spare set of keys?’ The proportion who said ‘None’ was 36 per cent. In the Manchester Neighbourliness study (2004) which I co-authored with Toby Gale, for some reason we did not publish a total figure but we did conclude that ‘the proportion both holding keys and having keys held increases with age, up to the oldest age group. Key holding is more prominent among owner-occupiers than renters… The propensity for holding a neighbour’s key also seems to increase with length of residence’. Looking at the survey data or reports listed above, I note that the ICM-BBC survey had over 1,000 respondents and the one carried out by Fresh Minds had 3,400. All things considered, I think we can place more trust in the higher figures given, but it’s not very... Continue reading
Posted Jan 20, 2016 at Neighbourhoods
Back in 2009, in government guidance on meaningful social interaction, we were told that ‘for interaction to be meaningful it needs to go beyond a superficial level and be sustained.’ I was never satisfied with this and have occasionally wondered if there was a missed opportunity to champion non-meaningful interaction. I have long argued that superficial interaction is the essential ingredient in neighbouring. It could be time to return to this theme. I’ve been exploring some of the social benefits of Good Neighbour schemes, and this has encouraged me to dust-off another, related theme – gender differences in the sense of aloneness among older people. In one scheme for which I happen to have figures to hand, 79 per cent of clients live alone. Here’s how the two themes seem to come together, incorporating recent research I have come across. First, two papers by Sandstrom and Dunn published in 2014: Is efficiency overrated? Minimal social interactions lead to belonging and positive affect Social interactions and well-being: the surprising power of weak ties In the first, they found that ‘people who had a social interaction with a barista (i.e. smiled, made eye contact, and had a brief conversation) experienced more positive affect than people who were as efficient as possible.’ The authors conclude that people ‘are happier when they treat a stranger like a weak tie.’ No surprise there, but as so often it is helpful to have some things confirmed by robust research. As an aside, it may be worth noting that the sincerity of the exchange could be important. When a supermarket checkout assistant asks me ‘How are you today?’ the most they are likely to get in return is a grunt, because I know they won’t really want to know but their wretchedly-unimaginative managers have decided it’s a good idea to fill the air with unwanted vapours. There is a difference. In the second paper, Sandstrom and Dunn report on three further experiments and note that ‘community members who had, on average, more weak tie interactions than others reported greater feelings of belonging. Furthermore, people reported greater feelings of belonging on days when they interacted with more weak ties than usual.’ The sampling in this study leaves me wanting further research, but still it’s tempting to say – ‘it’s official’: weak ties are good for you. Of course they are. Next, here’s a recent paper by Sorensen and Poland, exploring ‘the space between acquaintanceship and strangerhood’. It starts by quoting Francesca Cancian who suggested that, in relationship research in later life, ‘men’s behavior is measured with a feminine ruler’. A little light went on, for me, when I read that. Sorensen and Poland’s research used photographs to explore nuances of everyday encounters of older men living alone. The men attributed significance to what might seem to others like fleeting interactions; and all were exposed to various opportunities to form other closer relationships and friendships but ‘they sometimes described specifically choosing not to do so.’ The authors suggest that... Continue reading
Posted Dec 8, 2015 at Neighbourhoods
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