Community-led schemes are increasing and covering a wide variety of projects, thanks to more interest in participation and cuts to public-sector funding
Words by: Veronica Simpson
The art world went a little bit mad last December when architecture collective Assemble won the Turner Prize for its thoughtful, craftsmanlike refurbishment of a handful of terraced houses in Liverpool, implemented in genuine partnership with local residents. It was the first time non-artists had ever won the £25,000 award. But many commentators – myself included – cheered this result to the rafters, highlighting as it does the power of what architects and communities can do when they join forces to mend what local authorities might deem broken (as an excuse for demolition and demographic clearances), despite minimal resources. If it has to be done in the name of art, so be it.
Communities the world over are getting fed up with the incompetence, negligence or corruption that has rendered their neighbourhoods less than loveable places to live in. And – spurred by nearly a decade of recession – there are some who have taken matters into their own hands.
The residents around Liverpool’s Granby Four Streets project, long before Assemble came along, had already decided to start their own public planting schemes and had initiated a regular Sunday market that people now come from all over Liverpool to attend.
Paris – a city where, like London, the chasm between the haves and the have-nots is ever deepening – is also home to a whole network of interesting community projects, led and supported by the R-Urban network, which range from beekeeping to urban food growing to ‘recyclab’ exchanges of skills, tools and know-how.
In the UK, participatory has become something of a buzzword as local councils look for ways to encourage communities to shoulder some of the burden of maintaining all the things that used to be within its budget and remit, from parks to local support networks for parents, the elderly and carers.
West Norwood, for example, was home to an interesting experiment funded by Lambeth Council, when an experimental shop popped up along its high street in February 2014. Called Open Works, its glazed facade revealed a friendly, hands-on, workshop interior with a bold mission statement embossed on its front door: ‘The Open Works is an experimental project aiming to transform how we live our everyday lives. How can we reorganise the way we work, eat, learn, make, fix, grow, share and cook together?’
Bemused West Norwood people who stumbled across its threshold were likely to be taken through a whole list of things that they could choose to – or feel the need to – participate in, facilitated by the enthusiastic team from engagement specialist Civic Systems Lab. ‘We made an alternative reality where the council could operate differently and people had access to spaces like kitchens and workshops and had support to develop ideas,’ says Laura Billings, a co-founder of Civic Systems Lab.
Due to Lambeth’s budget constraints it has lost 56 per cent of its budget since 2010 – some of the projects have stalled since funding ended in February 2015. But Billings is undeterred. She sees huge potential for similar operations elsewhere, given the growth of interest. She says: ‘We’ve been looking at participation culture for over five years and seeing it as an emerging trend. It seems to be attracting a very wide range of people.’ One of the most popular – and valuable – Open Works projects, the Library of Things (LoT), is now looking for new premises.
Originally, in a spare room in West Norwood Library, the LoT was devised by the Civic Systems Lab team devised as a borrowing shop that loans out household items, from spades to tents; an ingenious way to help people save money, reduce waste, connect the community and provide opportunities for peer-to-peer learning rather than perpetuate the endless cycle of pointless consumption (the average electric drill is apparently only used for 13 minutes during its lifetime). Incidental meetings in the LoT proved as valuable as the equipment itself: in borrowing pasta-makers or hammers, cooking and DIY, notes were compared, enriching the social and knowledge networks.
Strong networks in a neighbourhood or space is what is known as social capital – the glue that holds a community together. Social capital, says Billings, ‘has a beneficial impact on all sorts of things – unemployment, climate, health.’
Though the jargon may be freshly minted, none of this is news: there have been periods over the past 50 years or more when collective engagement in community activities has achieved remarkable impacts for cohesion and enterprise. The Open Works project itself was inspired by the Community Lover’s Guide to the Universe, a series of crowd-sourced books published in 2010 by a group called Hand Made.
Another publication, The Compendium for the Civic Economy, published in 2011, researched 25 pioneering projects aimed at improving existing models for sustainability and prosperity. These, in turn, were inspired by the early work of the Sustainable Everyday Project for its Creative Communities and Collaborative Services report, published in 2007. But the global economic downturn lit the touch paper for these theories and proposals to become a reality.
