Tomorrow Today Streets
Creating essential micro-infrastructure for post Covid 19 neighbourhoods
We are launching a new project in Barking and Dagenham next week through the Every One Every Day initiative. It’s called Tomorrow Today Streets and it invites residents to work together on a range of practical projects. Twenty four projects, many of them designed and tested already in the borough, has a starter kit of materials and equipment (think pots and pans, hose pipes, bike tools, sewing machines etc) as well as other supports like promotional materials and insurance.
When we first closed on the 13 March our starting point was to build an online platform as quickly as possible — and this was up and running within a week. The platform gave us an immediate way to connect with residents and its been fantastic over the last few weeks, giving people a way to share and connect. We also wanted to create some digital infrastructure for people who were working together at street level during the pandemic.
However after the first 2–3 weeks it became obvious that teams of people working together peer-to-peer at street level were not going to burst into life spontaneously. Many conversations with residents made us realise that even with the pandemic urgency that people still needed more than a single stimulus to start organising with their neighbours. Grants by themselves seldom work in this way, creating only a digital means to communicate wasn’t going to work either. Several of our Project Designers who live locally also began to create street teams in their own streets and were able to feed back first hand on the barriers they experienced.
The Participatory City approach is built upon inclusive participation. That is, not simply relying on confident individuals with available time and digital skills to step forward. In fact initiating is only one of a multitude of ways that people can participate — and is not anticipated unless or until people are ready to participate in this way. Through the systems-based approach we deliberately create complete sets of support that makes it easy for people with all levels of confidence and time, and all types of skills, to participate on an equal footing and for mutual benefit.
Let me pause here for a moment to clarify. There has been a huge amount of helping activity in the borough during this crisis. Since lock down an initiative led by the council called BDCAN has sprung into action, and working with a newly formed network of local organisations called the Collective (which includes among several others Participatory City) has been making and distributing food parcels and directing people to the help and support they need. Hundreds of individual volunteers have helped with this incredible effort. The speed, efficiency and generosity with which this had been implemented is a wonderful exemplar and also a testament to the council and social sector’s work over the last few years to re-shape a collaborative culture and network in the borough.
Back on the Every One Every Day, peer-to-peer, practical participation front, I kept coming back to this: if the pandemic had happened in two years time we would have been ready, in a way that we simply weren’t now. The long term strategy for Every One Every Day has been firstly to work with residents to grow an initial set of projects and participation opportunities that could introduce practical participation to residents. To date this has consisted of around 150 projects and 1,100 individual sessions, 6,000+ people participating, with 34,000 hours of highly diverse groups of people being in spaces together building trust and friendship whilst doing practical and creative things. We have started to understand and measure the impact of this participation on individuals, families and neighbourhoods and have made strong progress on this over the last 18 months.
In the first instance we have prioritised co-creating these activities direct with individuals and families and at neighbourhood level (through our network of shop-based project incubators) or at borough level (through The Warehouse public makerspace). We also have 80+ Organisational Members who we support with access to space, equipment, learning and networks. These Organisational Members work in many different areas, from fledgling social businesses, to befriending organisations, sports groups to mental health professionals.
The next phase of building out and strengthening the participatory ecosystem has been to build out the number of what we called mini-hubs or mini-platforms: groups of people, organisations, businesses, schools and colleges (rather than individuals) working hyperlocally on sets of new and replicated practrical participation culture projects in streets, estates or block of flats. This further introduces practical infrastructures like shared kitchens, workshops and growing spaces close enough to where people live to build this type of participation into the fabric of daily life, rather than being extraordinary or heroic. We had started to do this through a project called Open Streets and we have a handful of streets already up and running where brilliant groups of people have initiated two more projects e.g. a Play Steets and an Open Corner (taking over public spaces to grow vegetables, plant orchards, create play spaces).
