Wednesday, 24 May 2017

How to Set Up a Community Co-op

by Stir to Action, on Shareable:

Before joining the Institute for Solidarity Economics recently, I spent the last five years working for rural communities charity the Plunkett Foundation, an organization which supports the establishment of community co-operatives. Community co-operatives are businesses which trade primarily for the benefit of their community. Controlled by the community themselves, they have open and voluntary membership and, crucially, they encourage people to get involved – either by becoming a member, or by volunteering time or getting involved in another way.
By encouraging widespread involvement from their local community members, community co-ops play a really important role in helping to overcome issues like social isolation and loneliness, which can be prevalent, particularly in rural areas. Community co-operatives are set up on a one member, one vote basis, rather than one share, one vote. This is important because it means that all members have an equal say in how the co-operative is run, regardless of how many shares they’ve bought or how much money they've invested. In this way, they are truly democratic forms of business.
People choose to set up community co-ops for a variety of reasons, from safeguarding local services which may be under threat of closure, like the village shop or local pub, to wanting to establish a new service that meets the needs of local people. In all cases, the result is usually a thriving local hub of activity which meets a broad range of social needs.
There are now hundreds of community co-ops thriving all over the U.K. One example is the co-operatively owned George and Dragon pub in Hudswell, North Yorkshire, which recently won the coveted 2017 CAMRA Pub of the Year Award – a brilliant example of a local becoming so much more than a pub. Around 200 people came together when the pub closed nine years ago and reopened it as a co-operative, recognizing that if they were going to save one of the only community spaces left in the area, they’d have to do it themselves. Today it's a busy community hub that contains the village library, a community shop and community allotments, and the pub caters to both locals and visitors alike.
Recently celebrating its 15th birthday is Dalwood Community Shop in Devon. The shop is entirely manned by 45 volunteers and is open 363 days per year. It's one of 31 such community shops in the county, all of which are safeguarding these vital village services and making a real difference to the lives of people who live there.
Here's an outline on how you can set up a community cooperative. Please open the infographic below in a new tab to view a larger version:
This piece was originally published in STIR to Action Magazine.
Header image by Rebecca Siegal via Flickr

Thursday, 18 May 2017

A Theory of Change for Community Well-Being

Posted on May 17, 2017
As well as this week’s blog, check out our latest call for evidence on joint-decision making in communities.

Professor Jane South
Jane South is a member of the Centre’s community wellbeing team and professor of healthy communities working in the field of volunteering, active citizenship and community health. In this blog she shares the thinking behind the new theory of change model the team has created after carrying out research, workshops and public dialogues.
Personal experience tells us that the communities we’d like to  live in are positive, safe and sociable. And, of course, research shows how much community life and good social connections matter for our health and wellbeing.
As part of the Centre, our communities evidence programme is reviewing and summarising existing evidence for what works to make communities more positive places for people to live in. To help us do this, we’ve developed a ‘theory of change’. This describes the ways change can happen to improve community wellbeing.
There has been increasing interest in the UK in using a theory of change approach to help unpack how programmes work, which in turn makes it easier for evaluations to ‘test’ the pathways to outcomes. Our theory of change describes a cyclical process of six stages with the ultimate aim of improving community and individual wellbeing. It’s our first attempt and draws heavily on what we heard from people and community organisations across the country during the engagement phase at the start of the project. You can see the results of that engagement in our Voice of the User work.
How the process for change works
The starting point for change is community conditions (box one in the diagram)The places where we live, how we relate to others and whether we have a say in how our local area run all influence our wellbeing. But while some people are part of communities that help them flourish, others are not.
There are things that government, organisations and individuals can all do to improve community wellbeing. For the purposes of this theory of change we’ve called these interventions(box two), but this doesn’t mean they have to be initiatives ‘done to’ communities – they could be things that people organise themselves in their neighbourhood.
Mechanisms of Change (box three) are then created, such as improving living environments, strengthening social connections and making it easier for people to take partThings begin to change at a local level and these improved community conditions then give us the best chances to live, work and play well (box four) . Eventually changes can lead to long-term wellbeing outcomes (box five) for communities and individuals, and the ultimate reason for making change happen.
Where this community wellbeing cycle works well, there are feedback loops and things keep improving as people are more connected and involved  in community life and feel the benefits. Potentially there could be net savings from improvements in community wellbeing, although this is not a necessary part of the change process. And obviously, improving community wellbeing requires investment over time.
How can you use the theory of change?
We hope that this theory of change provides a framework for understanding and improving community wellbeing. It will also be used to help us interpret evidence. Communities are of course diverse and what works in one community may work differently- or not at all – elsewhere.  This theory of change could be used and adapted in local projects as a planning and evaluation aid.  Key questions include: What is the relationship between wellbeing benefits for the individual and for the whole community? How do we measure more of what matters, such as changes in social relationships, safety, trust and belonging?
What happens next?
Over the course of this project, we will be reviewing the community wellbeing evidence for interventions related to housing, social relations and co-production. As we find answers about what works we will refine and update our theory of change, backing it up with the evidence.
But a lot of the evidence doesn’t exist in academic journals, it lies with people working on the ground. We welcome comments on this initial theory of change – does it fit into the way you already think about improving wellbeing in your area? Do you have ideas of how it could be used? Are there things that are missing, or don’t make sense for you? We’d love to hear from you, either in the comments below, on our forum, on Twitter, or via email at

