It was clear from the event that the creative, business and governmental communities are terrified of the coming U.K. Government Spending Review.
The terror: that the ‘furred arteries’ of many urban economies, a condition caused by dependence upon the public sector, low levels of entrepreneurship and lack-lustre marketing will now prove fatal.
The economic survival of cities – not just magical 3%+ growth – may well require a major heart by-pass operation.
However, it stands to reason that there's value in performing intricate ‘surgery’ at a civic, local scale, small pieces of tactical activity that make a difference. Call it 'urban make-do'.
In places most vulnerable to public-sector cuts, it might be worth thinking of 'urban make-do' as economic strategy - yesterday's Sunday Times (£) carried a list of those places, including Hastings, Plymouth, Gloucester, Swansea, Liverpool, Blackpool, Newcastle, Sunderland, Barnsley and Ipswich.
One version of extreme make-do is captured in Jan Chipchase's images of life in Afghanistan, especially of street services like mobile-phone battery charging:
I snapped another version last year in a set of pictures taken in a park in Navarinou, Athens of a former parking lot that was squatted and transformed into a neighborhood park by a grassroots citizens' initiative.
They have a proven track record, require little more than a shift in frame of mind and they feature already in many urban initiatives in the U.K. just now - including one that we've just started to advise, billed to deliver an important nationwide legacy of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.
Here are some principles:
- Pay attention to passionate activists and enthusiasts in cities - that's the band of outsiders formerly thought of as "the awkward squad". That's people like Peter Obletz, vintage rail car enthusiast who started up a movement in New York to preserve a railroad that has since become The High Line, an elevated park that has cost $43m (£27m) to date, generates 25,000 tourist visitors/day and has triggered twelve development projects adjacent to its tracks.
- Value philanthropy, since it's astonishing just how much time, equipment or money people are prepared to give away, either for personal gain or their own commercial objectives. This only became properly apparent to me with The People’s Supermarket, a new non-profit that I've co-founded in London, 79% of whose start-up costs have been 'paid for' by gifts of time, equipment or interest-free loans.
- Promote the caretaking of under-used assets, such as buildings and other public spaces. It's a way to minimise the landlord’s management costs but also yield revenue for venture investment. Caretaking is going on in countless initiatives across the U.K. just now, such as Meanwhile Space and Brixton Village Indoor Market and historically, this kind of activity has triggered economic revitalization - be it the market town of Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire or Freetown Christiania, a hippy commune that has become a huge attraction to visitors to Copenhagen, Denmark.
But it stands to reason that places that already suffer from high levels of deprivation or are at most risk from cuts in public-sector jobs will have to issue a new call to arms - and one best captured in a recent headline in the Financial Times: Doers and Grafters, your time is nigh.
'Doing' and 'grafting' is about survival and enterprise. But it could also inaugurate a new age of caretaking, not just shop-keeping.