It was the summer of 2008 and, just as Europe was bracing itself for a ‘double-dip’ recession, around 400 people were gathered at the Unitarian Church in Todmorden, West Yorkshire, to celebrate the first Incredible Edible Todmorden Harvest Festival. Local produce, including lemons, organic bread, locally brewed beer and wine, herbs and vegetables, filled the church. This event has now become an annual harvest feast cooked by local chefs, with the support and championship of chef Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall. But at the time it signified the official launch of a revolutionary growing movement in this former industrial town that was spearheaded by a group of townswomen who were fed-up with seeing the town’s small businesses crumble as the recession hit.
Says Mary Clear, a founding member and now the chair of the Incredible Edible Community Benefit Society: ‘We just thought there has to be an [alternative to] relying on public money and chasing around to make your ideas fit the grant programme. That frustration made us think: there must be another way to create a kinder, greener community.’
How was this community galvanised in the first place? Says Clear: ‘We just put some posters in shops saying: “We’re worried about the future, the planet, the price of fish ‘n’ chips. Are you worried? Come to a meeting in a cafe at such-and-such a time.” We thought five people would turn up and 60 did.’ The growing, sourcing, cooking and sharing of food seemed the most obvious, accessible and positive vehicle for this kind of grassroots activism. ‘We wanted to reconnect people with the seasons, with the soil, and use food in celebration, because it crosses culture, class and creed,’ says Clear.
The local council is now a major fan of the Incredible Edible team and its activities, but it took a while for the relationship to mature. Clear agrees that such philanthropic, community-oriented initiatives as IE Todmorden are vulnerable to councils trying to offload their cost-intensive services – from caring for the elderly to looking after cash-strapped parks – on to local organisations, parading under the dubious umbrella of ‘big society’.
That’s not what this group is about, Clear says. ‘In the early days, we were taking land [disused space] and it was new and the council didn’t want to know. Then, in the middle part, it was ringing up and saying: “We don’t want that park, or this piece of land. Do you want it?” We said no. You can only do what you can do. We are only using growing and planting as a handbag to dance round. We are interested in much bigger and wider things.’
However, when crises arise, the council knows who to call. Says Clear: ‘When there’s a flood, who has got a large group of people that can quickly be mobilised? We have. Who has the facilities to be able to cook for the flood victims? We have…People are normally dependent on the council to give them money. We never ask them for money. We say if there’s something you want to borrow, ask us.’ This is the beauty of self-sufficiency, says Clear: ‘It is so joyous. It means we can do what we like, when we like, how we like.’
Social capital is writ large in this venture: people generating the means and the impetus to improve their areas and their opportunities. But, sadly, the kind of successes that the Todmorden crew have enjoyed are rare for community-led enterprises, according to architect Irena Bauman, of Leeds-based practice Bauman Lyons, who has worked with the Todmorden group and is a great champion of their methods and ethos.
She wishes more grassroots enterprises could enjoy such commitment and longevity: ‘To be a catalyst is one thing. We see many projects emerge that are fantastic, the creativity is superb, and the genuine reach for the community is very impressive. These projects generate incredible goodwill and innovation and are underpinned by a real genuine desire to make things happen. However, we go back three years later and often there is hardly anything left.’
Another exception is Liverpool’s Bombed Out Church (see case study), which is now a haven of community-led creativity, hosting concerts, theatre performances, exhibitions and even yoga classes within its roofless walls. Prompted by the lifelong affection for this church held by local musician Ambrose Reynolds, it has genuinely taken on a life of its own as a vital resource for the city.
It is often an artist or architect who sees the potential in these places, being attuned to the quality and atmosphere in a site rather than put off by their shabby exteriors. Nick Woodford’s musings about a disused railway line in Peckham, while studying for his architecture qualifications at Central Saint Martins, also sparked a whole new community initiative, with £65,000 already crowdfunded to see his Coal Line project become a reality (see case study). Architects and designers’ skills in drawing up visuals can be pivotal in galvanising local enthusiasm, showing the three-dimensional possibilities of what, for most people, would typically remain a daydream.
