News & Blogs

Shop responsibly, shop locally

As non-essential shopping open across England, and citizens are urged to “shop responsibly” and “Shop for Britain!”, Charles Campion, author of 20/20 Visions, sets out the benefits of focussing spending in local high street shops & businesses.

It is estimated many local households have saved £100s a month during lockdown across the UK. Meanwhile the lockdown has shown how vital the services of local, walkable shops and other businesses are for residents. Small businesses and community enterprises have also shown how responsive they are by setting up home delivery services, practically overnight, for the vulnerable in our communities. And how amazing the shop workers have been serving on the frontline to keep us all going!

“Local business is the lifeblood of the community!” Mary Clear, Incredible Edible

Tactical urbanism in Barnes – taking parking spaces for social distancing

During the Barnes Ponder Charrette in 2013, one of the case studies in 20/20 Visions, the community co-created a Vision which recognises the social, economic and environmental benefits of shopping locally and sustaining a vibrant local economy. As the then Barnes Community Association (BCA) chair Steve Mindel said, “If we don’t use it, we’ll lose it!”

Vision for Barnes High Street, Barnes Ponder Charrette 2013

Since then, for a range of reasons, including the enterprise of local businesses and the creative efforts of the BCA in marketing, helping business develop an online presence, and going out and attracting in businesses, the local high street offer in Barnes has flourished. And as a result, regular pedestrian and cycle counts on Barnes High Street have shown “footfall” more than doubling, up to the March 2020 lockdown.

There are many known advantages to having a strong independent retail sector and the variety of shops and services in thriving town or village centres is often one of the top reasons people give for loving their neighbourhood. Key benefits include the unique range of products and services on offer, the ease of walking and cycling to shops is better for health and the environment, and, my favourite, the huge positive impact on community wellbeing of the informal social interactions we all have when we are out shopping locally. It’s fun!

“Get our neighbourhood hearts pumping again, not just for the benefit of the businesses themselves but for the benefit of every resident, young and old.” Charles Campion

As lockdown rules are relaxed, I would urge everyone to consider focussing their spending in their local communities to support local, independent businesses and get our neighbourhood hearts pumping again, not just for the benefit of the businesses themselves but for the benefit of every resident, young and old. As Mary Clear, co-founder of Incredible Edible in Todmorden and one of the inspirations behind the Barnes Ponder, says, “Local business is the lifeblood of the community!”

See you in the High Street!

It’s Time to Build a Nation of Citizen Urbanists

In this month’s blog, Joel Mills, Senior Director at the American Institute of Architects Center for Communities by Design, argues that, in response to the pandemic, a broad and democratic base of citizen urbanists is required to co-create sustainable cities for the future:

In response to the pandemic, professional circles are abuzz with discussions about how to change the physical framework of cities but little thought about the need to change the nature of our work and who is included in it. If we are going to create sustainable cities to succeed this century, we need to build a nation of citizen urbanists to do it.

Everyone needs to develop an urban fluency to understand what will be necessary for us to respond to the defining challenges of our time and how we can all participate in the process.

Our Cities’ Pre-existing Conditions
If we want to be ready for the next crisis, we need to consider our vulnerabilities. To put it in medical terms, our preexisting conditions require real focus. The pandemic has highlighted dynamics that were in place prior to the outbreak. Many jurisdictions were under incredible stress. It has brought new awareness to how inequality shapes our lives by highlighting how disparate healthcare access, affordable housing gaps and economic security issues have led to starkly higher infection and death rates for vulnerable communities. According to one pre-pandemic global survey, wide majorities of the public fear the future and the pace of change while doubting government’s ability to understand technological changes and respond to them effectively. Our future success hinges on the ability to re-build trust in institutions so that we might facilitate a successful transition to a healthy and equitable urban society. It’s time to move from a nation of urbanites to a nation of urbanists by involving our citizens more directly in public life. Our efforts moving forward should be predicated upon several key ideas.