We started to imagine what it might have looked like if there had been 40, 80 or 100 such organised teams working together in streets, estates or blocks of flats — already established and thriving - when the pandemic hit us. If that had been the case these networks would already have been connected digitally, they would already have known and trusted each other in a way that would have made all efforts to cope with lockdown much quicker and easier — and much more personal. There would have had been shared sewing machines to make PPE, bread making equipment, shopping trolleys for groceries …
Instead of receiving emergency food packages many more people would have been more able to rely more readily on their close neighbours. In addition, if these very local networks and organising groups had already been established, with many different projects, there would have been many opportunities for people who have had a stricter need for isolation e.g. the over 70s and those with pre-existing conditions, to contribute in many other ways, while at the same time getting some help with shopping etc. We could have avoided labelling these people ‘vulnerable’ in the broad-brush way we have.
“Older people should be targeted for speedy testing and treatment not house arrest!” the 70-year-old Dr Malcolm Fisk said. He is among a number of older people grappling with being classified as “vulnerable”, during the coronavirus crisis, when they do not see themselves as such.
The vulnerability discourse overruns older people’s important contributions to our economies (expected to rise to £77 billion by 2030), but also to our lives as spouses, parents, friends, mentors, and neighbours. “We need to give voice to older persons who feel left out and promote a positive image of older persons”, said David Luxton from the Civil Service Pensioners’ Alliance.
There has been a great surge of Mutual Aid groups across the UK and across the world, and a number (6) of these have also been active in Barking and Dagenham.
There has been a lot of neighbourly activity happening, in pockets where neighbours do know each other well already, are connected digitally and have been helping each other informally across the borough. This has yet to be quantified, but it is definitely happening right now. But it is not happening everywhere. Like many London boroughs Barking and Dagenham has a great deal of churn, in some two year periods as much as 25% of the population leaves and new people arrive. This can make it hard for networks of trust and friendship to start, grow and establish long term, and one of the reasons why Every One Every Day is working so well to bring people together through practical everyday, common denominator, activities.
Wanting the wonderful groundswell of neighbourliness to stay
There has been a wonderful groundswell of neighbourliness that many people have taken heart in during such a critical and depressing time, where illness, death, grief and isolation has characterised every day life. Many people would like to see this neighbourliness as an enduring legacy of this pandemic.
One poll suggest that only 9% of people living in Briton want to return to life as normal after the end of lockdown.
“Britons enjoying cleaner air, better food and stronger social bonds say they don’t want to return to ‘normal’”
In discussion with Rutger Bregman, author of Humankind: a Hopeful History, Matthew Taylor suggested that ‘A huge number of people have been active in volunteering or wanting to look out for their neighbours. There are two things about that. The first is that this is not an unexpected response when it comes to crisis. But the other is that there is this sense that this only happens in a crisis, you can’t normalise these levels of personal responsibility and social responsibility.’
History does have many examples where neighbourhood activity that appears in response to a crisis often melts away once the crisis is over — and there is every chance that this may happen post covid19. One such example is the Neighbourhood Assembly Movement in Buenos Aires, Argentina, which was created in response to a financial crisis in 2001. During that time all savings accounts were frozen and all citizens could withdraw no more that $US250 per week. Citizens began ‘to organize free community kitchens, classes, nurseries …and took on more ambitious projects including productive enterprises such as community bakeries.’ (Thompson M. 2010.)
After the crisis these initiatives disappeared almost overnight. The individuals which made up these assemblies, were co-opted into formal politics or were separated by divisions over ideologies — others went about their usual lives.
If we all went back to our usual lives after lock down would this really matter?
I would suggest that if we did just spring back into our pre-covid shape — we would waste so much potential that exists right now. The time is right to start building on these new relationships we have created with our neighbours to work together to tackle some of the most pressing issues of our generation — mental health issues (including social isolation and loneliness), lack of social cohesion, the climate crisis, and of course … the next pandemic.
