Thought Pieces on the Limits of Design: #5

The art and architecture practice public works[1] aim to investigate what constitutes the civic in the city and how to re-design the structures that restrict it. One current project in Loughborough Junction revolves around a citizen-led community garden and is no doubt political. What is interesting is that through researching this project, the aspects which we ‘design’ are much more around the governance, funding and legislation that enable the whole thing to exist in the first place – the aesthetic (though it is also political) is secondary.

Now it feels these processes need to be designed more than ever following a shift in approach of how local councils deal with public space in an era of austerity. Luckily Lambeth Council (where the garden is based) is using some foresight to hang on to their public land (for now) rather than simply sell it for a short term economic return, as we see elsewhere. What has emerged instead is a new methodology of austerity-led civic space creation. The council take public land and resources, package it up, and hand it to a private entity to take care of. This private entity brings its own funding, creates the civic space, and shoulders all the risk and reward that comes with it – leaving the council to deal with it at arm’s length. The problem is these spaces are not very civic at all. In initial cases, such as Pop Brixton in South London, this has seen a private entity take public assets and begin to profit from them by creating new exclusive spaces of consumption that cater predominantly to an external market rather than a local one. The private entity is not accountable to the public so has no obligation – the failure lies in the agreement between the council and this private entity.

Now we have a similar opportunity with our community garden in Loughborough Junction and of course the fear of local residents is that Pop Brixton gets replicated into Pop Loughborough and only serves to aid the process of gentrification. We don’t want a private entity, whose morals can become corrupted as soon as the financial spreadsheet takes a turn for the worse, to manage the garden. What we need to design is a governance framework for a new civic institution that can fill this role. A new civic institution that can operate at arm’s length from the council, allowing for responsive programming, reduced red tape, and increased citizen autonomy, whilst bound to a code of ethics that ensures it acts in the interest of the local area. There are many examples of how this could work – co-operative models, steering groups, community land trusts, and community interest companies, to name but a few. We just need to implement them creatively.

 

This needs to go hand-in-hand with legislation that allows these governance structures to emerge. The 2011 Localism Act represents a government shift to making policies that have the potential to enable and empower citizens. Citizens can invest themselves into it, subvert it and exploit it (as private companies do with legislation), so it starts to level the playing field. Following the Localism Act we see Neighbourhood Forums appearing like rhizomes each trying to address urban planning issues in their locality. Could these new forums become the platform for residents to become their own developers? Building truly affordable housing, helping develop ‘civic’ spaces such as our community garden and ensuring the economic and social opportunities benefit the local – not external forces. We need to design more legislations such as the Localism Act and crucially we need to design a mechanism for releasing funding that can allow these new governance structures to actually challenge potential competitors – or we need a shift in value systems that allow the true value of our ‘right to the city’ to be recognised.

[1] http://www.publicworksgroup.net/