Monday, 8 May 2017

On Nonconformity: Artist Ben Shahn’s Spirited Defense of Nonconformists as Society’s Engine of Growth and Greatness

On Nonconformity: Artist Ben Shahn’s Spirited Defense of Nonconformists as Society’s Engine of Growth and Greatness
“Society,” Emerson wrote in his timeless treatise on self-reliance and what it really means to be a nonconformist“is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater.” In such a groupthink society, Emerson cautioned, conformity is the most prized virtue, but whoever wishes to be a true person “must be a nonconformist.”
“Life would be dull indeed without experimenters and courageous breakers-with-tradition,” wrote Marie Bullock, the courageous founder of the Academy of American Poets, a century later when she rose to defend E.E. Cummings from his detractors in 1951 — detractors who had attacked the Academy for awarding him their annual fellowship and accused Cummings, now one of the most beloved and influential artists of the past century, for being an “arch-poseur and pretender” and a “disintegrator of language” who had dared to break with tradition, invent new creative forms, and, in sum, be a nonconformist.
Five years later, the great artist Ben Shahn (September 12, 1898–March 14, 1969) made what remains the most elegant case for the transformative power and sheer cultural necessity of nonconformity in one of his six lectures for Harvard’s Charles Edward Norton Lectures, eventually published with original illustrations by Shahn as The Shape of Content (public library).
In the fourth of the six lectures, titled “On Nonconformity,” Shahn writes:
The artist is likely to be looked upon with some uneasiness by the more conservative members of society. He seems a little unpredictable. Who knows but that he may arrive for dinner in a red shirt… appear unexpectedly bearded… offer, freely, unsolicited advice… or even ship off one of his ears to some unwilling recipient? However glorious the history of art, the history of artists is quite a different matter. And in any well-ordered household the very thought that one of the young men may turn out to be an artist can be a cause for general alarm. It may be a point of great pride to have a Van Gogh on the living room wall, but the prospect of having Van Gogh himself in the living room would put a good many devoted art lovers to rout.
Shahn illustrates the value of nonconformity as a catalyst of cultural evolution with the story of the tumult that took place in France when officials proposed that one of the pavilions of the prestigious 1925 Paris Exhibition be set up in the space belonging to the Society of Independent Artists — the collective of nonconformists whose annual exhibitions had been setting the tone for modern art since their formation in 1884. It was suggested that these innovators had done their job and there was no further need for their tradition-upending sensibility, so they should relinquish their space to the traditional art establishment.
An art critic appalled by the backward proposition responded with twenty-five reasons why the Independents should keep their space and hold their annual exhibition. The reasons he listed were only names — the names of the most recent winners of the Prix de Rome, the venerated French art award that had been conferred upon promising talents in traditional art since 1663. All but one of those names were by then completely unknown. The critic juxtaposed those with the names of twenty-five artists who had presented at the Independents’ exhibition — artists who, as Shahn points out, “could not by any stretch of the imagination have won such an award [as the Prix de Rome].” Among those were PicassoVan GoghGauguinMatisse, and Cézanne.
Shahn considers the allegorical moral of the incident:
By fulfilling current standards drawn out of past art, the applicants [to the Prix de Rome] had won the approval of officials whose standards also were based upon past art, and who could hardly be expected to have visions of the future. But it is always in the future that the course of art lies, and so all the guesses of the officials were wrong guesses.
The very quality that prevents artists like the Independents from being lauded by the traditional establishment, Shahn argues, is the same quality that makes them capable of shaping the future, unencumbered by the past. He writes:
All art is based upon nonconformity [and] every great historical change has been based upon nonconformity, has been bought either with the blood or with the reputation of nonconformists. Without nonconformity we should have had no Bill of Rights or Magna Charta, no public education system, no nation upon this continent, no continent, no science at all, no philosophy, and considerably fewer religions. All that is pretty obvious.
But it seems to be less obvious somehow that to create anything at all in any field, and especially anything of outstanding worth, requires nonconformity, or a want of satisfaction with things as they are. The creative person — the nonconformist — may be in profound disagreement with the present way of things, or he may simply wish to add his views, to render a personal account of matters.
Shahn notes that while creative nonconformity is sometimes immediately recognizable as intransigence and deliberate rebellion, it isn’t always predicated on sudden and total upending of tradition — it often happens that a series of artists each contribute systematic small steps that eventually add up to an unexpected cultural leap. (Steven Johnson has termed this type of incremental innovation in science “the hummingbird effect.”) And yet all nonconformity — whether it operates on a small or large scale, whether it occurs in an instant or over time — requires a dissatisfaction with the status quo or, at the very least, a disinterest in its dicta. In a sentiment that James Baldwin would come to echo just a few years later in his unforgettable assertion that “the war of an artist with his society is a lover’s war,” Shahn writes:
The artist occupies a unique position vis-à-vis the society in which he lives. However dependent upon it he may be for his livelihood, he is still somewhat removed from its immediate struggles for social status or for economic supremacy. He has no really vested interest in the status quo.
The only vested interest — or one might say, professional concern — which he does have in the present way of things rests in his ability to observe them, to assimilate the multifarious details of reality, to form some intelligent opinion about the society or at least an opinion consistent with his temperament.
That being the case, he must maintain an attitude at once detached and deeply involved. Detached, in that he must view all things with an outer and abstracting eye. Shapes rest against shapes, colors augment colors, and modify and relate and mingle mutually. Contrasts in life move constantly across the field of vision — tensions between the grotesque and the sad, between the contemptible and the much-loved; tensions of such special character as to be almost imperceptible; dramatic, emotional situations within the most banal settings. Only the detached eye is able to perceive these properties and qualities of things.
Within such contrasts and juxtapositions lies the very essence of what life is today, or any day. Whoever would know his day or would capture its essential character must maintain such a degree of detachment.
And yet where the artist differs from the scientist, Shahn argues, is in the necessity for feeling things in addition to merely perceiving them. Unlike the scientist, who may exhibit what Einstein called “a passion for comprehension” but goes about pursuing that passion with the cool tools of reason, the artist operates from an intuitive place of deep feeling. Echoing Anaïs Nin’s assertion that emotional excess is essential for creativity, Shahn writes:
[The artist] must never fail to be involved in the pleasures and the desperations of mankind, for in them lies the very source of feeling upon which the work of art is registered. Feeling, being always specific and never generalized, must have its own vocabulary of things experienced and felt.
It is because of these parallel habits of detachment and of emotional involvement that artists so often become critics of society and so often become partisans in its burning causes. And also it is why they are so likely to be nonconformists in their personal lives.
More than a century after Kierkegaard contemplated the power of the minority and why we conform, Shahn points out the paradox of nonconformity, which has only grown more pronounced in the decades since:
It is an amusing contradiction of our time that we do applaud a sort of copy-book nonconformity. Everyone laments the increase in conformity; everyone knows that too much conformity is bad for art and literature and politics, and that it may deal the death-blow to National Greatness. The deadening effects of over-conformity are well understood. Yet, when it comes to the matter of just what kind of nonconformity shall be encouraged, liberality of view recedes. There seems to be no exact place where nonconformity can be fitted in.
Without the person of outspoken opinion, however, without the critic, without the visionary, without the nonconformist, any society of whatever degree of perfection must fall into decay. Its habits (let us say its virtues) will inevitably become entrenched and tyrannical; its controls will become inaccessible to the ordinary citizen.
Nonconformity is the basic pre-condition of art, as it is the pre-condition of good thinking and therefore of growth and greatness in a people. The degree of nonconformity present — and tolerated — in a society must be looked upon as a symptom of its state of health.
Shahn considers the primary species of conformity:
There is always an impressive number of artists who are overwhelmed by the nearest outstanding figure. They adopt his point of view and mannerisms and become a school; that is one kind of art conformity.
Another kind of conformity is derived from the wholly venal business of catering to a popular market. Still another results from trends and the yearning of artists — an almost irresistible yearning — to be in the forefront of things.
Writing half a century before the filter bubble of the social web, that ultimate generator of groupthink, Shahn adds:
All these kinds of conformity are inevitable and to be expected. But there has grown around us a vastly increased conformity. One could say “conformism” here; for this is conformity by doctrine and by tribunal.
Shahn ends with a timeless and poignantly illustrative parable of the difference in motives driving the various conformists and the nonconformist — a parable a version of which the poet Sarah Kay, a true nonconformist of our time, likes to tell. Shahn writes:
I remember a story that my father used to tell of a traveler in thirteenth-century France who met three men wheeling wheelbarrows. He asked in what work they were engaged and he received from them the following three answers: the first said, “I toil from sunup to sundown and all I receive for my pain is a few francs a day.” The second said, “I am glad enough to wheel this wheelbarrow for I have been out of work for many months and I have a family to support. The third said, “I am building Chartres Cathedral.”
I always feel that the committees and the tribunals and the civic groups and their auxiliaries harbor no misgivings about the men who wheel their wheelbarrows for however many francs a day; the object of their suspicions seems, inevitably, to be the man who is building Chartres Cathedral.
Complement Shahn’s thoroughly invigorating The Shape of Content with James Baldwin on the artist’s struggle for integrity and Teresita Fernández on what it takes to be an artist, then revisit Albert Camus on what it means to be a rebel and the vintage satirical gem How to Be a Nonconformist.
Thanks, Wendy

