15.01.2013, 15:36
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David Barrie is a British urban designer, CEO of David Barrie & Associates which focuses on urban regeneration projects. Recently he participated in “New Life of Microrayons” session of Moscow Urban Forum. Below he speaks about community building in terms of market economy and shows ways to provoke people to act independently of central government for their own good.

— After years of forced cooperation Russians didn’t tend to share things. Now lack of communication lead people to find ways to have something in common. They start growing flowers in public yards or leave old books for others to pick up. How could we help people get together? What are the ways to build a community?

— People associating with one another is, and has historically been, one of the most powerful of human experiences. For people working in urban and social development and management, there are many different ways in which people can be encouraged to associate with one another. This can be by providing a simple opportunity for people to meet and share opinions and ideas, through to providing a framework which allows people to establish their own trading organisation. From my point of view, the most powerful way to build community is to find a way in which people have common cause and objective, and then find a route which allows this community to support and contribute to urban management and government. This can be by enabling people to come together and form a new, mutual, non-profit or for-profit enterprise or by working with landowners and managers to enable the use of dormant assets, such as empty buildings, by people for useful, productive ends. One thing that is important is to be clear on who the ‘community’ is. It is a mistake to think of ‘the community’ as just ordinary citizens. My concept of ‘community’ includes enterprise, religious groups and all of the other ways in which humanity organises itself. Think of ‘community’ this way and you instantly are able to frame ‘community’ as a ‘market’. And think of ‘community’ as a market, and you can see people and their association not just in terms of ‘good’, but in terms of value, as consumers, suppliers and people who fit into a system of economy. This is important if you are working with the ‘community’, as a means to generate value such as improvement in social affairs, the increased profitability of local economies and some of its subsidiary values, such as uplift in land value.

— In general, people are not likely going to start any activity by themselves – they are kind of scared of making decisions. How do you provoke people to act independently from the municipalities? Who should launch the projects?

— You can provoke people to act independently of municipalities by inviting them to share ideas on how the area in which they live or work could improve. Asking them to share what kind of experiences they would like to have in the area in which they live and work. How badly do they want it? If that experience isn’t being provided either by the state or private enterprise, would they be willing to make it happen for themselves, or others? This is the starting point. One is not asking people to make decisions. One is asking people to take an interest in the world in which they live or work. And if they do have an interest, inviting them to actualise it in the form of new activity. If activity translates into projects, it should be the people themselves who design and deliver them. They may need some support in doing this; and it may be the case that municipal government, or private enterprise can provide this. There needs to be people prepared to organise the activity. They may not be the usual faces of community activism. They may not be people manifestly committed to urban or civic activism. They may be ordinary citizens who want to have more of a say in local affairs, or wish to get involved in local enterprise, such as real estate. From my experience, it is vitally important that people feel safe and comfortable to come forward and participate in this form of activity. In this context, it is vitally important that municipalities, politicians and private enterprise steps forward and offers people trust and support. More often than not, people feel the need to have permission to participate and associate with one another. If this doesn’t exist, nothing will happen, since no external validation will be in place.

— What are the main goals and challenges in working on a local level? What are the economic benefits for people?

— The main goal for me of working at the most local level is to support the growth of local economies. This is important because business plans and return on investment hinges very often on local demand, and the viability of local economic markets. Also, in a world of large conglomerates, global markets and branded consumerism, it is often the most local relationships and value which are ignored. As a result, the opportunity and value of local economies disappears elsewhere, and so the economic binding of local geographies dissipates. The biggest challenge in working at a local level is to make it sexy for participants and audiences. Bureaucracies are often ingrained, long set in their ways and government and its officers are used to supreme control at the local level. However, there are supreme economic benefits to ordinary citizens and to investors of working at the most local level. Certainly, in our professional experience, in the UK and overseas, small inexpensive projects have triggered massive new investment in towns and cities, and led to extensive new employment. As a firm, we have designed and delivered local projects, often linked to real estate and local government, valued at around £35m, and which have been credited with leveraging additional new investment of £0.5bn, and have created several hundred new jobs.