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Place: the sum of parts? Think piece #1

Posted on 2 November 2015

Written by:

Guest Author

By Jez Hall

Place for a community to live

The upcoming Glass-House Manchester debate on ‘Place, a sum of parts?’ has made me reflect on my own particular arc of experience as a layabout, activist, parent, and now a community capacity builder. Manchester is my home, a place I have raised my kids, earned my living, and acted out that greatest of dramas … living ‘in community’. Throughout this journey some questions continually return … Who owns this? Who holds the power? Who has title… and who cares? Who enjoys the city and who enacts our inalienable right to the city? Who is my city for?

My Manchester journey began in 1981, a greenhorn student, newly arrived from London, with a youthful sense of liberation. Now I would choose my community. Who I engaged with, and they would all be just like me. Flocking, first to the student halls on Oxford Road, and then, by happy accident into the messed up paradise of 1970s deck access Hulme.

Wind it forward 10 years. I live opposite a little wooden shack. Levenshulme community centre, a home for the young and old, abandoned by a council that had other priorities. Run by single parents, the unemployed, do gooders and amateurs (like me).

A place for a community to live. Births, deaths and marriages (well, a bit of snogging in the alley after the youth club.) Then our false hopes of a regeneration, of a partnership with the community. £9million of pounds of regeneration. We had such hopes. That the ‘power that be’ might take our need seriously. I watched the diggers go in. The nursery pictures still fluttered on the walls. The promised new community centre never came. Well, until a community eventually made it happen, years later, at the Inspire centre.

And another 20 years. My kids have flown the nest. Are doing what I did … just somewhere else. And I am doing what I have always done. Taking part, joining groups, learning what makes others happy, because it might also work for me. My interests have changed, but my belief remains that ‘we can do that here’. Whatever that is. We have permission to act if we believe it enough. I’m never cynical. I refuse to be. For it is people that make place. Levenshulme today is little better looking in the physical sense, but living within this community is still vibrant. Good people still doing good things. Exploring new (and old) ideas, making relationships and caring for others. We believe we own our places and so we make them better.

I have learnt some things along the way… I’ll name a few and you can explore them for yourself.

Whole Earth catalogue: access to tools. The internet before the internet was conceived.
Community Technical Aid Centres: where architecture and a community intersected.
Participatory Budgeting: rebuilding our democracy from the bottom up by making people count.
Homes for Change: a vision of Hulme re-fashioned by Hulmites, that works.
Community Land Trusts: a movement for collective ownership for our common cause.

In a settled village or traditional community we can take time to build relationships and find ways to accommodate our differences. A big city is far more messy, complex and contested. Living ‘in community’ in a messed up city like Manchester is an art. One we have to learn and then practice. We must work out how to get along with strangers. Finding mutually agreeable boundaries, and then finding a way to reach over them and share what we have in common. Cities are magical places where new ideas and new possibilities flourish. Full of secret corners where ownership is uncertain. Maybe one day I’ll let you into a secret… a magical hidden place I love. Can I trust you not to muck it up?

Jez Hall is a founding director of Community Interest Company Shared Futures and a freelance consultant

Place: the sum of parts? The Glass-House Manchester Debate takes place on Wednesday 11 November 6-7.30pm.