Why Local is Bountiful - and Can Change Global Systems
Two events last week cast a spotlight on one of the key issues as we try to navigate our way through recession and economic restructuring towards (we presumably hope) a better future: is there any point in localism when the issues we face are so massive?
You could take virtually any piece of political or economic news as an example, but i’ll take two events I was involved in: a talk by architect Irena Bauman for Incredible Edible Todmorden, and the Mary Portas review of the high street.
First, Irena Bauman’s talk. The author of How to Be a Happy Architect had an incisive critique of big-ticket boosterist projects where no thought was given to ongoing care, and which were done at the expense of neighbourhoods which continued to deteriorate.
|The market in Haymarket Square, Boston, exists because |
public protests stopped it being turned into an expressway
Hard times mean we need to discover thrift, traditional skills and the value of basic maintenance, she argued. ‘Temporary urbanism’ and pop-up projects could change people’s perceptions of place. Tiny spaces such as community gardens could become highly visible symbols of civic activity.
Speaking in Todmorden, where the public realm is being transformed by just this kind of spontaneous and people-centred intervention, Ms Bauman had a sympathetic audience. But most decision-makers, planners, project managers and political leaders don’t think like this.
Take last week’s Portas Review of the high street. It wasn’t long before the backlash arrived, and it’s been interesting to see the points that have been made.
There’s been a lot of stuff from particular interest groups who were disappointed that their specific recommendations weren’t taken on board. That’s par for the course. More interesting is the critique that Portas has been tinkering on the edges when what we really need is structural and systemic change.
There is a lot of validity to this viewpoint, expressed here by Neil McInroy. Town centres, he points out, are expressions of a much wider economy and cannot improve without reference to those wider circumstances. To make a difference you need to deal with the whole system.
I have some sympathy with this, because it’s clear that our economy needs rethinking on a very broad scale and that most of our leaders have not woken up to that, or dare not tell the punters what they really know: that we have entered an irreversible global shift of economic and political power, combined with unprecedented risks to natural resources, that will make the planet a very different place for the next generation.
The difficulty is that the more you deal at a macroeconomic and geopolitical level, the less human the solutions and interventions tend to be. And, as we have seen in both the Durban climate change negotiations and the continuing financial crisis in the eurozone, progress is painfully slow and often non-existent. To argue in favour of systemic interventions can - in practical rather than theoretical terms - be a process of delegating responsibility for change to those who have the greatest financial and political interest in preserving the status quo.
I recently read Michael Ward’s fascinating pamphlet [pdf here] about Beatrice Webb’s quest to end the punitive and inhuman Poor Law regime which confined paupers to workhouses well into the early years of the 20th century. She and her husband Sidney were leading lights in the quest for social reform; yet for all their lobbying and politicking, in took nearly 40 years from the publication of her famous Minority Report to the establishment of the welfare state by the Attlee government; and 100 years on, that legacy is under threat as politicians return to the spirit, if not the letter, of the Poor Laws.
Of course it is worth working for systemic change. But it is a slow and often unrewarding process. And it can be a dull, dehumanising one in which ordinary people often feel powerless to make a difference, and that plays to the self-importance and vanity of those who seek status in order to achieve public good, but end up contenting themselves with status.
That is why the making-do, the tiny interventions, the miniature expressions of ambition and aspiration and human spirit, are so vital. Like good theatre, art or literature, they show what can be. And they also help to make it happen, by demonstrating resistance and resilience, imagination and innovation.
That is why Todmorden is prophetic. That is why Irena Bauman’s critique matters. It’s why the Portas Review is a move towards a paradigm shift. In an international context, it's why people like Vaclav Havel stood head and shoulders above their contemporaries. And it is why I continually come back to the belief that small is bountiful - that by taking action and amplifying that action through sharing, change starts to happen.
Sustainable Cities Collective