Monday, 02 April 2007

"You can come back mate" - workshops with street reps Running exploratory workshops with local residents tends to be less predictable than it usually is working with professionals, and it can be risky. But it's what I enjoy most and find most rewarding. I've just been in Shipley with my colleague Sarah Clow (pic, R) running one focus group on neighbourliness with older people, and two workshops for a new 'Street Reps' initiative. In a few hours of listening you can get a pretty thorough immersion in local issues in a low income area, and we did. The basic idea of street reps (sometimes called street champions) is usually to give services keen and willing pairs of eyes and ears in the neighbourhoods, to alert them to issues that need attention. Much of the language is classically top-down (as in 'we will appoint you; you will do this' - one example begins talking almost straight away about 'professional standards') and suggests that some authorities have not done much thinking about it and start from their own preoccupations rather than the residents'. It fascinates me, because the task is really to work out, for each individual and more generally for each network of reps, a role definition which is sufficiently formal for the authorities but sufficiently informal and flexible to make sense in the everyday life of the neighbourhood. (Since it's essential that the reps are volunteers, we can expect that some authorities will have to give weight on this particular see-saw. And in the grander scheme of things, this is exactly the kind of initiative which, in forcing the responsibilisation of citizens, will in turn, necessarily, reduce the public services obsession with performance measurement and thus could presage the demise of New Labour Managerialism. So that's a pretty good reason for getting on with it). Our work is being funded by a grant from Bradford's Neighbourhood Management Team. To their great credit, they are not necessarily happy just waiting for local people to volunteer for a pre-defined role which saves them money while helping to meet service delivery targets. They've asked us to work with residents to define the role in their own terms (not as easy as it sounds). Additionally, without denying the role of street reps as 'Disorder Alarms', we're looking to emphasise the development and support of local social networks through neighbourliness; and for reps to promote positive initiatives like street parties or planting, not just passing on complaints or bad news. We'll also be looking, softly softly, for opportunities to introduce and exploit mobile online technologies. Having served a modest, intermittent apprenticeship with games maestro Drew Mackie and participation guvnor David Wilcox over the years (see Useful Games) I know enough to know I needed to fictionalise things in order to get discussion away from the immediate gripes. What we came up with was more of a workshop exercise than a game - working in groups to invent and explore issues requiring attention for spring, summer, autumn and winter, identifying immediate and longer term actions, working...
Manual for Streets published Highways engineers and planners already know that the Manual for streets was published the other day. But a key feature of the cultural change that it implies is that street design is pertinent to a wider range of people than just technical experts, it's also significant for community activists and neighbourhood managers. MfS seeks to promote 'greater collaboration between all those involved in the design, approval and adoption processes.' During the draft stages I said that I thought it would be a historic document. Scanning the final version, I get the sense that some of the ambitious attempts to make it 'community-centred' may have been diluted (including community involvement, curiously, but this may be because there's perceived to be too much woolly and insubstantial rhetoric emanating in government documents on the topic already); but they're not lost. Just take the first few identified changes in approach that distinguish it from the guidance which it replaces: applying a user hierarchy to the design process with pedestrians at the top; emphasising a collaborative approach to the delivery of streets; recognising the importance of the community function of streets as spaces for social interaction; promoting an inclusive environment that recognises the needs of people of all ages and abilities... I welcome the numerous references to the public realm, and the insistence that residential streets should be places where people can move about. MfS applies in England and Wales. The prelims tell us that it 'does not set out any new policy or legal requirements': but I think it will come to be seen as a key marker of cultural change which begins the end of car-domination of neighbourhoods. Living Streets response is here. CABE response.

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