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