by Jane Briginshaw AoU
The first person to stand up is Honor Massarella, then Jo Gooding, then Carol Botten. It’s a packed room, buzzing with infectious energy and excitement. “Forty people have joined…” They’re telling us how many people have come on board in Leeds. Expansion plans are already needed for the Cardiff chapter. The women are not always self-assured but as they hit their stride we all feel as if maybe this time the world could change.
It’s Urbanistas – the women-led network, empowering collaborative people to act and do ‘urban’ in more social ways and ‘flip the ratio’ of male and female visibility in politics, business and urban life. We’re talking about all-women platforms, changing the nature of ‘panel land’. What we are seeing is one of the new unions in full flow. Started by Liane Hartley and Rachel Fisher three years ago, Urbanista women have pretty much eaten the ground in front of them. The thinking behind the network goes like this.
The drivers behind the way cities are changing are increasingly social (social networks; peer-to-peer and anonymous sharing; the rise of good business; behavioral economics; emotional intelligence; collaborations between unlikely partners such as big business and small producers), being disruptive, less corporate, more DIY and spontaneous.
Women seem to naturally operate more in this way. If this is really the way business and cities are going, then perhaps this is the best time for women to grasp the nettle and seize the opportunity to be leaders. Urbanistas is there to help grow that leadership (at all levels) and encourage women to start something of their own that has positive social benefits for cities and the people that live there.
Our motto is ‘start by starting’ and is about not having to wait until your idea is perfect, fully formed, boxes all ticked and given permission for – sometimes you just need to do one tiny thing to get you going.
Switch to Cowcross Street: UCL’s Matthew Carmona is telling The Academy of Urbanism about the leadership gap left by CABE, the ‘proven benefits of making good places’ and Place Alliance – the movement that ‘brings together organisations and individuals who share a belief that the quality of the built environment has a profound influence on people’s lives’. The Alliance is broad too, aiming to bring together ‘the multiple agencies of government… connecting through to industry, the professions and community groups active in the field’.
Urbanistas are empowering collaboration on projects and ideas that make everyday life in cities better, the Place Alliance is collaborating to improve the status of placemaking, and The Trouble Club is challenging the idea that women aren’t interested in politics or tech, business or philosophy, that we can’t argue or lack spatial awareness, that we are risk-averse, that all we read is fiction.
And have a look online at Clarence Eckerson Jr. making fantastical transportation media for Streetsfilms. Sit back for the best seven minutes of your day and see the parklet programme, which converts parking spaces into public space complete with tables, chairs, art, and greenery. You will see why this hugely creative brand of advocacy film-making is changing the nature of planning streets for people and places.
Have you noticed these movements and unions springing up? With no wish to over dramatise, I can’t help seeing parallels with spontaneous movements of the Arab Spring, Occupy, Podemos and Syriza, borne out of deep frustration with the way things are.
Exasperation too with the desperately slow pace of change: for example when, after years of heavy lifting, my main road, serving no less than five schools, remains a hostile and scary traffic corridor for children and adults and I can’t seem to do a thing about it?
We must be in a widespread period of transition causing us to react in similar ways. Many feel that the current political institutions are ineffective; many want to challenge the status quo for the purpose of claiming representation for their own values and interests. There is still plenty of room for these movements to grow because, unlike the famous social movements, our homegrown examples did not start as social media sensations. We naturally create meaning through interaction, instinctively know that networking operates through the act of communication. We are swept along as we experience the means of communication changing and see new, free space opening up. We are empowered by space that is not controlled in the traditional way. So we can have real hope that we might actually, finally make change happen.
Of course, the consequences of these unions are unpredictable, but even if they are only simple networks of people who want to get things done, we might just be experiencing an ‘enough is enough’ moment that changes everything.
Jane Briginshaw AoU is head of design and sustainability at the Homes and Communities Agency