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.


Tuesday, 9 August 2011

London Hadron Colliders

If the actions of those participating in the recent riots could be helpfully explained away as” just” mindless vandalism why is there such complexity in the debate surrounding why they did it, where they did and when? The word mindless has a specific meaning; it is utterly without thought. And this is where I struggle. I think this was a riot was a very different animal. And there was most definitely thought involved – it was calculated, strategic and very specific. The anatomy of this riot differs on many levels to your Poll Tax Riots of the 90’s, the anti-globalisation riots of the 00’s and the student protests of the recent 10’s.

This was young people on a mass scale quickly sensing an opportunity to seize control of a situation of confusion and anger with the authorities, appropriating it, networking with terrifying efficiency and mobilising for a collective and very violent vent.

The speed and ferocity with which they achieved this; its continuation and geographic reach, speaks of more than deprivation and “old local pain”. Yes many of these places are and have suffered economic decline. Yes these places have a history of social and economic tension; struggling to remain resilient after the battering ram of unemployment, transience and physical underinvestment keeps on coming.

But what this is really about, for me, is a chronic sense of a generation under siege from society, media, consumerism, government and themselves on a daily basis for what has felt like decades. From a society that considers young people to be fair game for a kicking. Now that siege is against us. Mental health problems amongst young people are higher than ever. Victims of violence are more likely to be young people. Youth unemployment is at its highest levels for decades. Student debt is rising. Portrayals in the media range from lazy, hoody, violent and feral, stupid and disengaged. What impact is this having on individual and collect self-esteem. Where do we think this anger comes from?

As a sister and a friend and employer of young people I consistently find that what matters to their development and success is a sense of identity, self-confidence and self-esteem. Without these come fear, detatchment, lack of empathy for human feeling, alienation and isolation.

I’m not for a second condoning what this group of young people have been doing over the last few days with seemingly high levels of delight, satisfaction and frenzy. This was not about urban social protest in its traditional sense; it was rampant acquisitive crime. Why would so many kids be motivated to do this on such a mass scale? Mindless vandalism or because they’ve been taught that having “stuff” is key to morale and a sense of self-worth and if I can’t have it I’m going to fake it or take it with little disregard to impact or consequence?

But I also don’t condone the growing sense of detachment, cynicism and materialism that has pervaded our lives and our places - that have themselves become detatched, alienating, isolating and lacking in any empathy for fellow human feeling. Just looking at some of the development that has “regenerated” our towns and cities over the last few years and how prevailing social conditions get frozen in architecture and you’ll see how chilly and uninspiring they can be.

It always amazes me how, what so often gets relegated as the “fluffy stuff” – i.e., consideration of social regeneration and community development – quickly becomes very spiky when it’s absent or got wrong; and how it soon becomes the explanation for everything in those circumstances. Either it’s important or it’s not? Either make an effort to take it seriously and effectively build in the need for community services and support or don’t wonder when communities that are under pressure and under-confident explode?

There was quite clearly a spectrum of reasons people got involved ranging from ego, boredom, peer pressure, anger, sheer bloody-mindedness, greed, territoriality, hatred and for a sense of thrill. They were unlikely to be abject hunger or a threat to liberty or security. These people wanted trainers and tellies and to give you the finger in the most visceral way possible – burning YOUR and THEIR city.

Yes, these our OUR cities. The places we hand control over to councils, government, private sector interests as we get through our lives over-worked, stressed, sat in front of our tvs or in our communities; the places that we go to when we’re not out working or buying stuff. When things like this happen – suddenly it’s like the city is an extension of your very body, and you feel they’ve actually set fire or trashed you, and you want that city back?

Why is this attachment to place, city, street, community, each other so hard to come by these days that we need to loot several neighbourhoods and set up a city-wide twitter campaign to reclaim the street with a broom? We have been having our own riot, it just happens on a low-level daily grind – these kids stuck into the social equivalent of a Hadron Collider; fuelled by opportunity, social media, and an incredibly strong network; in a vacuum of responsibility and activity; and boom they kicked off.

I sympathise with their utter frustration with what feels like a wobbling mask for society that is close to the edge but keeping calm and carrying on because that’s what we do. But really; we are all being pushed to the edge and or places, faces and kids are saying it all.

I sincerely hope that as a result of this, serious questions will be asked about how we support communities raise individual and collective levels of confidence and self-esteem to withstand social and economic change, remain resilience and be able to grow our young people properly instead of leaving them to do it themselves. I also hope that we recognise that our places have not just been a backdrop to this but have been the one thing that has brought us together through a sense of attachment and ownership.

