How "Participation Culture" Can Make Happier and Healthier Cities

Participatory City uses simple, yet innovative ideas to strengthen community engagement in our cities.

by Olwen Smith, January 10, 2018
Wayne Trevor

As urbanisation increases rapidly, we're witnessing cities becoming sprawling spaces which lack a traditional sense of community spirit. Years of austerity measures in the UK have led to the erosion of funding for public spaces and activities which connect people and strengthen city neighbourhoods. We spoke to Wayne Trevor of Participatory City about how a new type of 'participation culture' is being harnessed to boost community engagement and make our cities happier, healthier and more sustainable places. 

Can you tell us what Participatory City is all about?

At Participatory City we aim to bring a new model of participation to everyday life. In disadvantaged communities, and communities in general, we have seen a recent increase in division, fear and poverty. We want to tackle these problems by bringing people together, breaking down barriers and helping them to share ideas and actions for how to make their communities better places. Our model creates the physical and social infrastructure to make it easier to work on community improvement projects. This new participation culture involves activities which are intrinsically appealing to most people, things which we often refer to as ‘common denominator’ activities such as cooking, trading, repairing, working on green spaces or collaborative childcare. 

What was the catalyst for starting the foundation?

Our CEO and Founder, Tessy Britton, has dedicated years to researching and prototyping new ways to support widespread practical participation. Her findings were the driver behind the creation of Participatory City. She discovered that many existing models which our society has developed over the past 100 -150 years seem to be failing. For example, traditional charities may offer a good option for participation to the middle and upper classes who have time, money or skills to spare. However, it is much more difficult for those from poorer communities who are struggling to make ends meet, and who lack real social infrastructure, to get involved with conventional charities. We instead support a peer-to-peer model, providing a platform that enables people to come together and collaborate on projects which will help their local communities.

What are some of the most interesting or successful projects Participatory City has worked on?

We recently launched the Every One Every Day initiative in partnership with the Barking and Dagenham Council, which will focus on implementing our model over a 5 year period and which is the largest participatory project of its kind in the country. In November last year we held our launch festival for the initiative - which was a great success! We opened two shop fronts in the borough and held 68 activities throughout the day, with over 400 people taking part. One notable project which has seen great success has been Open Corners which seeks to make better use of the borough’s 5,200 green spaces. It involves neighbours working together to take ownership and pride in such spaces, transforming them into vegetable patches, book sharing spaces or mini orchards. 

Speaking of orchards, a few years ago you co-founded the Open Orchard Project using the Participatory City process. Can you tell us more about what led to that and what the project entails?

As a pre-cursor to Participatory City, Tessy had set up a project called Open Works in the neighbourhood I was living in. The Open Orchards initiative was born out of this and connects communities through the planting of fruit trees in public places. These trees provide free fruit to local residents and greenery to our urban environments. In total we have planted 260 fruit trees in 24 mini-orchards, with local residents involved in every step, from the tree planting to the fruit picking and even jam making! 

What do you see as the biggest barriers preventing more participation in neighbourhoods and cities across the UK?

First and foremost, the funding situation for organisations doing participation work is very tough. In the UK, councils have gone through 7 to 8 years of austerity, meaning the third sector is taking on much of this work, but still struggles to find the financing needed to maximise impact. Secondly, there is a definite lack of collaboration in the area. There are many organisations, both big and small, which are doing great work. But at times they almost take on a role of service providers, rather than actually engaging citizens to work collaboratively with them. The volunteering rate in Barking and Dagenham is half the national average, which is hardly surprising given that it is a very disadvantaged area, however residents are open to contributing to small, local projects which will have a direct benefit for their neighbourhood. Finally, a lack of confidence often prevents people from getting involved in community projects. We regularly come across those who don’t view their skills as valuable to society, until they become involved in a local initiative. Once they do, they find it truly transformational. Such community involvement can be particularly important for those suffering from a physical or mental illness or who might otherwise lack daily interactions.

What direction do you see the organisation taking over the next 3-5 years?

The Every One Every Day initiative is a 5 year project which includes some really ambitious goals. By the end of that period, we hope to have set up at least 250 projects and 100 businesses, working with a minimum of 20,000 residents (that's 10% of the borough's population). We expect the project to result in improvements in employment opportunities, engagement with education and reductions in poverty. If our assumptions about this model's potential impact are fulfilled, then we will look to scale it out both nationally and internationally. So watch this space!

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