The other day I was at CABE for a meeting about community engagement and public space. We seem to have been wobbling on this theme for years without quite getting our balance or momentum, but there are signs that we're all gaining in confidence. Public libraries have been going through a similar process. This is about getting clarity on what constitutes a democratic public realm. Democracy is at last beginning to shift from an emphasis on its mechanics to an appreciation that it depends on the quality of conversations in public. But it's later than you think.
It was an upbeat meeting, including presentations from (among others) Ivan Ball on consultation for Caterham Barracks, William Perrin on Talk About Local, and Alison Drake on the now-famous regeneration work of Castleford Heritage Trust - and that astonishing bridge which, as a public space (as Sarah Gaventa suggests) 'can offer as much as a street, public square, or park.'
Among the themes discussed was the promise that developers will invest in community engagement because it helps them make money. If this is true and becomes acknowledged, it seems to me, it will change the power dynamics: will some community groups come to expect a cut, will they be charging outsiders for their own views about their own locality?
One of the difficulties with discussions like this is that we all make assumptions about the nature of local communities, and have to pass over awkward niceties: like the fact that not all neighbourhoods are neatly defined topographically - and those that aren't are probably easy pickings for unscrupulous developers (if there is such a thing); or the fact that not all neighbourhoods have confident, articulate, respected, energetic local champions like Alison representing their interests.
But what struck me most about the stage of thinking we're at, is that these initiatives imply significant changes to the acoustics for citizens' voices. Organised community action - in meetings around the town as in Castleford or (especially) online as in some of William's examples - is starting to bring about a far more audible articulation of local people's views and experience than we have had before. And don't be fooled by the rhetoric from above, which to use Alison's phrase tends to mean 'big people not listening': much of it is in spite of, not because of, official action.