Off to Chelmsford tomorrow. A group of RSA Fellows has worked with the local council to organise a forum about the town centre. I am to offer them some ideas and explore how the RSA could continue its involvement.
Speaking to the Fellow leading the event I get the impression that the centre is seen as perfectly serviceable but lacking in character. Workers, shoppers, those on a night out have an instrumental attitude to the place, and although several thousands people live in the centre, it is the only part of the town lacking its own parish council.
The case I intend to make is that a vision for the town centre must be based on a rich understanding of how people see and use the area and how they might be willing to change that view if the centre itself changed. We need to explore what could the town centre’s identity could be, and from that answer to develop ideas for embedding this identity in the physical and social fabric. As you would expect, coming from an RSA perspective, I will emphasise the ideas of citizenship and human capability: how can the town centre speak to an ambitious idea of engaged, resourceful, altruistic citizens?
This is just the kind of project the RSA Fellowship should be undertaking and I am committed to providing support from HQ if we can get it to the next stage. I am taking along with me Sam McLean, our newly appointed in-house expert on public engagement, so we can explore some ideas about citizen involvement. Also, I hope we might be able to offer the Fellows in Chelmsford some insight and advice drawn from the wider Fellowship, many of whom will have been involved in other town centre initiatives.
A key objective I have set for the Society is that by this time next year we have several projects like this up and running; initiatives started by Fellows on the ground but then enhanced by support of various kinds from John Adam Street and the wider Fellowship. I don’t underestimate the challenges involved – this is a big shift in our expectations and ways of working - but ultimately I believe we must judge the strength of our amazing Fellowship by the positive difference we can make to wider society.
We shouldn’t underestimate how far our societies have pulled apart. Yet there is hope for renewal, says Anthony Painter. The question is not whether we come together – but how.