How Do We Build a City That Works For Everyone?

I recently hosted a couple of conversations for people in the city of Lancaster, UK, in which we explored this question together: “How Do We Build a City that Works for Everyone?” We framed the conversation (which we had using a ‘World Café’)from two current and important concepts. Firstly, the great work of Kate Raworth in ‘Doughnut Economics’ – how do we create a city that is socially just for the people who live here and that is environmentally sustainable for the future? In other words, how do we ensure we have an economy that is distributive and regenerative by design? Secondly, we drew on the important work of Sandro Galea (Professor of Epidemiology at Boston State) and his concept of the Goldfish bowl as a way of thinking about ‘Population Health’ or Epidemiology (see my last blog). Politics IS health, according to Galea.

 

One of my favourite quotes is from Einstein, when he said that “If I had 60 minutes to save the world, I would spend 55 minutes trying to find the right question and then I could solve the problem in 5 minutes.” It turns out that the question we used itself is problematic at a few levels! Here are some of the questions we found ourselves wrestling with: Do we need to build the city, when it is already here?! What do we really mean by ‘the city’ – is it people and communities or more than that? What do we mean by ‘works for’? That felt to some like we were settling for something that was just enough, maybe scraping by, rather than thriving! And who do we mean by everyone?! This didn’t stop us having a a great discussion, but highlights how powerful the perspectives and biases we bring into the room can be!

 

Despite not having a perfect question, (and hopefully, by the time we host 3 much bigger conversations across the city during 2019, we may have honed something more helpful!), some key themes emerged, through our generative conversation. 

 

  1. Relationships are vital! We want to live in a city which really does “work” for everyone. So, we want to give value to the currently unheard voices and we want to value diversity and inclusivity. Taking time to get to know neighbours and colleagues grows a richness of community. We want to live in a city that values love and kindness in how we treat ourselves and other people.
  2. We need to build on the amazing assets and skills that we already have in the city. If we made space and time to discover and share these skills with each other more, we would develop a richer life experience within our communities. This is an expression of ‘gift economy’ and ‘reciprocity’, which Charles Eisenstein writes powerfully about in his book ‘Sacred Economics’). It builds on voluntary power, and may require a reimagining of how we work and what we value in how we invest our time, energy and resources. We also have so many incredible physical assets in this area, which we don’t tap into enough or perhaps make fully accessible for all who live in the city.
  3. People want to be part of the change, not have change happen to them! This requires much better engagement and democratic discussion about how budgets are spent, for example or how land is developed. Somehow, there needs to be a better safeguarding against ‘invested interests’ and ‘dodgy deals’ with far more transparency about how decisions are made. Such a process, it is believed, would enable far better personal and corporate responsibility when it comes to caring for the fabric of the city and the people who live here, similar to what has been developed in Wigan. There was a recognition that when we talk about personal choice and responsibility that this is much more possible for some people and communities than others. However, it was felt that increasing self-esteem and a sense of belonging would enable more personal responsibility and choice.
  4. Housing really matters. The physical environment is actually causing fragmentation and silos. There were many more questions than answers here – but that’s ok – this is an iterative process, and we don’t have to solve everything in one go. So…how do we create really good social housing? How could we redesign the spaces of the city to encourage togetherness and community? How do protect green spaces in the process and take care of the city’s drainage (strong memories of the recent floods)? How could we ensure that everyone has a home to live in, and what might that mean for both the homeless and also for single people?
  5. We want an education system that really values the unique beauty of each child, treats each one with compassion, mindful of what traumas they may be experiencing and values creativity and activity in education just as much as academic outcomes. We care about who our children become, not just about what exams they pass. So we recognise that we have a measurement problem but we’re not quite sure yet what to do about it! 
  6. We need to invest in our children and young people by providing physical spaces in which our young people can feel safe and not bored! Many have been affected by the closure of children’s and youth centres. If we are to really invest in our children and young people, there was a sense that we also need to provide parenting classes across the board to pregnant couples and through ‘family centres’ and schools across the district.
  7. We want to create a greater sense of value for our older citizens. There were many people present who felt they have things to offer, but don’t have an obvious outlet. Involving those retired from paid work more in the life of the city would break isolation and feed the gift economy. 
  8. Business needs to thrive in a way that really values entrepreneurial gift and allows it to flourish, whilst holding it true to the ideas and principles of the doughnut and the goldfish! How could the business community serve the needs of the city and how can the city enable business to really thrive, creating jobs, whilst caring for the environment and the needs of the people who live here? Kate Raworth’s work could really help us!
  9. Transport systems need to be redesigned to encourage more cycling and walking or the use of green public transport alternatives. Transport routes also need to join up our communities more effectively to improve opportunities for those who live in areas that are currently more financially deprived. 
  10. If we are to really improve health and wellbeing and care for the environment, then we need to see this written into EVERY policy decision. If politics IS health, as per Sandro Galea, then we need to take this seriously and stop making policies which do not care for these things.
  11. We want to be part of city that does welfare well! We think there are many possible new ways of doing things more effectively, as described in Hilary Cottam’s book, ‘Radical Help – Reimagining the Welfare State’. One of the things felt to be important is increasing skills in money management (85% of people living in social housing in this district are in debt to the city council -though this is certainly not only due to poor money management , but an unjust system that isn’t working for the majority). Morecambe Bay Credit Union offers an alternative economy as a way of using micro finance in our local geography.
  12. We need better ways to communicate and connect people together. There is smart, digital technology that could help us here….perhaps a Lancaster portal, that connects us together more effectively and helps facilitate the sharing of our assets and gifts.