Sheffield University has for years been orchestrating projects where its architecture students work together with community groups and the local council to help generate ideas for neglected or underused pieces of city. As head of Live Projects for the university’s School of Architecture, Carolyn Butterworth has programmed a wide range of workshops and events to generate ideas from Sheffield people for how the city’s Castlegate area can be revitalised, under the banner ‘Imagine Castlegate’.
She says: ‘It’s about giving people in Sheffield an opportunity to engage in debate around how their city evolves.’ Seeing the way in which the design process works is highly valuable for communities, she says. ‘The [projects] may not result in the schemes being realised but it helps to alert people to what is possible.’ For the students, they have a chance to develop a variety of skills in the real world – stakeholder mapping, the creation of business plans, funding forecasts – that will benefit them when they enter the world of work.
In the absence of a lead from architects or artists, there are organisations that have a range of skills to offer a community in need of facilities but lacking cash and know-how. The Glass-House, for example, is a London-based design and engagement national charity with a strong track-record in assisting communities as they go through the process of shaping building projects into what they need, or clarifying what the brief should be.
The Glass-House’s strategic project manager, Maja Luna Jorgensen says: ‘We do quite a lot of research around co-design and collaboration and empowering people. We have a strategic partnership with the Open University and are developing projects with it – for example, we have an AHRC-funded project around co-design in the context of historic places of worship. As you can imagine it’s quite a contentious space in terms of what you can and can’t do. We are facilitating communities there to explore what’s right for them.
‘We did our first workshop recently with churches looking to develop their buildings. We help them with things like design understanding, inspiration, peer learning, bringing groups together to learn from each other and from us as design professionals. We help them to think about how they might engage more widely. There are really interesting tensions between keeping a structure that’s often a listed building going, keeping the community and the congregation going and supporting the wider community.’
The Glass-House’s work in this area chimes with developments at the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF): a new scheme was launched two years ago called Heritage Enterprise, which provides funding and guidance for community groups, often working in partnership with the private sector, to find sustainable solutions for derelict heritage or rundown buildings. Natasha Ley, senior media and government relations manager for the HLF says: ‘It’s a bit of a departure for us: in the past we’ve always looked for sustainable solutions for museum or cultural buildings, but in this way they don’t have to be providing a cultural offering. It can just be a business that benefits the local community.’
Schemes already taking shape with the help of Heritage Enterprise funding include a redevelopment of the Ancoats Dispensary (as featured in Lowry’s painting Ancoats Hospital Outpatients’ Hall), by developer Igloo Regeneration and a local community organisation Ancoats Dispensary Trust (ADT). The HLF has provided support towards a full grant of £4.5m to turn the fragile building into a new hub for Manchester’s cultural industries. Elsewhere, the HLF has approved £4.7m funding to help restore and reopen Saltdean Lido, England’s only Grade II-listed outdoor swimming pool, just four miles along the coast from Brighton.
There are clearly more options now for neighbourhoods in need – not to mention forward-thinking designers and architects who want to throw their skills behind the schemes. One such architect, Ulrike Steven of what if: projects, has spent the past decade coming up with several creative schemes to galvanise communities, from bringing dairy cattle to Toxteth (her team imported a herd of show cows from Devon for a brief holiday, to demonstrate the value of a particular piece of public land) to a 2007 allotment creation scheme called Vacant Lot, which is still running all over London – but only thanks to a handful of motivated local individuals. Says Steven: ‘The assumption that you tip in a bit of money and good groups emerge doesn’t work.
When communities are resourceful it works. When they are not it doesn’t. There are lots of obstacles to keeping [a community scheme] going. You can generate projects based on community needs, but how do you make them sustainable? It takes a very different workforce. It needs dedicated volunteers to come in and help run things.’
For exactly those kinds of dedicated volunteers, a valuable resource is in the pipeline: a newly formed network of advisory panels called Urban Rooms, which has emerged out of the recent Government-funded Farrell Review. Carolyn Butterworth is the new chair. She says: ‘Every town and every city should have an urban room. We have a network of people from across the UK, working together with a couple of universities but also arts organisations and neighbourhood groups.’ In the next few months, Butterworth is hoping that the urban rooms will have a regular ‘presence’, so that people with projects have somewhere to go to get the advice needed to take them to the next level. Community regeneration could yet become a force to be reckoned with.