City-building is the Grand Calling of the 21st century
Cities matter — now more than ever. Despite all the anti-urban rhetoric surrounding the pandemic, we need to come to terms with our urban reality. Most of our citizens live in urban areas. In America, cities are also the driving force behind our economy. The top 23 metro areas account for half of our national GDP. Following the 2008 financial crisis, America’s cities reportedly drove 70% of the nation’s job growth. However, cities are more than simply the hubs of our economic vitality. Today, cities are the central organizing mechanism for the survival of humankind. Cities reportedly consume 78% of the world’s energy and are responsible for more than 60% of global carbon emissions. We can’t solve the key issues threatening our collective future without more integrated and sustainable cities.

City-building is the grand calling of the 21st century and it requires a unified, integrated effort.

Our contemporary approaches are demonstrably inadequate. Despite valiant attempts to build more cross system collaborations over the past two decades, our present-day methods of city-building are still characterized too often by professional silos. We have designed our cities with a balkanized orientation that assumes topics as centrally connected as land use, housing and transportation can be understood and strategized for independently through professional specializations and expertise applied solely in that realm. We can see the effects of this approach in cities across the world today in housing crises, strained transportation systems and segregated lives. We need to destroy our professional silos to build more resilient cities. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it should be that the era of top-down, siloed city-building is over.

The Future of Urbanism is democratic
Our collective success as a civilization requires fully integrated processes with robust public participation. No government designs a city alone. We must all become citizen urbanists. The pandemic should be a gamechanger for considering not just the built environment we are designing, but the process by which we are building it. People are the foundations of our cities. The answers to our challenges must come from the bottom up, not the top down. Our strategies must be powered by the grassroots and integrated at scale to have meaning nationally — and globally. Local government is still the most trusted level of government and is advantaged as the most accessible level to facilitate civic participation. However, there remain substantial gaps in public participation expertise and capacity at all levels of government that pose barriers to making progress. Too often, what we are witnessing today are the consequences of widespread misapplication and improper design of public processes that backfire in controversy and conflict because they don’t meet public expectations for involvement or reflect community values. The result is a precipitous increase in community conflict and a corresponding public demand to have a meaningful role in public decision-making processes. The stakes are going up. This is not only an American issue — city leaders must respond to a rising democratic movement globally. The mantra of the United Nations’ New Urban Agenda deliberations should echo in the ears of every city planner in the world: “nothing for us without us.” Meaningful public participation is the path to restored trust and confidence in our institutions.

The Urban Fabric Must Heal and Connect
Trickle-down urbanism doesn’t work. As a result, inequality has become the central issue of our times. Prior to the pandemic, the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer found that a growing sense of inequity is undermining trust across the world. The overriding crisis in public trust is reflected in the physical makeup of our cities. Neighborhoods are the building blocks of great cities, but they are not designed for equal success. Media coverage of the pandemic has captured the connection between our unequal realities and associated risk, as vulnerable communities who are disadvantaged have suffered most. Connections between civic health and physical health are readily apparent and the statistics tell a dramatic story. According to a 2018 study, over 50 million Americans live in “at risk” or “distressed” communities. Another recent study found that the number of poor neighborhoods in metropolitan areas has doubled in the past 40 years. In 2019, income inequality reached a 50-year high in the US. Over half a million people in America are homeless. Over 4 million homes in the US are overcrowded. Almost half a million homes in the US do not have adequate plumbing. With the renewed importance of public space, 100 million people in the US do not have a park within a 10-minute walk from home. In perhaps the most dramatic development, an individual’s address is now the most significant determinant of their life expectancy and economic future, with starkly different outcomes depending upon geography. The proverbial ‘Tale of Two Cities’ has become an ingrained narrative in America. The familiar dividing lines — railroad tracks, urban highways, waterways and related barriers — now often signify wholly different life realities that underscore race and class divides. For instance, residents of Baltimore’s wealthy neighborhoods have a life expectancy that correlates with Japanese citizens, while the residents of its distressed communities have life expectancies closer to North Korea and Pakistan. In Louisville, residents on the western side of the infamous “Ninth Street Divide” have life expectancies 12 years lower than their neighbors on the wealthier eastern side. In Washington, DC, residents born on the eastern side of the Anacostia river can expect to live 10 years less than those on the western side of the river. These are unacceptable norms that make our cities more vulnerable and our society more fragile. This is not only an American issue, but a global issue. Consider that 40% of the world’s population does not have access to handwashing facilities at home, or that over 1 billion people globally live in slums. By 2050, the UN believes over 3 billion people will require access to housing. These facts underscore our growing vulnerabilities without significant interventions in how we design and build our cities. Addressing inequality must be a central tenet that carries across all of our urban work moving forward, rather than a narrow, isolated pursuit. Climate change and inequality have important overlaps and it is important to note that inequality defines who is most vulnerable in our society whether the threat is a pandemic or climate change. Prioritizing strategies to create more integrated and equitable cities will address our vulnerabilities directly and help cities become resilient more quickly.

