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Blogpost: Participatory cities grounded in practical, everyday acts

This is the fourth in a Placemaking Profile series in which we will share short conversations we’ve had with urban innovators – from those who are actively building places that foster social inclusion to those who listen, engage, and tell stories from the communities.

For more information about placemaking, please click here.

Tessy Britton: Participatory City

In conversations about shaping our cities, we often talk about public participation as a crucial element of decision-making. But how does this translate to people’s day-to-day lives? Are there enough opportunities to get involved in local governance? What factors are necessary to achieve power shifts rather than tokenistic public input?

These are questions that Londoner Tessy Britton and her Participatory City initiative have had on their minds for many years. While we intrinsically know that cities should be places for all (and therefore shaped by all), it can be difficult to concretize this ideal. Tessy, through her deep work in practical participation in UK cities, has answers. Last month, we had the opportunity to chat about supporting networks of citizen-run spaces, connecting everyday acts with larger goals like social inclusion and enterprise creation, and how neighbourhoods can be created by and for everyone.

We began our discussion by sharing what our home cities - Toronto, Canada and London, UK - have in common when it comes to citizens shaping city spaces. In both cities, placemaking is happening on a micro-scale (think tool libraries, 100in1Day, laneway crawls, and myriad other examples), and though it makes a difference to the immediate community, these projects are often disparate and don’t reap the kind of measurable results that influence decision-makers. In other words, small, citizen-led initiatives certainly have localized benefits, but are not adding up to a more supportive society.

What if participating in planning your community didn’t have to involve taking time to attend a formal public meeting or filling out an online survey that doesn’t allow for communicating the nuances of lived experience? What if your regular activities, from gardening on your front porch to preparing food to repairing your bicycle, were recognized as contributing to the collective experience of folks in your neighbourhood? While these support systems exist, they tend to be exceptions to the norm, where we are connected mainly for purposes of financial transactions. In a Participatory City, decisions about place are actually structured around these everyday acts. So what does this look like? Who is involved? How can we harness the know-how, creativity, and passion of citizens into a city that takes care of its inhabitants?

Starting this year, Participatory City will transform one London neighbourhood into a Demonstration Neighborhood - of around 200,00 to 300,000 residents - that will become a model for wellbeing, sustainability and equality. Here is how this impressive initiative is taking shape:

  • It is built on an open-source environment that allows all users to share what they’re doing and collaborate with others.
  • It doesn’t have to involve a lot of new inputs; instead, it makes better use of spaces, resources, skills, and knowledge.
  • It recognizes the potential of essential, everyday acts to effect change, when connected and supported.
  • It supports an ecology of mutually dependent and supportive collections of activity in common places like cafes, schools, and gardens (the goal being 1,000 ideas to transform one’s neighbourhood).
  • It gets unlikely allies working together, resulting in more social capital and greater resilience.

Our conversation kept coming back to power and the ways in which city governments value certain assets and undervalue others. In order for our cities to become places for all, not just for those with certain powers and privileges, change must be rooted in building social capital in a way that is available to all. The Participatory City is different from one-off citizen engagement because the projects within, by their nature, attract people of different socio-economic backgrounds, cultures, and interests. Why? Because the projects are social, practical and productive”, and allow for different ways to participate, unlike many traditional volunteer or charity activities. Since they are built on activities which appeal to a variety of people, they provide easy opportunities to collaborate without much external intervention, resulting in an immediate sense of ownership, and often a tangible outcome.

This is something that we could learn from in Canadian cities. From coast to coast, there are fantastic grassroots projects that demonstrate new possibilities for using city spaces, from Montreal’s Ruelles Vertes to Open Streets projects happening yearly in several cities. However successful these 'temporary activation' projects are, it seems like momentum is slow to build, and that arguably, these projects have not yet shifted dominant practices of city building or community enterprise creation. Perhaps one solution for city governments and private funders lies in emulating what is being done with Participatory City: rather than funding localized projects and then leaving them to fend for themselves, a solution could be a more self-sustaining system of connecting, scaling up and out, and reinforcing community-driven projects and enterprises for long-term impact. Participatory City does this through a cycle of listening to people in ways that enable citizen experimentation and co-creation of projects and social enterprises.

Want to know more about Participatory City? Tessy will be sharing her work at a public discussion series, The City as a Commons, starting next week in Montreal (March 20 and 23), Toronto (March 27), and Ottawa (March 28). All events are free, but please do register.

Further reading:

 About Tessy Britton:

Tessy is the founder of Participatory City and has been developing the Participatory City practice for six years, researching and prototyping new ways to support widespread practical participation. Tessy works on a number of international projects, including supporting Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayor’s Challenge, judging the New Radicals 2016 with Nesta and The Observer. She is also a British Council Fellow for the Hammamet Conference in Tunisia. Tessy is a guest lecturer at: Saïd Business School (Oxford), LabGov at LUISS University (Rome); Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, Brown University; Rhode Island School of Design (Providence. USA).

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