Friday, 27 July 2012

we have a new website! please visit us at for more mending.

Friday, 23 March 2012

Comfortable Chaos

Cities, places and neighbourhoods are social networks that operate through the social media of homes, streets, spaces, shops and facilities.

Like any network there is a variety of actors and characters within it which have certain kinds of network behaviours and characteristics. Some like to observe and play around the edges; dipping in and out of the activity according to their specific needs and interests. Some on the other hand are prolific; connecting an esoteric and diverse range of others and interests. There are amplifiers, operating as nodes broadcasting information and news to others and collecting information across other networks. Then there are influencers whose activities, ideas and behaviours can change the shape and direction of a network and stimulate a diverse range of others.

In any given place, at any given time, we are all participating in this social networking whether we realise it or not. In the conversations we have with other people, the decisions we make and the things we do. These transactions and flows of activity are governed by a multitude of things; love, habit, belonging, money, convention, belief, morality, trend, ego, curiosity, envy, friendship, impatience, need, want etc, etc.

How much of them are to do with direct government intervention? How much of them compel us to do something for the benefit of others or our neighbourhood? What is the government’s role in enthusing and encouraging people to get involved in their neighbourhoods?

Yesterday afternoon I spent three fascinating hours with some familiar and new faces at DCLG talking about how to mobilise neighbourhood action and engage people to take more of a role in their local area. An issue close to Mend’s heart. So a bunch of us ranging from urban designers, community workers, housing trusts, voluntary organisations, networkers and think tanks took it in turns to give our insights, experiences and theories on what works at a neighbourhood level.

There was a lot of consensus around the need for trust, bottom-up approaches, flexibility and patience. Also some words of caution about what the government’s role in mobilisation should be and what consequences and context around mobilisation are (see Julian Dobson!/2012/03/why-mobilise-neighbourhoods-clarity.html )

Here’s mine for what it’s worth…..

Unfinished business: Networking is an on-going process, as is place-making and community building. You don’t get to an end point and say “tick”. As such, the network is always unfinished, full of gaps and holes. These can manifest in problems such as a gap in service provision or social tension. This is where some network actors come in; they have identified a gap or rip and they want to mend it. They try to mobilise resources and activity in order to draw attention and address the gap with varying levels of success and support.

Mobilising mobilisers: A key success factor is their ability and capacity for engaging others, demonstrating the common interest and relevance and communicating the shared benefits and meaning to them and others outside the network to participate. But this is not a role for everyone. Some people just don’t want to get involved – and that’s fine. There are plenty that do and will. But there is a group of people on the cusp of participation and mobilisation who need a nudge and a bit of convincing. They may lack the confidence to participate, or do not fully realise the value they can give or that they are needed. There needs to be a way to match need with action. And this will be different in different places?

Comfortable chaos: What we need at place level is “comfortable chaos” where government put the bones of support in place and let communities and their partners in to play and do what they know works. Transplanting what worked in Place A and embroidering it on Place B is not good enough. Place A has a different network, experience and everyday reality than place B.

We need to acknowledge the importance of mess – the unfettered, unplanned, unpredictable and idiosyncratic-ness in a place. This is what gives it its unique feel and identity. Therefore implementing macro-level programmes and policies that do not respect the mess of a place and require them to shoehorn themselves into an alien and remote box do not work. There needs to be space in a local approach to place and mobilisation that allows room for comfortable chaos and letting relevant and meaningful local interventions crystallise out of its mess.

This requires a degree of trust on the part of government that communities (their actors, supports and resources) know what works and will address the gaps in their area effectively and rewardingly. Mobilising people is one thing – but squandering it by giving them a bad experience, taking advantage or by not making the most of their support is worse. Do it well, and you may mobilise someone beyond the issue in hand and well into the sunset.

It also requires an element of risk because things may not work. But that should be ok? Places and communities are complicated. They don’t follow scripts, things change and people move about. Snapshots of snapshots. Therefore what might have started out to work could seem wildly ridiculous over time….and let’s face it bidding processes, evaluations and appraisals take time. But this is where we learn, by trying things, seeing what works, tweaking and trying. I appreciate there is scant funding resource but there is an abundance of local knowledge and experience and creativity at local level. We need to be using that to punch through and inform local action.

Making everyday life better: When we come down to it, what do people mobilise locally for? It’s to essentially make everyday life better or address an injustice that ensures everyday life remains an unattainable luxury for some over others. It’s not sexy; it’s mundane but that’s why it’s important. Because if the backdrop to our everyday lives and experiences was a constant blur of white-knuckle excitement we would keel over and make a bid for ordinariness. We mobilise more because we want our everyday lives to be less crap than about it being a festival experience. That means, services that are responsive and effective, spaces that are well looked after and used, decisions that are authentic and responsive and development to be about the people that love there and not just that make money out of it.

Local logic: So if you want people to get involved than you need to ensure there is strong attachment to place in the first place. You do that by providing opportunities and spaces to meet, share and have good experiences; foster local identity through recognising the value of informal things people care about not just the things the council or business say you should, listening when people are making a noise and celebrating the mess that makes a place unique. It’s not about being told to do it, putting a snazzy label on it or creating a new programme.

If you support the spaces and people that mobilise, neighbourhoods will mobilise themselves. You make it fun, creative and authentic about that place – not somewhere else or a remote view of that place. You engage young people with their limitless energy to do and think, unrestricted by policy, convention or that it won’t work. You are flexible about when and how money can be spent. And you trust local people to be the experts on their own places. Which are themselves reflective of the social network, relationships behaviours going on there. Fund the glue that holds those networks together and that builds new connections and you will make them, ultimately, more resilient.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Don't waste the grey

What is it to experience urban life?

