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The right to great design: taking (community-led) action

Posted on 16 March 2018

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By Katherine Horsham

Conversation at the recent Glass-House event in London seemed to quickly conclude we do have the right to great design. It’s even enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human rights (Article 25). But when we started discussing how this right is enacted and what responsibility different actors should take to get there, the debate widened. Who even decides what ‘great design’ is anyway?

The resounding call to action from The Glass House was that we can all do more to make our places better and we don’t always need to wait for permission from others. This is the helpful and inspiring wake-up call we all need to hear to realise we don’t have to be the victims in the story of place.

So I left the event imagining myself litter picking of a Saturday morning, perhaps with some of my neighbours. Maybe I would paint those horrible benches outside the local parade of shops. Could I look after the abandoned garden next door? What about a street picnic once the weather gets better?

And then reality sets in. When am I going to have time to action all this? I’m already exhausted through work, volunteering and other side projects. And I’m not going to the gym as much as I should. I’d quite like to paint the bench yellow and write ‘Hello : )’ on it, but would my neighbours like that? Would it encourage more unsavoury graffiti that the council would just paint over? Should I just pay for the litter pickers or should I try and get some funding? Even if I got funding (often a long and arduous process), where would I store the litter pickers for the community to use if I don’t know if I will be living here in 6 months time?

Most people out there want to do something good to improve their place, but it is much harder to put into practice. It’s not that we should just give up on the idea of citizen/community-led social action, but recognise that when we ask people to ‘step up and take the lead’ it’s not as simple as we might think: the right conditions need to be in place to make it all happen and keep it going.

A key barrier to community involvement in shaping place is transience. Why would you put yourself out there to take action if you don’t think you will be there to see the benefits? Similarly, making places better is complex. Yes, we can take small actions that have instant impact – like planting a garden, painting a building, or closing our street to cars for a weekend – but reaching a consensus on what ‘good design’ looks like in a local area is no overnight project! And it isn’t just about aesthetics: it’s also about people’s life aspirations and how they might be enabled and played out in physical space.

Making places better inevitably involves interacting with local authorities, developers, landlords and other ‘Goliaths’ who have a degree of permanency and more resources at their disposal. Communities can overcome this, but it requires a sustained and concerted effort (and sometimes a fight) to exercise those rights.

I recently went to an event to hear more about how some residents took their homes out of council ownership to prevent them being sold to private developers. This amazing achievement took 12 years! I was briefly involved in a similar project to regenerate an estate. It won awards for its genuinely community-led design process but the council did a U-turn and shut the community out after 4 years of hard work. Similarly, I set up my own local project to encourage people to connect where I lived. I got some funding and we put on a great event, but I couldn’t sustain leading from the front due to changing life circumstances. This left me feeling incredibly guilty and like I had let my community down because I wasn’t confident anyone was able to pick up the baton.

And therein lies part of the solution: we need to design community-led, social action to improve place as a relay channel swim, not a 100m sprint. Transience isn’t going to go away in a place like London and modern life means most of us can only dip in and out of things. So whatever you do to improve your place, actively think about how you can pass the baton onto someone else if you needed to. Explore opportunities to involve other people in what you are doing, even if it feels a bit inconvenient, so they know what happened and they have the chance to build on it in your absence. Take the lead for a period of time but don’t let a group become over-reliant on you to get things done. Share the load, share it early and ask for help: that’s what I wish I had done on my community project. Even better, avoid starting something up on your own if there is something that already exists. Chances are that the people leading what is already happening could do with someone to pass the baton onto, and that could be you!

Katherine Horsham leads development projects to grow volunteer involvement in public and third-sector organisations and is currently a property guardian with Dot Dot Dot.

Vegmead community group tool appeal – photo courtesy of Katherine Horsham