The time is right to make every effort possible to give people the micro-infrastructures and tools to make neighbourliness much more permanent . Simple projects which make everyday life better and create enjoyable ways to build friendships and relationships are key to making that happen.
“Once we are past the apex of this virus — as we are with this season’s bushfires more of less — we are not simply flattening the curve of the virus, but riding the curve into new or continued activities, so that we rebuild out in positive directions. It means not firing up ‘business-as-usual’. It means pointedly ignoring those suddenly quiet engines. It means accelerating out of the curve with a renewed sense of momentum for another green world.”
Tomorrow Today Streets
So at Participatory City we’ve listened closely and have gone back the drawing board — and over the last 6 weeks re-designed Open Steets and developed it into Tomorrow Today Streets — designing the project to work through lockdown and out the other side. It will replace the Summer Programme we would expect to be starting soon — we will instead work with residents to form teams (as in big teaming) — supported by 24 Starter Kits and over 40 workshops through our online platform. This workshop programme will include digital onboarding, working inclusively and avoiding committee dynamics, as well as accredited health and safety training. We will also be supporting teams to co-design brand new projects.
One foot is still in the pandemic: the early projects have been designed for people to make things in individual homes to bring together later in the year, to launch their Tomorrow Today Street and celebrate the ability to be together when social distancing eases. But the other foot is firmly planted in the future — what micro-infrastructures are needed at street level that supports co-creation - for super positive future neighbourhoods?
Tomorrow Today Streets are part of a larger strategy to build infrastructures for co-creating the essentials.
Tomorrow Today Streets is part of a larger concept we have been developing to co-create essential infrastructure for post Covid19 neighbourhoods, with the people who live there. Called Universal Basic Everything, this social and physical infrastructure will require different participation systems for different levels, from home, to street, to neighbourhood, to borough — from peer-to-peer projects, to a platform of co-operatives for making essential products called Everyday Essentials. You can read more about this broader strategy here.
Working with incredible partners
We have some incredible partners working with us on Tomorrow Today Streets, including Barking and Dagenham council (who help make everything possible — including planting in public spaces!), Barking Riverside (who are working with us to develop a sharing app for Tomorrow Today Streets), Table Tennis England (who are giving the project two ping pong table sets plus 50 Instant Ping Pong sets) and Woodland Trust (who have given hundreds of trees), University of East London’s Sustainability Researc Institute will be working with us on research and micro-renewables, as well as our amazing funders who support the Every One Every Day platform.
We are also excited to be partnering further with IKEA UK and Ireland and their Live Lagom programme. The concept is based on the Swedish phrase “Lagom är bast” which means “the right amount is best” and they believe that’s the key to sustainable living. By this they mean — use just the right amount of what you need — whether it’s food, energy or water — and leave the rest for the planet. Tomorrow Today Streets enables materials and equipment to be shared at street and neighbourhood level, in addition to individual homes, where IKEA currently focuses most. IKEA has given the project 100s of products that will be incorporate into the individual Starter Kits.
Looking forward to Tomorrow Today Streets in other cities, including in Canada
We have been working with McConnell Foundation for a number of years. In March this year 20 people from four cities in Canada (Halifax, Montreal, Toronto and Edmonton) were due to come to Barking and Dagenham for a 4-day Study Trip as part of a new Participatory City Social R&D initiative. Participatory Cities Canada is a partnership of McConnell and the Government of Canada and with multisectoral teams in each city, including Indigenous partners. The trip was canceled due to Covid19 and the testing and prototyping that was planned has also had to be delayed.
We are currently in conversation with teams from these cities to explore whether Tomorrow Today Streets could replace the feasibility work that was planned, and jump start neighbourhood level participatory ecosystems at a time when speedy action is needed. The city teams are excited about this possibility and are already planning how it will work!
“Investments to build resilience not only pay off on how effectively we recover after a crisis but how we recover from slow burn stresses, like inequality and poverty, that impair our capacity to be resilient.”
Dr Judith Rodin, Former Rockefeller Foundation President