We Need A Flexible and Adaptive Urbanism Beyond the 6-Foot-City
We need to reconsider the implications for how we approach our built environment in the context of unprecedented change. Few would argue that the pace of change today is dramatically different from past eras and presents unique challenges to our society. We need a more flexible and adaptive urbanism that can accommodate quickly changing dynamics while becoming more responsive to citizen aspirations and needs. We should resist the reactive tendency to begin re-designing our cities in 6-ft-increments in favor of a sustained approach that views every component of the built environment with a new flexibility and adjusts for multiple realities to support our citizens’ pursuit of healthy, vital lives. This will require a new, more experimental view of our urban assets as we begin to value the public realm and buildings by their ability to serve evolving needs and purposes that are sustainable. It mandates as a prerequisite a knowledge of what our citizens’ want for the future of their cities.

Listen to Our Cities to Understand Them
If we want to mobilize a national movement to adapt, we need to understand community. Our national thinking must demonstrate greater understanding of the mosaic of local experiences that make up this great country and the role that citizenship plays in bringing them to life. We need professionals to sharpen their listening skills to understand their communities and heal public trust. In doing so, there expertise will gain a new relevance and help create a more informed citizenry. Every community has its own unique identity shaped by its geography and history and rooted in the traditions of people and place. As years pass, community life produces a profoundly complex and deeply meaningful representation of place. Tapping into these values and traditions is critical to understanding place and designing the authentic foundations from which enduring civic change can occur. Similarly, our nation is characterized by a democratic vernacular exhibited across tens of thousands of local jurisdictions. Understanding the combination of governing structures and traditions, as well as the civic culture of participation, is key to breathing new life into our common purpose. Community design cannot take place outside a deep understanding of the rich contextual realities of place, which means that robust public participation is a prerequisite to our future success. We have an historic opportunity to heal our divides and address our key vulnerabilities as we build a modern urban society that adapts to the new challenges of this century — but it requires community.

Alone Together

Charles Campion reflects on how the power of community is being showcased during lockdown.

This article was first published on the jtp.co.uk website on 22 April 2020.

The success of humankind on this earth is to large extent a function of our ability to socialise and collaborate. We form communities for mutual benefit, the collective gain is far greater than the sum of the individual parts. Historically our cities, towns and villages were the product of many local hands and designed to suit the social, economic and cultural needs of the communities they served. The African proverb, ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ recognises the necessity of multiple inputs and collaboration.

But in our fast paced, contemporary world our sense of community can often feel fractured. Decisions that affect our lives and our places are often taken remotely, and communities can feel they have little control. People can withdraw, feeling disempowered, frustrated and isolated.

Community-led tactical urbanism – Barnes Community Association has organised road space reallocation to pedestrians to provide space for social distancing.

With the lockdown keeping us in our homes, there is a danger that people feel even more alone and separated from their communities. But in many places, this unprecedented alteration to our lives has seen a remarkable rekindling of solidarity and togetherness. Our community spirit has been reawakened and reasserted with a confident, caring voice. Lack of physical proximity isn’t preventing communities from mobilising, rather, it’s catalysing just that!

