Which City?

Thursday, 30 June 2011

Big society or small society - people need to get together

Is it TV, cheap alcohol and the internet which have progressively driven us indoors to sit alone, in our small families or with our decreasing circles of friends to entertain and amuse ourselves? When the teenage rush of excitement about underage clubbing wears off, what can we be bothered to congregate for?

As we forsake the high street for armchair shopping, do we sustain sufficient demand for community buildings? And is this another nail in the coffin of interdependence, the glue which can hold us together? I hope not. 

As I age, I hate harping back to the old days more and more, I actually feel I want to look ahead at the possibilities which remain, rather than the opportunities lost. 

But thinking about the village I grew up in -  for a few thousand inhabitants it sustained five churches, three working men's clubs and three pubs, a park pavilion with park and attached recreation ground and clubhouse , two primary schools, two woods and a dozen bus shelters - all of which offered opportunities to both do good and get up to no good in a fairly structured and organised way. There really was something for everybody - praying, singing, dancing, drinking, sport, first aid classes, clubs and societies galore - even indoor roller skating! Learning about God went on at the same time as learning to snog and learning to smoke.

Admittedly, we were a bit cut off, few cars, infrequent busses, three television channels, a sprinkling of land lines - an ancient world. So we were thrown together for entertainment. Does the same drive still exist?

I think it does. Coming together is what makes us  - social beings with a need to communicate, to congregate, laugh, argue and decide things together. Social networking plays on this very successfully - I want to talk, I blog! - and gives the impression of community without the face to face contact, the human touch.  This isn't all bad - we can't complain of isolation in a global sense, and for people who find it difficult to get out physically or financially, having a virtual world can be a force for real good. But I hope the virtual world is not replacing the real world.

Steve Loraine and I conceived The Open Channel as a way of connecting with people who might not have the time and resources to meet us face to face, and we are finding that there is a growing business interest in doing things at a distance. We are also hearing about the momentum gathering in the public sector around home and virtual working - a phenomenon not unusual in many private sector companies - which is offering efficiencies around premises and facilitating some shared service plans. 

But we are also conscious that this creates a demand for a new type of support for people who are not seeing colleagues on a regular basis and we are exploring ways of helping people to feel better connected. What we are also finding is that the more people work alone or in smaller groups, the more the need to come together face to face periodically to really understand what's happening, and where it's all leading.

So what does this changing way of working and socialising mean for communities and the physical environment around us?

I think it means we have to thing more collectively and collaboratively about how we use places for one thing. The population is growing, but where people live and work might well change. We will need places to be flexible. In York I am often irritated by flats that look like offices and offices that look like flats - but why should I be if this means that changing their use can be painless, quick and cheap? Reusing expensive buildings is important for our sustainable future, so let's build in flexibility from the start.

And don't lets assume that if we don't need something for a specific purpose anymore it can't be reused - flexible planning, imaginative architecture should allow us to go with the grain of development rather than constantly crashing and burning.

Most of all, I hope we can generate the time, energy and confidence to come out of our individual spaces and connect with each other - we need local places where people can get together. If we can find a commercial benefit in these, the private sector will provide, but if we can't,  I hope we can use the ingenuity and creativity in the public and voluntary sectors to find the efficient and affordable way these things can be done. 

Sharing the costs of public spaces and local facilities, enabling their use for a wide range of purposes and connecting them to what people and communities need, is what society needs, whether it's Big or not.


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