 

Wowsers! Not bad for 2 conversations of 90 minutes each! Just imagine what a phenomenal city Lancaster might become over the next 10-20 years, if we set out on a journey together to build this kind of city! What is stopping us, I wonder?! #enoughnow #togetherwecan

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Let The Children Play!

In The Guardian today, there is an article in which the Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield, is calling for more adventure playgrounds across the country, especially in our ‘poorer’ neighbourhoods. She believes we need more play schemes across the country for the long summer holidays which she argues are having a profoundly negative effect on children’s physical and mental health. Most starkly, she cites a study in which “primary school children lost 80% of the fitness levels gained during term time. The poorest 25% experienced a drop in fitness levels 18 times greater than the richest 25%”. Sadly, this undoes some of the great work of schemes like ‘the daily mile’ in schools and has hugely negative consequences in terms of future health risks.

 

I would personally therefore welcome such a move – it is absolutely the case that increased active play and exercise improves a child’s physical, mental and social health. There is no doubt that more facilities, especially located closer to home would be better than having none at all….but I don’t really think it’s quite that simple (and for the record, I don’t think Anne Longfield thinks it is that simple either, she is a great champion for children across the UK). There is a danger, that by saying children need to play more, that it gets oversimplified by policy makers and could perhaps sound a little too Marie Antoinette! Yes our long summer breaks are becoming like ‘battery hen’ experiences for many children across the UK, but simply building them more parks is not going to change this, and I can give you few reasons why.  To understand why kids are spending more time indoors and on screens, we need to dig a little deeper into some pretty uncomfortable truths and wrestle with the complexity of them.

 

I have a friend, who is one of the kindest and best people I know. On top of his very heavy work schedule, he invests an enormous amount of time into young people, who are often living with really challenging circumstances. Every summer, he runs activities for them, right through the summer break and does extraordinary things. Ten years ago, when he applied for funding through a variety of grants (and let me tell you he is a seasoned wizard at winning bids for such things) he was getting £20k for a packed out summer programme. These days, he struggles to raise £4k. That leaves the situation in which he is having to ask families to contribute more for the care of their kids over the summer. What this leads to is a drop in numbers and more kids stuck in at home.

 

I have another friend, who runs a school in one of our most deprived communities. Throughout the summer break, her school opens up to ensure the kids from the locality do not go hungry and so that families can afford to eat. There have been emergency appeals from many food banks this year. Many working families are seriously struggling to provide both childcare, through the long summer breaks and food….there are some really tough choices to be made. Out of 50 young people on a local holiday scheme, that I know of, 19 of them were relying on daily food parcels, meaning they have no idea from one day to the next what they will be eating and actually no choice about it. When you are working two jobs and struggling to make ends meet, what else can you do with you kids? Just let them roam the streets?

 

I know a police officer who works on some of the toughest estates in the UK. He tells me that the war on drugs has utterly failed and the gangs are absolutely running the show. Cuts to the policing budget and massive stress levels in the force, as a result, are seeing whole neighbourhoods overrun with crime. The play parks in these places are totally unsafe. No parent in their right mind would let their child out to play in such an environment. It’s a bit different in leafy Surrey or middle class suburbiaville. Without police to build relationships with young people and keep the streets safe, simply building new parks or putting on play schemes will not be enough. Without children’s centres, youth centres and health facilities readily available (many of which have been closed or privatised and so less affordable to communities who need them most), there are less places to go.

 

If I’ve learnt anything over the last few years, it is that we have to stop coming up with schemes that we think are good for communities and simply delivering them. We have to really learn to listen to people’s stories and the complexities of their situations and from that place hear what it is that they want and need and then create real partnerships to bring about that change together. Hilary Cottam is all over this in her brilliant book ‘Radical Help’, which is a must read.

 

I love that Anne Longfield, Tanni Grey-Thompson and Sarah Woolaston see this whole issue as being so massively important. Play schemes and parks and cutting sugar (though all excellent) will simply not be enough in and of themselves to get kids out doors and playing in them. We need a a very holistic approach which starts with communities, hearing what their dreams are for their kids and hearing the hopes and desires of the kids themselves. Next we need to understanding what the steps will be to get there. Then we have to build that together. I would suggest a great place to steward this kind of resource would be through health and wellbeing partnerships, like the ones we have in Morecambe Bay. Cross public and voluntary sector partnerships, rooted and working well in their local communities. But I can also guarantee, that this idea will require the right kind of resource – appropriate funding of the required schemes, affordable access to facilities, work that pays a decent wage so families can afford to eat and taking the safety of our streets seriously. That is going to take both a reimagining of youth work/social provision and appropriate help and resource to a diminished and struggling police force. Bring on the parks, but first listen and make sure they can be used!

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Changing the Future of Adverse Childhood Experiences

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Four Circles of Population Health

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Mental Health Help

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Population Health – The Pentagon Approach

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Health Spending in The North vs The South

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Creating a Great Culture – Part 2

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