I’ve been heartened to see what is unfolding. In my west London neighbourhood, the Barnes Community Association has coordinated a shopping delivery scheme called Barnes Community Shop with independent retailers and local volunteers with cargo bikes delivering the orders to elderly and vulnerable residents. [Since this article was written the service has now been opened up to serve all residents.] The Barnes Environment Group has also taken the initiative (with the local council’s blessing) to reduce road space outside shops so that queueing shoppers and pedestrians have enough space to socially distance.

In Todmorden, home of Incredible Edible, the Kindness Hub is working with the Real Junk Food project to redistribute excess food from supermarkets for ‘pay as you feel’ or free to anyone who can’t pay. And Apocalypse Chow is making and delivering meals at cost price to local vulnerable people – all food is prepared fresh and to the highest possible standard by a local, award winning chef.

In Todmorden, Incredible Edible are working with The Real Junk Food Project to distribute food boxes. Image credit: The Todmorden Team

Elsewhere in the UK, thousands of mutual aid groups have been picking up shopping and prescriptions, installing digital equipment for elderly people and setting up telephone friendship teams.

Globally, the pandemic has triggered community action on a vast scale. In Norway, a group of Covid-19 recoverees is now providing services that would be dangerous for non-immune people to offer. In India, young people have self-organised on a huge scale, providing aid packages for those most in need. Students in the Czech Republic are babysitting the children of doctors and nurses. In the Philippines, fashion designers have repurposed their workshops to produce protective suits. In Wuhan, China, volunteer drivers created a community fleet, transporting medical workers between their homes and hospitals. All over the world, self-organised groups of doctors, technicians, engineers and hackers are crowdsourcing missing equipment and expertise.

What does this tell us about ourselves and our communities? It tells us that we find purpose, motivation and pride by working together to help each other. In this time of crisis, our community spirit has been reawakened and highlighted – we are demonstrating and putting into action our powers of collaboration.

My expectation is that this resurgence of compassion, community and collective action will survive the pandemic. Its resilient power has been recognised by individuals, agencies and governments alike. Something positive is re-rooting itself – something that was always there but was largely overlooked: the delightful, transformative and essential force of local, mutual action.

At this time of lockdown, the best of humanity has come to the fore empowering individuals to connect and make a positive difference – we may be alone, but we are together.

Community action to support local retailers and residents: Barnes Community Association has organised cargo bike deliveries from local independent shops to elderly and vulnerable residents.

A Vision for Scarborough Charrette – 18 years on

This month Nick Taylor, former Scarborough’s Renaissance Manager, now freelance consultant urbanist with Tanick Consultancy, considers the lasting legacy of the Vision for Scarborough Community Planning Weekend 2002 (one of the case studies in 20/20 Visions) which brought the town together to deliver a range of transformational projects. Scarborough has won a number of prestigious awards including Europe’s Most Enterprising Place 2009:

“I would commend to every community the process of co-design to work with local businesses and the community to shape and deliver a place-based Vision that is right for their town!”

In April 2002 the Vision for Scarborough Charrette took place at the Spa Complex to seek the views and aspirations of the community for their future.

To be genuinely asked what they wanted, how they saw their future and then prioritise these ideas was something totally new for the community and they lapped it up! The enthusiasm and benefits of the co-design working between members of the community and professional architects showed in some of the remarkable projects that formed the activity. Following the presentation of the Vision for Scarborough at the end of the Charrette, the community went onto form a highly successful and award-winning Town Team, underpinned by 7 action groups. Theses monthly Town Team meetings connected around 400 people each month with the town’s ongoing development.

One key element behind the success of the process in Scarborough was the creation of the Renaissance Manager post which I was very fortunate to be appointed to. Installed in a shop unit in a busy part of the town I co-ordinated the activity. Making connections, bringing people together, hosting meetings, writing newsletters and putting together and submitting funding applications were all part of the role. Supporting the Town Team, the action groups and other community initiatives all needed continuous effort and keeping the process fresh and relevant to change was critical as the benefits from the process started to manifest themselves.

