The Co-City project is an international movement working towards participatory urban governance, inclusive growth and social innovation. It does so by bringing together public authorities, civic organisations, local businesses, knowledge institutions and social innovators to ask the question ‘to whom does the city belong?’ with the goal of creating more just and democratic cities. Our project with the RSA is to explore how we can work with communities to discover better ways of working together in an age of austerity, and the impact of funding withdrawal within many of our inner-city neighbourhoods.
Over one hundred cities worldwide have already joined the movement to become a ‘Co-City’ with many more lined up to jump on board - and we are very excited to say that, with the help of the RSA, Liverpool is becoming one of them.
Co-creating the city
‘We’ are a group of urban enthusiasts from the University of Liverpool and the University of Salford who have teamed up with Engage Liverpool, a social enterprise passionate about sustainable living in Liverpool’s city centre and waterfront. Together, we want to make Liverpool a city of commons by mobilising the power of public-private-community partnerships and catalyse a co-governance approach for social infrastructures. To learn ‘how to’, we went to Amsterdam and joined up with 30,000 other 'city makers' from across the globe at the We Make the City festival, representing Liverpool as a Co-City in the ‘Co-Creating the City Workshop’ on June 21, 2018. Here, we share what we learnt: how to forget what we thought we knew about cities!
What is social infrastructures in the ‘Co-City’?
When we talk about social infrastructures and urban commons, we don’t only mean the streets, parks and buildings, the physical building blocks of the city. We are also interested in the knowledge and experience of city dwellers, legal and institutional support, access to technology, and listen to what knowledge institutions and local businesses have to offer to the community. This understanding builds on Elinor Ostrom’s famous "8 Design Principles of Managing the Commons" and expands it to make it fit for co-governing the many different kinds of assets in the city. That’s what the Co-City is all about: coming together, connecting communities, communicating, mapping assets, finding out what works, identifying opportunities, experimenting, developing co-responsibility, prototyping, revising, modelling, collaborating (not necessarily in that order).
What we can learn from others
The result? What we have learned from cities like Turin, where the Co-City is up and running, is that city-makers are forming ‘pacts of collaboration’ between residents and the municipality. These ‘pacts’ aim to reuse abandoned urban spaces, boosting the social economy, creating new jobs, fuelling innovation and thus reducing poverty in the area. But this is just one example, and if we have learned one thing in Amsterdam it’s that every city is different, and what works for one might not work for another and so we must not assume; in Liverpool we are still at the very beginning of this process
Wellbeing for the city
Co-designing urban infrastructures can significantly improve the social wellbeing of its residents. The work of the What Works Centre for Wellbeing in collaboration with the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Psychology, Health and Society shows that when meaningful joint decision-making is achieved, it delivers all sorts of wellbeing benefits not only to those directly involved, but also to the wider communities affected. However, most of the initiatives reported so far fail to accomplish meaningful joint decision-making and this failure often produces frustration and mistrust amongst those involved. The Co-City approach should improve outcomes in the future and move us towards a more participatory democratic stewardship model for our places.
Learning to forget
What that means for us as city-makers is this: we must aim to arrive with a blank slate, we need to leave behind what we have learned in the class rooms or read in books, unlearn the vocabulary we are used to, we need to forget what we thought we knew about the ‘good’ or ‘just’ city, and listen. The advice we got from collaborative city consultants was unequivocal, and stressed the importance of building trust by coming into the community not as experts but as co-collaborators. This is a lot harder than it sounds, and we noticed throughout the workshop how we casually slipped back into our language of ‘recruiting ambassadors’, ‘presenting results’ or ‘implementing our ideas’ for which we got a friendly (and welcomed) slap on the wrist, a reminder that we need to start with the people, and not with us.
Several workshop participants pointed towards the importance of shared activities, like an outdoor movie night, a world café, local exchange systems, or sporting activities to connect people and find out what really makes them tick. With the help of the RSA Catalyst Grant, we are starting small by focussing on the Dingle, an inner-city neighbourhood in Liverpool. Here we have started to connect with local organisations and activists where we are practising how to forget. We are looking ahead to learning from this local neighbourhood in Liverpool and joining the international, and very timely, discussion on co-designing cities not just for people, but with them.
To find out some more about our work at this early stage please connect with us:
Gerald Proctor MBE FRSA
Prof Rhiannon Corcoran FRSA