Resilient people: Can local community cooperation be scaled up to create a participatory city? Neighbourhood-led pilot project the Open Works thinks so..
In February 2014, a pilot project was launched in West Norwood, south London, mobilising 1,000 people to reconfigure their neighbourhood for everyday benefit. In partnership with Lambeth Council, the Open Works united residents of the neighbourhood to create 20 new, community-led initiatives – from orchards and gardens to a youth ideas incubator; from craft groups to communal kitchens.
“The idea was to test whether high-density, mass community participation can be scaled up to create a participatory city. And we believe it can,” says Laura Billings and Tessy Britton, co-founders of Civic Systems Lab, the organisation behind the Open Works. “Community participation should be the starting point in any community development, not an afterthought.”
A follow-up report found that the small amount of seed-funding from Lambeth Council had indeed been successful in achieving “bottom-up” change, building valuable social capital between those usually outside of each other’s networks. The one year Open Works pilot came to an end earlier this year, but amid a backdrop of massive cuts to council funding across the country – Lambeth has lost over 56% of its budget since 2010 – a number of the projects have failed to stay afloat.
So what lessons have been learned about the value – and challenges – of rewiring the neighbourhood in such a community-minded way? Here are the thoughts of some of the initiatives that remain in West Norwood, remnants of a pioneering experiment that the Open Works now hopes to test out elsewhere in London.
Rebecca Trevalyan, Library of Things
Initially a pilot project under the Open Works banner, Library of Things launched as a borrowing shop that loans out household items – from hammers to waffle-toasters – in a bid to reduce waste, connect the community and provide an alternative local economy based on peer-to-peer exchange, rather than unnecessary consumption.
“What is powerful is that we’re not just another app or website,” says Rebecca Trevalyan, who co-founded the borrowing shop with friends Emma Shaw and James Tattersfield. “You could do this project purely online, but then you’d lose the warm, fluffy feeling that you get from the human interaction of sharing.”
Library of Things was originally located in a spare room of West Norwood’s library; Trevalyan and her team scoured the streets of London in search of chests and shelves to create the shop fittings. “Fifteen people showed up, and within a day we created the furniture for the shop,” she recalls. “It was also a chance for people to shape what it would look and feel like, and to discuss ideas. These people effectively became our community champions and were involved throughout the lifecycle of the project, spreading the word within the area.”
In the Library of Things, members can borrow anything from pasta-makers to tents, tools to suitcases (on average, an electric drill is used only 13 minutes in its entire lifetime, so it really does make sense). But this is not just about access to goods: members are also encouraged to interact, and a community wishlist was created to help visually map the needs of the area – thereby informing donations to the shop.
“People would realise that other members they were chatting to about the easiest way to put up a shelf, or other household DIY, lived on their own street but they had never met before,” Trevalyan says. “It just goes to show the value of a bit of shared community space.”
As well as assisting individual members of the West Norwood community with various DIY jobs, Library of Things acted as a base for other community projects to flourish – including other Open Works projects (when the Bzz Garage, see below, needed 20 shovels for a planting day one weekend, they were quickly sourced and lent out by the Library). Equally, the large, networked community that was blooming in West Norwood was crucial in getting the borrowing shop off the ground.
Since the pilot ended, Library of Things has been searching for a new space – an impossible task in an increasingly commercialising city, says Trevalyan, but they hope to remain in the borough. “We have a loyal group of members in Lambeth. This was developed in collaboration with the people of the area; it wasn’t formed by a group of individuals behind closed doors. This community involvement gave it legitimacy”.
Wayne Trevor, Bzz Garage
Standing on the corner of a noisy junction with HGVs and buses speeding by, Wayne Trevor bends down to pick something from the soil of the thriving flowerbed that surrounds the West Norwood bus garage. But instead of the regular rubbish found in London’s plant beds, he shows off the chunky carrot he’s just plucked from the ground.
“I often passed the patch and thought about planting in it, but didn’t think I’d be allowed,” Trevor says. But then the Open Works got in touch with the bus garage, who were happy to offer the sliver of dirt up for community use. “Having their help really lowered the barrier and enabled our project to flourish,” he adds. “As long as the space is cared for, the garage staff are happy – it’s a win for them too, as they no longer have to pay to keep it weed-free.”