Friday, 15 April 2011

loving your work tidy street

Tidy Street in Brighton is wearing its energy use on its sleeve by recording their daily energy usage and telling the world about it in a giant infographic painted on the street outside. Local street artist Snub is providing the graphical know how and over March and April 2011 they will not only be able to see their own electricity use but how they measure up against households across the uk.

The project is part of Change, a collaboration between Goldsmiths, Nottingham Uni, Sussex Uni and the Open University - check it out here - and follow the progress of Tidy Street at

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Community Permission: Seeing the community as client

Communities are all too often bystanders in the regeneration and development process despite being profoundly affected by the changes that the process can bring. The planning process can also be a mystery, shrouded in tiny fonts, aggressive institutional-speak, over-the-top bureaucracy, the safety blanket of policy and a funfair of forms. Instead of being receivers of development, local people should be agents of change, helping to define and steer the shape their own neighbourhoods take?

The Localism agenda provides an unprecedented opportunity to place communities at the heart of the local decision-making process by creating important new roles and responsibilities for them. The community is now a client and needs to be satisfied that development is meeting their needs. But they also need to manage the responsibility and burden of being a permission-giver. Following from this, developers now need a mandate from a community to develop in their area. They need to obtain “community permission”.

If communities are expected to run services, take on assets and give permission for development then they need a new set of behaviours, skills and competencies that are currently not there in abundance and often have to be brought or bought in. This is all very well but communities often lack the confidence to articulate their needs effectively and play with the people that don’t normally play with them – i.e., developers. So, we need to gear up communities to become savvy clients and representative permission-givers and we need to do this fast.

Developers and communities often have uncomfortable experiences of going through the planning process and gaining permission can be painful for both sides. We need to change the relationship between developers and communities from the adversarial to being much more collaborative. Developers also need to be up-skilled in communicating better with local people. Obtaining community permission needs to be considered as important and startegic to the success of a development proposal as obtaining planning permission or getting environmental consents. The costs of gaining community permission therefore need to be built into the development model from the start just as gaining expert advice on planning, enviornmental matters and design is.

Community as Client is not a new thing – we have a long tradition of community regeneration in the UK, but it is about how the exception becomes the rule. The government is pushing for all of this but there is a worrying lack of clarity and funding for practical pathways for communities to have some control. The granularity of where things work well, and why, is being lost in the noise of the debate over what we should be doing at a national level – cue Big Society.

How can best practice on the ground punch through to inform government thinking and change behaviours in the development industry? This is important if communities are really going to see the benefits of Localism as the Bill implies and critically determine it away from being just an exercise in dismantling the planning system at the local level.

The Localism Bill demands a set of roles and responsibilities that communities do not have in abundance. Some key questions arise from all of this, namely:
- Who will these community permission-givers be?
- What roles, skills, and support do communities need in order to become clients?
- What structures do communities require to confer permission and participate in the process instead of just rubber stamping it at the end?
- What form will permission given by the community take?
- How will developers obtain community permission effectively?

Community as client starts with making best use of the resources that already exist at a local level. Valuing what is already there and reactivating it to suit new needs and realities. It is about seeing local people as the experts on their own places; they know what works, doesn’t work and what change they want. They are a wealth of untapped resource in terms of the places, knowledge, experience, skills and networks that are built up over time. Allowing people to stamp their identity on a place gives them more than the role of caretaker at the end of the process, but the role of designer, catalyst for change, community champion. This is something developers can benefit from to inform their development and ultimately make them more attractive and palatable to local people.

Facilitating the development of a mandate and galvanizing local people and developers to work together requires a type of glue that can help build the social bonds and positive behaviours to keep everyone working as a team. The outcomes will be better achieved if the community client is engaged as part of the project team from the very start. We work with the community client and the developer to create a shared charter setting out the key outcomes and outputs being sought from the development by the community and developer. It is our job to steer the project according to this charter.

We help developers understand the range of existing resources and capability in the community (including assets, unemployed and retired people, volunteers, arts and social enterprises, youth organizations and the third sector) and mobilise them to be part of the development project. This helps build the vital bridging capital between people and groups choosing to cooperate and support each other, which is needed to build community strength and confidence. The confidence, capacity and competency built in the community through the development process can be used to fuel other projects such as community asset transfer, social enterprises and volunteering.

Mend has developed a process and set of procedures to help communities take on the role of the client and to help developers gain community permission. We are pro-development in the sense of seeing the development process as an opportunity to improve a local area, not replace it. So the way we see community permission working is a bit like marriage guidance counseling; reconciling different and competing agendas or personalities and identifying common ground and affinity.

Fundamentally if we want better development we have got to be prepared to be a good client; and if we want community permission we have got to be prepared to respect the community as the client.