“Cook, eat, read stories to our kids, grow food, repair and share things, learn, play”. What they do in the “Participatory City” of Dagenham and Barking

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We flagged up the Participatory City project in Barking and Dagenham very early on in this blog (August 2017), and it’s a delight to come back to chart its progress via this essay (on We Are Liminal) from Tessy Britton, its director.

Participatory City was rare among many projects that are looking to revive active citizenship. Particularly for the quality of their funding (bringing in millions in investment from Bloomberg, Esmee Fairbairn as well as the local council, which allowed them to plan for a 5-year residency in the area). And for the quality of their method and approach, based on years of research into how to build systems that support community action.

Tessy’s essay is a lyrical take on their project. But they have many concrete current outcomes. 4000 of the borough’s 200,000 residents are involved, in a range of schemes that focus on “the things we all have in common”, says Tessy - “cook, eat, read stories to our children, grow food, repair things, share things, learn and play”. 

As George Monbiot reported earlier this year from the old printers’ warehouse in Thames Road, Barking, which has been “turned into a gigantic new workshop where people can start collaborative businesses in areas as diverse as food, clothing and renewable energy”, the locals have embraced the facilities:

There are welcoming committees for new arrivals to the street, community potluck meals, cooking sessions and street lunches. There’s a programme to turn boring patches of grass into community gardens, play corners and outdoor learning centres.

There’s a bee school and a chicken school (teaching urban animal husbandry), sewing and knitting sessions, places for freelance workers to meet and collaborate, computing and coding workshops, storytelling for children, singing sessions and a games cafe.

A local football coach has started training people in the streets. There’s a film studio and a DIY film festival too, tuition for spoken-word poets and a scheme for shutting streets to traffic so children can play after school.

See the summary of these projects and more here. Below is their infographic on how it all works:

From the start of Tessy’s piece, we find much to agree with:

Most would agree that we are experiencing a number of interconnected global challenges, including climate change, political upheaval and conflict, rising inequality.  We feel anxious about the things happening around us, yet they are too complex to solve as individuals.

The easiest response is not to respond.  We live next to homes just like ours, where our neighbours, full of talents and ideas, remain inactive, just like us.  Not because we don’t want to act, but because we literally don’t know where to start. 

What do we need to do to change this?  Imagine if we had a way of responding practically to these challenges.  When we see things on the news we could wake up the next morning to a complete set of support on our doorstep that enabled us to do something as citizens.

In many places around the world we already have a host of well-established and well-respected systems that help us to do things.  But most of these opportunities attract only a very small number of people.  For example, only 3% of people in the UK are involved in neighbourhood projects, while 60% say they would like to be.  As vital as these existing systems are, there are still enormous gaps if citizens are to play a central role.

The above percentages remind us of our own notorious ratio - between the 2%-4% who are members of political parties, out of the whole potential electorate in the UK. Closing that engagement and participation gap is a shared ambition.

It’s worth reading as a whole - and we’ve posted the video version at the top of the post - but we were particularly struck by Britton’s evocation of a Participatory City in action (no doubt informed by the experience so far, at the five shops that have been dotted around the Dagenham and Barking area):

It’s a place where there are teams of designers helping to bring our ideas to life in practical spaces, connected to many organisations collaborating together. 

When we hear that the world has been turned upside down, and people are turning on each other, we can turn to our neighbourhood and know that every day of the week there are places where we will always be welcome, however little time or energy we have. 

That these diverse spaces, projects and networks are where all the learning is shared, creativity is sparked.  That the time we spend doing any kind of practical activity, even for short periods, is making an important contribution to creating and maintaining your neighbourhood as an inclusive and cohesive place to live.

When we hear that the clothing that we are wearing is polluting rivers in a country far from us, we can turn to our neighbours who are happy to show us how to sew, and we have free access to machines. Where there is digital equipment making it possible to download thousands of free open source patterns off the internet, print, adapt and use these to make our own designs.

Where there are projects that help us repair, recycle, upcyle and adapt clothes together, where we can learn how to start a collaborative planet-friendly clothing business or buy planet-friendly clothing made locally by our friends and neighbours.

When we hear that young people are without work and feel disconnected from the rest of society, turning to gangs and violence, we can turn to our neighbourhood and help make the streets safe for children to play out and encourage them to be key co-creators of their neighbourhoods too. 

It’s a neighbourhood where we know that when we draw out our children and young people’s talents in shared neighbourhood spaces it builds their confidence and relationships with supportive local networks.  These relationships help them to learn how to collaborate and connect with the wider world.

When we hear that the food we are eating travelled miles, polluting the planet, and we are throwing away 30% the food produced, we can turn to our neighbourhood, where we cook and eat with our neighbours regularly, in shared public kitchens and spaces.

Where we grow food in public spaces together and recycle food by learning to compost from our neighbours, where we can buy food from our local cooperative that we helped establish and sustain, where we can reduce food waste by sharing in open fridges.  

This is practical public social infrastructure, in the same way as libraries, parks and roads are, and equally essential.  Safe, cohesive, sustainable places to live, places that we have had a hand in creating, are a universal dream of millions of people, people that are currently worrying about their future and their family’s future.

More here.

This ambition for “practical public social infrastructure” is very parallel to the way we often conceive of “citizen action networks” (or CANs). Yet we’re probably a bit more anarchist in our instincts than Participatory City - more interested in the “fractal growth” of good practice and modelling, than believing that “scaling” such practice is always the best development strategy. We want to keep that “social making”, as our Plymouth friends advocate, as close to communities as possible.

Yet we intend to take up their offer for people to visit their projects in Dagenham, and will report back.