The action group that was and still is particularly effective, 18 years on from the outset, is the Scarborough Ambassadors. They are the businesses leaders of the town and their greatest achievement was to initiate and then deliver a £14m UTC (University Technical College) for 600 students aged 14 to 18. This came from the identification of a skills shortage and consequent difficulty in recruiting for the buoyant engineering sector and expanding branch of Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in the town.

The next project was to work with GCHQ and Scarborough Council, to deliver a cyber AMRC (Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre), guided by the one in Sheffield which operates with Sheffield University, Boeing and McLaren. Discussions are well under way.

Their latest focus is working with Network Rail, the local and county council with all the nearby businesses – especially the new potash mining company – to deliver a significant upgrade to Seamer Station which services the new business park.

The group continues to flourish and help attract new business to the town and more importantly, young people to step into the STEM subjects and fill those vacancies.

It is commonly recognised that the relationships built up within Scarborough would not have happened if not for the 2002 Charrette process and the creation of a consensus Vision for the town which was developed and delivered with the input of the Town Team. As we focus today on regenerating so many towns across the north of England I would commend to every community the process of co-design to work with local businesses and the community to shape and deliver a place-based Vision that is right for their town and serves the whole community.

Big Barnes Ponder Charrette – 7 years on

February’s blog is by Emma Robinson, the Town Centre Manager for Barnes Community Association, who reflects on the Big Barnes Ponder 7 years on:

20mph limit introduced January 2020 following community campaign that began at the Barnes Ponder

“The process highlighted that the community is best placed to shape and direct its own destiny and that projects delivered with full community involvement are inevitably going to deliver the best results.”

It has now been almost seven years since the Barnes charrette of 2013 and what a journey it has been!  At the time I embarked on the Big Barnes Ponder, as we called our charrette, I had no idea the impact it would have on me as Town Centre Manager, on our team of volunteers and on Barnes.

Our charrette visioning day in October 2013 enabled us to harness the ideas of the community to create a resident-led vision for the future of Barnes.  It was a successful event that brought residents of all ages together to think creatively about the future with the support of planning experts.  These residents were passionate about the future and gave up several hours of their time to help us plan. The process highlighted that the community is best placed to shape and direct its own destiny and that projects delivered with full community involvement are inevitably going to deliver the best results.

Barnes Ponder Problems Dreams Solutions workshop

The charrette was just the beginning of our journey.  Over the last seven years we have seen many highs, as projects have come to fruition, and many lows as we have come up against delays and challenge, but what has kept me going is the enthusiasm of our many volunteers for the projects they work on.  Our volunteers have changed over the years but a few have stayed with us on the journey and have given so much time and energy to our community projects.

The key to our success so far without a doubt has been our ability to harness the support of residents for the projects they identified. This has enabled us to influence key decision makers, whether that’s the Council or TfL, our MP or our ward councillors.  We have also been able to benefit from the extensive skill sets of our local volunteers to enable to us to tackle even the most challenging engineering problem.

Persistence is also incredibly important.  We wouldn’t have got where we are today if we took no for an answer.  Most of our projects have taken many years to come to fruition and would no doubt have disappeared many years ago without the dedication of our volunteers.

Monthly collectors market around Barnes Pond

Our successes so far have been many and include the realisation of projects for a new community playground and a footbridge and also the realisation of a vibrant high street despite the economic challenges. We have been recognised nationally for the work we have done in Barnes and I have spoken about the Ponder charrette experience in Parliament and at conferences. Barnes was a runner up in the Great British High Streets competition of 2018.

We have still got a long way to go but we have established a reputation for the quality of the work we do and for delivery and so the future looks positive.  I’m sure there will be many more great projects delivered in Barnes by the Big Barnes Ponder team.

Barnes Pond (Photo copyright Andrew Wilson www.wildlondon.co.uk)