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Lab Notes #3 | We shape places and places shape us | #futurecity17

This third instalment in our Lab Notes series are ideas and reflections from a field trip to Festival of the Future City in Bristol last week, which CoLab Dudley team member Jo headed to on a #detectorism mission.

We know that for a growing percentage of our growing population that their future will be one defined by urban spaces. Urban spaces whether megacities (like London), or urban areas (like Dudley town centre) are dynamic, complex spaces, where our shared public realm, resources, experiences, opportunities and values are key to our capacity to forge sustainable and just futures.  Sadly, in their current form they are often characterised by the deep inequalities and social injustices that sabotage the possibility for more sustainable futures. Similarly, in exploring and nurturing a participatory culture CoLab Dudley regularly encounters inequalities around health, employment and housing. Through our work we have observed the disenfranchisement, dispossession, and disconnect that are common manifestations of complex social challenges when people and places are seemingly discarded.


Field trips and an open learning culture

Our practice as a social lab is based on an approach that embraces and critically reflects upon how we might make use of new/ re-purposed ideas and examples from outside our usual circles of thinking that respond to the social injustice we encounter. Being open to new ideas and sharing our learning out loud is at the core of an aspiration to help nurture a culture of collective learning in the place we call home: Dudley town centre. One way of gaining exposure to new ideas and practices recently has been to take a #detectorism field trip to Bristol Festival of the Future City 2017  As part of a public festival of ideas it is a space for conversations, sharing of ideas, different perspectives and experiences by a wide range of citizens, academics and  practitioners involved in understanding and responding to the many complex challenges and potentialities of urban spaces.

I selected from the rich pick n mix of sessions to learn more about the latest thinking and ‘doing’ on citizen-led affordable housing; urban spaces of encounter and deliberation in the public realm catalysed through art; designing more inclusive and integrated cities; and the role of psychology, sociology and design in understanding how the urban built environment affects our health, identity, connectivity, sense of belonging and sharing behaviours. Against this hopeful and exciting backdrop of experimentation models and campaigns for social change was a universal diagnosis of a state of increased anxiety, insecurity and loss of agency articulated by UK citizens resulting in low levels of individual and community resilience. So how might we respond?

The agency of open source and citizen captured data

Given that we increasingly understand the different ways that ‘we shape places and places shape us’ it was heartening to see that prominent in all these sessions was the capture, use and access to socio-environmental data by citizens so they might influence change in their own neighbourhoods. The employment of free open source data in combination with free access to maker technology often featured in the conversations at the festival with reference to building a more equal and inclusive city. This was as true for the use of land and housing mapping data & fabrication technology in citizen led housing in Bristol as it was for environmental health monitors in citizen homes in Barcelona.

The use of citizen and municipality data and experiences is shining a light on the lived reality of urban life. This has the power to influence public policy as well as helping to better distribute the collective benefits of urban living. In these examples the purposeful collection and use of data by/ with citizens, and the revealing of citizen knowledge and skills actively disrupts the power, knowledge and finance status quo that otherwise acts as a barrier to the right to healthy homes and affordable homes.

New /old forms of urbanism & citizen rights to the city

A number of sessions explored the potential of citizen-led processes for change, or as we heard about recently from Carol Devaney at TEDxBrum – the fourth way.

Discussants at the sessions I attended regularly argued open source technology and city commons governance (such as platforms, community land trusts and co-operatives) are enabling more and more citizen participation in the future shape of their cities, often in the sectors that have historically excluded them, such as housing. With this shift is the emergence of new forms of urbanism that focus upon revealing and protecting collective value in a way that it is available to all by nurturing commoning behaviours such as sharing, openness and reciprocity. Clearly, at the centre of this argument is a debate over citizen rights to the city and speakers highlighted this question of rights in a range of ways from the right to travel safely, to the right to protest, to the right to reshape the city together – in a way that supports our multiple and diverse identities.

From a governance thinking perspective there were challenging questions raised at the festival about the unhelpful boundaries around sectors (public, private, voluntary), models of ownership, and policy themes, indicating the emergence of new institutions, platforms, networks and movements that are better suited to our 21st Century urban challenges. In this space they argued for a more systems approach that is better able to expose vested interests/ power imbalances, and reveal blind spots in civic debate and policy that are built up through siloed sector thinking. The result of these blind spots is often the retrofitting of short-term projects that respond to the symptoms rather than the causes of social injustice and unsustainable urban life.

