Generosity distinguishes collaborative urbanists and successful cities. The drive for material success, short-term gain and personal ownership has blunted our empathy for others and sharpened the celebration of “winners” at the expense of the “loser”. The financial crisis of 2008 highlighted two conflicting socio-economic ways forward. Growth from increasing consumption through credit in contrast to investing in long-term sustainability through the intelligent use of resources. 10 years on from the fiscal crisis one senses a dissatisfaction with the integrity of our political systems. There is a growing recognition of the role civil society can play in improving livelihoods by working collaboratively to pro-actively stimulate responsible change.
Over the years as a director of The Academy of Urbanism (2009-15) and Commissioner of the Independent Transport Commission (2011-17) I’ve watched the role of collaborative urbanism within civil society develop. It has matured independently, but supportive of formal governmental, political and institutional structures. civil society, together with the public and private sector, has a growing role1 in enabling citizens through collective action to: share power, co-design and shape actions for the common good.
Collaboration requires the generosity to see others’ point of view and embrace shared values to ensure an equitable outcome. The Independent Transport Commission’s study of high-speed rail2 identified that to capture the full value of infrastructure investment requires collaboration between all parties to accept a process of change, coupled with the integration of spatial and operational innovation to create a place that people valued. Civil society through local groups such as civic trusts, community interest companies, or educational institutions can play a role in developing awareness, changing perceptions, increasing skills and undertaking exemplar projects, some of which may become transformational.
Leeds Sustainable Development Group (LSDG) was established by David Lumb AoU in 20093 as a ‘budget-less’ organisation committed to taking immediate action to by 2020 to “create a better city centre for the benefit of all”. By 2013 ‘New South Bank: A vision for Leeds City Centre South’ was published, and by 2016 LSDG had achieved their first goal with the completion of Ruth Gorse Free School, allowing the group to concentrate on the delivery of the Hunslet Stray, a linear park providing a public amenity for planned and future development.
Canning Town Caravanserai (CTC)4 is the outcome of a GLA/Newham Council competition to capture the interim value of a five-year period between demolition and new build, helping create an identity for the area and provide a place for local life.
In 2014 the project gained charitable status to spread the learning and champion Caravanserai as an active form of place shaping.
CTC was a brave pilot that shaped the early careers of more than a hundred participants from all parts of the globe. It was a touchstone for docklands regeneration and a living manifesto for a new generation of public spaces.
Changing Chelmsford is a community inspired programme for change. Formed in 2010 as a collaboration between the county, city, RSA and AoU, working closely with Anglia Ruskin University (ARU) and Writtle College, the aim was to collaboratively develop a clearer identity for Chelmsford by understanding its opportunities and assets. The finale was the Town Commons, a hands-on proposal-making workshop facilitated by Matthew Taylor (RSA) and Paul Finch (CABE), which drew together participants from the five intensive weeks of events and concluded with over 100 ideas, eight pledges for action and a first big step in an ongoing process.
Six years on in a city which was identified as “cash rich, community poor”, small initiatives and huge generosity of energy by the committed is seeing the emergence of a growing confidence and distinctive identity. The Ideas Festival5, in its sixth year, is growing. The Ideas Hub, now an established charity, is providing leadership and supporting the development of a stronger community.
The four initiatives presented show how, through generous civic actions, we can each contribute to shaping better urban places. It requires the integrity, perseverance and bravery to take risks. It’s a long journey where each step looks to be insignificant, but over decades can grow to be recognised to have changed perceptions.
John Worthington MBE AoU is a collaborative urbanist, founder of DEGW, and past director The Academy of Urbanism
1. AoU Journal #8, p40