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March 05, 2006 || 10:17 pm
The future of community?

Spent my Saturday at the Future of Communities 'festival' at Central St Martins. Why a 'festival', I'm not sure - perhaps to make the idea of a conference on a Saturday more appealing. The event was organised by the Future Cities Project in collaboration with the MA in Creative Design for Narrative Environments at CSM (why a name so begging for a piss-take? what the heck is a 'narrative environment'?) and boasted a mixture of the usual suspects (Geoff Mulgan, last seen giving almost an identical spiel at last week's conference before shrugging me off when I tried to talk to him with more than necessary rudeness), interesting pillars of the academic establishment (Richard Sennett, Saskia Sassen), un-rigorous media types (Jonathan Meades, Jules ) and the kind of male, bolshy, posturing types that unfortunately hang around with a project of the optimistic name of Future Cities. Of whom I have strong opinions (and could write many paragraphs) but I'm not sure how helpful it really is to share these with you.

Anyway, this conference was supposed to be about the future of communities. What 'community' is, whether it's a 'good' thing, if so how to 'create' or 'sustain' it, and how to engage the 'public' themselves in this debate and process of change. Sadly, not much new stuff. Sennett and Saskia Sassen were perceptive, subtle and interesting as always - and the subtlety of what they were trying to say got lost on many of the other panellists and much of the audience, at least those who stuck their hands up to enter the debate. And the debate was almost all hypothetical, lacking real case studies of real places and people that could be analysed, evaluated, discussed and learnt from. What are the models out there that seem to be working on both a conceptual and a practical level?

The elephant in the room, as far as I was concerned, was a point that Sennett, and other critical commentators, make time and again: that of choice. Engagement is all very well if you want to engage, or if you have the time; but who advocates for those who won't or can't? Isn't a lot of this 'double devolution' and 'power to the people' talk actually hugely disenfranchising to those who don't get involved, for whatever reason? And shouldn't, in an ideal world, there be a place - whether within the democratic system of local representatives, or other perceptive and articulate advocates amongst whom I would count artists and other creative critics - for these disparate voices to be heard, and their views to be respected and addressed?

Part of the joy of (certainly urban) living is the choice between anonymity and presence. On a personal level, I care hugely about my local area but I don't want (and don't have the time to) become a local busy-body. I like to be able to be anonymous and to choose where I become more actively engaged, without feeling like through a more passive, spectatorial role my needs will be discounted. I would like to feel that I can express my views more easily (techniques of consultation/engagement that are more thorough and wide-reaching), but also that simply because I don't turn up to the meeting in the town hall, it doesn't mean that those making the decisions discount the fact that there are people like me within their constituency who share a commonality of interest.

Some of this is about better research, and making it count: more thorough local surveying and more active local surveying - literally knocking on doors, rather than waiting for us to pick up our pens or log onto a website. But some is about choosing in whom power lies. I would like to see our elected representatives take seriously the issue of representation and I'm not sure that undermining their power by devolving to largely self-selecting local groups actually makes our governance and public services any more just or inclusive. We should have the right to engage actively - to protest, petition, attend meetings and question our leaders - but I'm not sure that we should have the duty to engage, or risk disenfranchisement. After all, whether I vote or not, I still pay my taxes; whether I have time or not to trek down to the town hall, I still have needs; and many of those who have the greatest needs and strongest local knowledge and views are those who certainly do not have the time to voluntarily spend as activists, in between being a single mother, holding down several jobs, cleaning the house and making time for friends and family.

I might suggest that one way to avoid this, certainly in the field of planning, regeneration and development, is to take a vastly more sensitized approach to what the local means. Do really good research - not just quantitative but qualitative and perceptual, subjective and fine-grain. We do this through not only talking to real people - kids excluded from school, shopkeepers, youth workers - on proper field investigations, but also by commissioning those with the skills and authority to articulate and communicate - artists and writers - to make tangible the aspects of local quality and distinctiveness that don't come up on surveys and statistics. Live in the area - walk the streets and enter its life - and, as I was told on arriving at the Rural Studio, watch and listen carefully - become sensitized to the unsaid and the multiplicity of readings and relationships that exist in a place.

This sounds fluffy, but it means a real and deliverable shift of emphasis. You can pick up on things that have resonance with local people and give them spaces and voice, meaning they are less likely to contest your planning application. You can make sure that new public spaces and buildings don't stand empty after the opening fanfares. You can demonstrably make places safer, more popular, and more valuable in both economic and social terms. And above all, it allows places to be distinctive and characterful, the antidote to the 'anyplace' that everyone from the policy wonks to the man on the street says they hate.

1 comments

1 Comments:

Thank you,Hana- "narrative" is precisely the slightly-artsy term I was looking for to replace "story" [as in "personal story"] while translating an introduction [in Hebrew] to an exhibition [of ceramics] in the Museum of Islamic Art in Jerusalem [did you visit it?].

By Blogger Daniel the Potter, at 5:02 pm  

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