Meanwhile the old networks and institutions are often unable to see the discrimination, across multiple lines of difference, that they advance. An appeal for a more empathetic, human, diverse and organic scale of thinking linked many of these festival sessions that advocated engaging with our complexity, rather than working against it, or perhaps more accurately ignoring it! For example, this was clear in the design of citizen led housing that prioritises community shared space and small plots that works with the existing social glue and connectivity of communities, through to the celebration and protection of walkable public spaces of encounter, that are often unique to the urban experience as famously advocated by humanistic urbanists like Jane Jacobs and Jan Gehl.  The Jacobs & Gehl approach has grown in prominence (again) in recent years as we reflect on the dysfunctional environments of many modern urban spaces.

“The Danish urbanist, Jan Gehl noted acerbically: ‘it is ironic that we know more about the habitat of mountain gorillas than we do about the habitat of people’. We have programmes for Smart Cities, Green Cities, Healthy Cities or Cities of Culture, hi tech or low carbon cities. But people are rarely centre-stage.” (Charles Landry)

Collective action in response to an urban life characterised by insecurity

I was also excited to see the range of expressions and examples of collective action in urban spaces in response to the growth in shift in risk from the market and state to the individual (e.g through the growth in zero hours work contracts and ongoing rise in house/ rental prices). We are interested at CoLab Dudley in the agency of collective action in relation to improved personal and collective resilience. In Bristol I saw exciting examples of citizens, artists and architects working together to help drive affordable, sustainable citizen-led housing in Knowle West. While the Good Work in the Future City session raised questions around collective action to advance the conditions for ‘good work’. This was explored through debate around the evolution of the trade unions and campaigns for universal basic income  in seeking to respond to the increasingly fragmented and insecure nature of modern work.

While in the ‘psychology of the city’ session the introduction of a psychological lens to the emotional impact of urban space suggests how improved understanding of our urban psyche might help inform our future urban design and planning so that it improves rather than detracts from our resilience. For example through creating spaces that encourage citizen norms that are healthier, more connected, more reflective and empathetic.

As things like work become more fragmented we know that place matters more than ever as an anchor for our sense of identity and belonging. There is a clear link here to our own research where citizens stressed the value of the histories of Dudley and their place based attachment and identities. How might our urban psyche inform #redesigndudley in its aspiration for a more participatory, creative, sustainable, healthy and integrated town centre?

Where strangers meet – zones of encounter and co-creation

In my final session of the field trip curators, architects, artists and historians inspired by Richard Sennett’s ‘Where Strangers Meet’ considered the role of art/ creative practice in the public realm. Specifically, they discussed and have written about the capacity of creative practices in the public realm to provoke public debate about how we live together, civic action and public spaces of encounter and co-creation. This session was most explicit in its concern around the growing privatisation of the public realm, and the negative implications this has on social freedoms and citizen rights to the city.  This session afforded valuable links to our experimentation around creative acts of commoning and protecting the commons (in all its forms including social, creative, cultural, and natural commons).

Richard Sennett is a sociologist and urbanist we have drawn on a good deal in our doing and thinking about practices of collaboration and sharing, so I was thrilled to hear how his work has inspired this collection of essays, and specifically how they consider his promotion of the ‘unfinished’ city plan, where citizens are able to take part in the adaptation and evolution of the public realm. The discussants in this session repeatedly raised a theme we are familiar with in our own research around citizen ‘permissions’ (or lack of) to affect change and act with the freedom of a co-creator in the place you call home.

I was moved by the quote by Prof Lynn Frogett (below) as referenced by the editor of this essay collection Claire Doherty. I reflected upon how much this resonates with our work in Dudley with regard to the role of creative practice and norms of openness in (quasi)public space that helps nurture connections and collaboration with strangers. Are these norms of creative co-creation and connection key to our response to the current way we move through our urban spaces (i.e. the way we work, live, travel, consume, and produce) that largely acts to divide, individualise and isolate us?

“In a ‘post-truth’ world the meeting of strangers in civic space demands more effort, reaching across gaps in recognition and understanding, and in urban environments beset with division and discrimination the need arises again and again. It impels the citizen to take a critical and self-reflexive perspective on their relations with civil society and the body politic. One of the key services that art can perform in urban environments is to change the conditions under which ‘strangers meet’ so that we can know each other better and imagine other ways to live together.” (Professor Lynn Frogett, UCLAN)

Getting to know each other better

I hope we take inspiration from the recent TEDxBrum in responding to this increasing division and segregation, by ensuring that the design of our future spaces is shaped by the many perspectives and multiple identities that animate our urban spaces so that we might build shared values and spaces. Field trips are useful for highlighting new perspectives, and they often generate as many questions as they do answers. We will be exploring these topics (out loud) in our Systems Practice mapping and #Detectorists Collective so do come and have a chat over the best coffee in Dudley  and be part of the debate about creative citizens and making change happen. Let’s get to know each other better.

Notes by Jo Orchard-Webb

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