The city is a multitude of things, real and imagined. We experience it in our minds, with our feet, in our cars, out of windows, in books, on film as relic and ambition. As more and more of us live out our lives in cities it becomes ever more important to consider how we make them work better for us; or more importantly, how we can work better for them.

Because I don’t feel we really make the most of our cities. And I don’t just mean milking real estate value or pretty postcard potential. I mean something more raw and basic than that.

Cities are sponges of human experience. Over time they have absorbed and recorded our behaviour and relationships like the rings of a tree. Reading our urban landscapes and cities as living records of social experience can help us to understand the codes and keys for successful urban living. Seeing cities as fixed, bricks and mortar containers fails to acknowledge their influencing role on behaviour and well-being.

Cities are where everyday life happens. Not just the bladder-challenging massive epochal amazingly wonderful moments of collective history. But where you pop out to get your milk and bread, stagger home past the chicken shop, go and pray, eat, love, talk, mope, sigh…..etc. It’s where stuff happens. It’s the arena in which we play out our lives. The experiences and times we share that may not on the surface seem that exciting but add up over time to be the full record of our lives and relationships with others. Everyday life has been dealt a hard hand; its sheer ubiquity makes it bland beyond detection. It happens without us noticing so we think its crap. It just isn’t though is it?

Listening to Mary Rowe a few months ago giving a talk up in Birmingham at MADE’s offices about the unbelievable mending that went on in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina by ordinary people trying to get back to ordinary life, I was struck by the thought that it’s only when things so spectacularly awful that the one thing you crave for is a return to the ordinary and everyday? To be able to switch on the light or go get some water. For the shops to be open and to be able to get on the bus to the job you still have. Then: ordinary becomes luxurious and unattainable.

What can we do to make ordinary a thing of value and wonder? By paying attention to its inherent value; not the value that has been created or taken away by advertising or rules. By recognising the beauty of the informal and imperfect. In the city; it’s about seeing the beauty in the forgotten spaces and places that haven’t been branded or given an identity; it has crafted one of its own by the people that use it. We are so apt to be told what is nice and what isn’t. Which places are “in” and which are swiftly about to replace them. Like any creative construct, cities are prone to fashion, trend and fad. The white noise of clattering place snobbery and blindness to quirk and difference have been presiding for too long.

What is it to experience the city?

The stark crevices of the abandoned building. Scantily clad skylines and foreboding suburban maze. Billboard fantasy lands of monocultural zombies and their identikit balconies. The reality being the vacant apology of a new build. Adopted and official area maps that render white featureless deserts out of juicy territory, pitted with local lore and finds like a pomegranate. Take instead the joy of randomly making the connection between one bit of town and the other. The jammy wormhole that opens up and makes sense of a place. The unexpected park. Secret shops and looping alleyways. Never looking but always finding.

Cities are parallel universes; they exist in our minds as well as “out there”. The purpose of planning should be to make real the connections between them. And this is where it falls apart. Because planning just isn’t real. It is an art of the abstract. It is a form of version control; used to impose a single, official and usually narrow view of what and who the city is for over other, alternative and informal views. Whilst everyday life and urban reality goes on, the grid of planning floats above in abstract, bearing no resemblance to the networks, flows, actions, reactions, mess of the world below.

To control the city is to literally control our lives. We rely on the good nature of plans, planners, decision-makers to not make us climb urban equivalents of Mordor in a Tolkien quest to get to work everyday or see our loved ones. But in doing so we handover the capacity for dictating the form and quality of our everyday lives. I’m not talking guys in placards and loud speakers herding us into lines and giving us daily instructions….then again….no, seriously; I mean our urban environments planned to an extent that we sleepwalk our way through them oblivious to the wonder of discovering things for ourselves, or paying attention to the detail. Looking up at what is happening in the first floor window when so much attention has been paid to the ground floor lure. What are the conversations going on outside, the noises, the body language.

Why has the station you go to everyday got such crap lighting, why does it exit “there” instead of “here”? What I’m saying may sound trivial but when you have annoying journeys every. single. day. it starts to eat away at your core and you start to wonder at the sheer buffoonery of the person that designed it and had they really thought through what it was like to actually use this bloody space!?

So this is what I mean about making cities work. It’s the detail, the experience and the behaviour of places that can only be appreciated at a micro level but this is exactly what gets left out of plans. They draw imaginary lines around even more imaginary perceptions of place and the richness and complexity of actually experiencing and being in that place and what works get lost.

An antidote? Life/experience/behavioural-led planning.

I think it's time for a reality-check. An approach to planning and designing cities that is behavioural led and that appreciates the experiences and everyday quality that can be generated by them. A new benchmark for place is not award-winning spankery - but how good everyday milk-buying would be.

I've heard psychogeography is having a revival and I'm all for it. Appreciating that the urban environment has specific effects on human bahaviour and emotion is an established idea. So can we build cities along psychogeographical lines and grow urban life and experience as more than occasional note-worthy episodes with a bit of grey filler in between?

(Mend is looking at a form of planning that is founded on behavioural economics, cognitive psychology and psychogeography. We woukd like to hear from you if you are interested in getting involved.)

Where plans try to impose order and control and the holy grail of predictability onto an emergent system such as a city or place, which has no truck with any sort of that behaviour thank you, we kid ourselves into thinking that urban life will concur and fall into line.

Cities are in charge of us and they will go their own way.

What is it to experience the humans…..


Friends, colleagues, casual observers, inquisitives, patrollers and bit-parters; apologies for an overly long absence.

Much has happened and changed.

Life throws things at us and as unprepared and ill-equipped we may feel about this we have a knack of keeping our heads up and our hearts strong.

Mend has been mending in may unexpected ways.

We always hoped it would and knew it could.

Feels good.

So this is space that has been begging to be filled and now you're asking; fill it we will.

More. To. Come.