Overseen by Trevor, Bzz Garage is a bee-friendly community growing initiative that takes inspiration from the guerilla gardening movement. On a monthly basis, community volunteers are invited to plant, prune and pot in the garage’s flowerbed and orchard, enabling social cohesion to bloom in West Norwood. Local residents have repaid Trevor in kind with freshly baked sour-cherry pies, made using the produce from the garden’s urban orchard. “They all really see the value of what we’re doing, and they are constantly giving back to us,” he says proudly.
Some of what is grown in the Bzz Garage is handed out free – cherries, bags of rocket, lavender – and some produce is on offer at the local markets for a donation. “We just don’t want any of it to go to waste, so will do with it what we can.”
The produce is often used simply to educate people on what can be grown in the community, and as a tool to reconnect people with the soil, even in this dense urban environment. “Seeing the look on the face of adults who suddenly realise that the sunflower seeds they buy from Holland and Barrett are the same as those used to grow the beautiful yellow flowers is priceless. And that’s worth getting up for on any rainy winter morning.”
The Bzz Garage recently won Lambeth’s Cleaner and Greener award, sprouting more support for the initiative. “It’s been great to have the network of support, and we’ve been able to really give back to the community. Once, we had an abundance of lavender, so we donated it to The Stitch who made fragrance bags.”
Tara Kelly, The Stitch
In the Old Library, Tara Kelly and her community craft group, The Stitch, are preparing to showcase their designs in a fashion show as part of West Norwood’s monthly Feast event. As we talk, Kelly is continuously sought out by eager members of the community needing her assistance.
“I didn’t know anyone in the area when I moved here just over a year ago, but I definitely feel connected to the community now,” says Kelly, who launched the weekly craft meetup 12 months ago, after dropping by the Open Works shop.
A logo was designed, a location was secured in the L’Arche community space, and a call-out was published in the local paper. “It was immensely helpful to have the Open Works to unlock this connection to the community,” Kelly says. “On the night before our launch, I was seriously worrying about our lack of sewing machines – we only had two, and they were kind of crucial for the workshop to go ahead. Out of the blue, I got an email from a local house-clearing company who saved the day by donating seven sewing machines.”
Kelly started The Stitch to offer a regular and permanent fixture in people’s lives – something to look forward to. “It has really helped to break down social barriers and anonymity in the city, and encouraged people – myself included – to branch out and work on building a community spirit. But ultimately, it just provides a pleasant space for people to come together.”
Kelly mentions one member who recently passed away after a long battle with cancer. “She was always happy to come to the sessions, as it was somewhere she didn’t have to talk about her illness. Her partner told us that it was something really important and positive in her life.” The Open Works noted this too in their final report: interviews with members of The Stitch found that happiness and wellbeing was greatly improved as a result of their participation, while many felt that their confidence and ability to shape the local community was enhanced.
Kelly plans to use The Stitch as a tool to build further bridges, firstly focusing on extinguishing isolation in the community by connecting her members with those in assisted living situations, and uniting old and young residents in the area. And, having not yet had any male members through the door, she’s also keen to quash any gender-related stigma around sewing.
Agnès Baumont, Rock Paper Scissors
“Back in the day, the community hub for this area used to be the church, and the priest would organise things for the community. You could almost say the Open Works has returned to that,” says Agnès Baumont, who is manning the counter in the Rock Paper Scissors shop on Norwood High Street. “OK, the priest analogy is a little odd, but what they’ve done is enabled things to take place – they’ve kickstarted a change.”
RPS is a cooperative craft group set up to give makers and designers a risk-free route to market. After approaching the Open Works, RPS members were introduced to L’Arche London, who offered the use of their shop space for local makers and designers to showcase their work alongside the candles made in L’Arche’s craft workshops. “There’s a wonderful osmosis taking place between us now,” Baumont says. “A real sense of community has returned to an area that was perhaps a little disaffected.”
Prior to launching the initiative, Baumont, like many of the RPS members, had never sold her work anywhere. Now she sells her graphic prints alongside the work of 20 or so other makers, in return for a few days manning the shop and supporting L’Arche’s activities.
“This has been so beneficial for those who may have felt isolated in their work, to have this well established group to rely on”, Baumont says. “And for Lambeth, who did this as a social experiment – they are reaping the rewards of their small donation. As people get to know each other, they check up on elderly neighbours, disconnected members gain confidence and we develop a community based less on money, and more on collaborative value.”