The Future of Your City…?

All the debate about the kind of city we want to be and how we get there is, on one hand, just a lot of hot air, but on the other hand is a series of conversations where people develop and test ideas and possibilities. Meaningful action starts with a conversation – not a plan. Or a vision.

However it really is a tiny minority who are interested in ‘co-designing our city’. The vast majority of us are just trying to get through our own lives, the best way we know how. And while the professional place shapers and planners will continue to do their darndest (more retail opportunities on the way), and try to ‘engage us’ along the way, it is the decisions and actions of the vast majority who have a much more personal interest in Leeds life that will really shape the future of the city.

The development of a city can be supported in 2 broad ways, which are not mutually exclusive.

Firstly we can shape the city to make it attractive to certain groups and types of people. We can build a compelling cultural offer and a good commercial base to attract the wealth creators. This is deficit based development. We do things to attract people who have skills and know how that we do not.  Or we turn ourselves into a theme park and rely on wealth being created elsewhere but spent in ‘our’ economy.

Secondly we can shape the city to make it more attractive and supportive for people that are already here. We can base the development of the city on the development of its people and communities. It is an approach to development that honours who we are, where we have come from, how we can change in order to shape our lives and, as a corollary, the city in pursuit of progress.  It values education and the emergence of identity rather than its imposition.

I have been arguing for many years that in Leeds, as in most UK cities we favour the former approach excessively over the latter. It is placemaking orthodoxy. It involves big ticket ribbon cutting projects, international exchange trips, hob-nobbing with money men and women and the trappings that come with it. It ticks the boxes for the politicians and allows ‘investors’ to have a sporting chance to make a good return. At its best it makes things better for everyone. But it also widens the gaps between the rich and poor.

The second approach involves sitting and listening to people talk about their hopes and fears for the future and slowly building their power to create change. Starting from where they are at, working with what they have got. Forging relationships, shaping projects. No glamour, little money and progress that is organic, potentially transformational and sustainable but that seldom offers the opportunities to cut a big ribbon. At least not quickly.  This is the work of the community coach.

But I hope that the future of Leeds features more of this kind of development – We are all Jim, Cultural Conversations, Progress School, Leeds Salon, Bettakultcha all shaping the present and the future – starting from where we are, working with what we have got.

NB: This piece started of as a comment to a piece by Leeds Salon Organiser Paul Thomas over on the Culture Vulture blog

8 Replies to “The Future of Your City…?”

  1. Mike I do like your regeneration focus for its humanistic focus. Like you, my beef with the regen industry is its incessant focus on place. Place is an asset, but not so much as people. People are our greatest asset – but only we help them perform to the best of their abilities. And because we don’t, people have become our greatest liability.

    My view is that regeneration is about the heart and about the mind. Start there and the investment in place will follow.

    From one Northern Soul to another – Keep The Faith!!!


    1. Regeneration starts between the ears – not on the drawing board.

      It seems that if you want to make a living in regen you have to jump into bed with the place makers.

      On a separate note, I have a confession. I am a home counties boy with mere 30 year residency in Yorkshire….

  2. There inevitably will be two or more aspects to development – the physical (place-making and shaping) and the social – which as you say, are not mutually exclusive, but are interdependent.
    I would disagree, though, only a tiny minority are interested in their physical surroundings. Few may, indeed, be bothered about or involved in the process, but nevertheless are all affected by its outcomes. The same could also be said about the political process (with both a small and a big ‘P’ !) through which decisions are made.
    I am all for starting with wherever people are at, but there is always a context within which to work; wherever we are we don’t operate in total isolation or in a vacuum. It is how we (all) interact – and how we can improve the means for effective interaction – which I think is the interesting thing.

    1. I don’t believe I ever said that they were not interested in their physical surroundings, just that they were not interested in ‘co-designing them’. Many of us have an obsessions with our physical surroundings and how we can populate with enough stuff to feel happy and secure.

      We either communicate a message that says the barriers to progress are external, environmental, in the hands of others (an obsession with place, policy and other things essentially beyond our control) or that the barriers to progress are internal, psychological and inherently in our gift to change.

      What I am advocating is much more than ‘participation’ in the top down planning and politics of ‘the anointed’ but a a bottom up vigorous and compassionate pursuit of self interest, resulting in association, cooperation and sometimes conflict.

      We can either engage people in a process of breaking out of the golden cage, or in cleaning it out.

  3. What applies to cities applies to smaller locations, too, Mike. By coincidence, the day you posted this four of us at Paces came together to ask the same questions of ourselves and our futures for the Campus. Your name came up more than once! BTW Have started reading “Careless Communities”.

  4. Something for Leeds to think about if we want to bear comparison with and even get competitive advantage over London if possible? “Building proper bike infrastructure is right thing to do for London’s economy, competitiveness, health & road safety says report by industry giant Siemens. Meanwhile engineering group Arup asserts: “We are going to see the most successful cities in the world return to the bicycle”. This is about everyone in London, not just “cyclists”.

  5. I think you polarise the argument Mike. Leeds can never be ‘just retail’ – not even the retail is ‘just retail’ – the mutuality you mention is more dominant than at first meets the eye. Your vision of a cosy future of gentle, genial conversation without the difficult involvement of ‘investors’ – growth as an ‘orgamic progess’ is not one I can see happening – people need jobs to ‘get through our lives’ even the retail and service jobs we sometimes look down on… Is it an ideal, urban Arcadia? Nope. Is it better than a place where all the investment is suburban, all the ‘big ticket’ companies’ are busy relocating, where the young people leave in droves? Absolutely. Like many great cities, Leeds was born from trade, from the canals, railways, markets, merchants… and shopkeepers. That extraordinary Town Hall was built at a time of hardship in the city, was never unanimously welcomed but stood for its confidence and ambition – and heralded unprecedented prosperity.

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