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My name’s Alasdair Jones, and, alongside my colleague Jonathan Rowson, I’m one of the two new researchers on the RSA’s Connected Communities programme.

My name’s Alasdair Jones, and, alongside my colleague Jonathan Rowson, I’m one of the two new researchers on the RSA’s Connected Communities programme.

Having written my PhD on the co-production, through use and design, of public space on London’s South Bank, it was a great joy to find that on my first day at the RSA the evening talk Cities and Citizenship: Surviving the 21st Century concerned “the relationship between the way we design our city and our perception and experience of citizenship.” Moreover, among the panellists was Anna Minton, who’s recent book Ground Control has generated a resurgence of interest in the changing nature of Britain’s urban public realm.

While the themes that the discussion sought to address – cities and citizenship – were relatively abstract, a number of more grounded issues that arose struck me as pertinent to the Connected Communities action research that Jonathan and I are embarking on. Specifically, and perhaps not surprisingly given his extensive and lauded role in community regeneration, in the opening presentation by Lord Andrew Mawsom we were reminded of the importance of the physical, everyday, walked street to the vitality of local neighbourhoods. The design and quality of the buildings that line our routes through the city are, according to Lord Mawsom, central to shaping the way we view and conduct ourselves, and to the extent to which we are other-regarding.

Moreover, through references to Lord Mawsom’s own observations of the St Paul’s Way project in which he’s currently involved, we were told that it is not only the morphology of the street, but also, if not more so, its use that can help to foster social capital. In his example, it was through working part-time at the pharmacy on St Paul’s Way that two students from the nearby school pursued vocations in the medico-pharmaceutical sector. Their vocational interests developed outside of the educational setting, that is, and for Lord Mawsom this points to the need for an educational model that is oriented towards the community, rather than turning it’s back on and fencing itself off from it.

This point was picked up by Matthew Taylor, who fleshed the RSA’s idea of ‘schools without boundaries’ – that “in essence…we should make the work of schools, and the wider project of developing the next generation, the task of the whole community and not just parents and schools.” This offers an interesting challenge to the way that we think about the urban realm, and in particular to the way that we understand boundaries between public and private (as broadly conceived) institutions and spheres. Taking the terminology in a very literal sense, it means dismantling the boundaries that have been erected between loci of education and those of everyday community life.

This was of particular interest to me because Anna Minton’s most recent work argues, by contrast, that we need to be more assertive in the way that we distinguish between public and private realms in our city. From this view, the big mistake of planning in the last few decades has been to allow private developers to construct seemingly public spaces. In response, she argues, we should be looking to build spaces for doing nothing (or anything), to build spaces unburdened by some functional predisposition.

What I am interested in here is in the role that ‘private’ (or exclusive) institutions and activities – be they shops, schools, or even skateboarding on London’s South Bank – play in ‘connecting’ our public realm. It is the shop, in Lord Mawsom’s example, that provides the context and facilitates the contact through which the students from over the road find their vocations. It is through skateboarding that young people from different parts of London meet on South Bank meet and exchange views.

Paradoxically, is it not through the imposition of ‘private’ functions and activities on a space, rather than through their erasure, that a well-connected community, or a vital ‘public’ sphere, is produced? If we want more civic-minded citizens, might we want to look not at excising institutions and activities from our cityscapes, but instead at how best to harness the capacity of these institutions and activities to promote social interaction and connectivity? Shouldn’t we be looking to learn from our regular high streets, where private settings provide the context for regular public interactions, rather than promoting the development in isolation of these two spheres?


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