Monday, 1 May 2017

We Should Create Cities for Slowing Down

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Brisbane cycle path signage: Slow! Michael Coghlan, CC BY-SA
Marcus Foth, Queensland University of Technology and Mirko Guaralda, Queensland University of Technology

Peter Jackson employed an intricate approach to the stage design of Lord of the Rings. The people who inhabited Middle Earth for hundreds of generations slowly left cultural traces, alterations, artefacts and remnants of their human existence on the environment. The Conversation

For example, the cinematographic stage set for Rivendell gives the viewer the impression of use and legacy over generations. Stage designers aged artefacts and applied, erased and reapplied cultural marks and insignia to “make” Rivendell the special and legendary place that author J.R.R. Tolkien had intended.

Designing Middle Earth: behind the scenes of The Lord of the Rings.


Urban space turns into place in a similar way. People are natural placemakers.

When they live in cities, they create “livehoods”, build, modify, decorate, expand and renovate. In doing so, they slowly leave their mark on the city.

In the 1960s, progressive urban planners and designers like Jane Jacobs and William H. Whyte argued that catering for slow pedestrians rather than fast cars results in better city design.
Placemaking can make places “sticky,” so people dwell longer, customers spend more in retail shops, and students stay on campus.

Trying to accommodate sustained high levels of growth, coupled with the need to contain urban sprawl, has led to the rapid gentrification of inner-city suburbs. As construction companies are trying to keep up with the mandate to grow Australian cities, they won’t slow down easily.

Placemaking is being used to quickly breathe life into new urban developments. Speedy placemaking is of the essence when generic turnkey residential stock is sold as “vibrant communities”, “liveable neighbourhoods” and “distinctive precincts”.

Cookie-cutter cities

Accelerated placemaking poses several risks.
  1. Places come with history and heritage to be conserved and protected. Digital storytelling has been used as a form of digital placemaking that not only enables the study of a place’s history, but also ways of embedding and commemorating historic evidence and artefacts in place.
  2. To avoid making places that suit the placemakers and their funders more than the current or future occupants, inclusive practices of placemaking are needed. Marginalised and economically threatened communities should be enabled to engage with their neighbourhood on their own terms and create their own urban imaginaries. This requires transdisciplinary, participatory and action research approaches to placemaking.
  3. Placemaking can fuel further gentrification with its well-known set of associated issues and consequences. Activating places often aims at making nearby retail and residential properties more profitable. Yet genuine and slow placemaking can add further value by unlocking a city’s diversity advantage.
  4. Many placemaking techniques such as urban hacktivism and urban acupuncture tend to be small and hyperlocal. They have been criticised for being limited in scale and impact. Can placemaking through DIY urban design scale up from subversive citymaking to systemic change?
  5. Contemporary placemaking relies more and more on stereotypes. An example is the iconic architectures of kerbside coffee shops. Christian Norberg-Schulz speaks of the genius loci as a fundamental element of placemaking: the essence of a place that makes it unique.
This approach seems currently ignored in favour of a cookie-cutter approach. Copying success stories – Venice in Vegas, for example – is a constant in architecture and urban design. But the trends of tactical urbanism, pop-up interventions and gentrification actually risk impoverishing our urban landscape and our urban ecologies.

James Howard Kunstler: The ghastly tragedy of the suburbs. TED 2004.

Slow cities

In addition to a set of ongoing challenges, there are exciting opportunities on the horizon for slowing down placemaking and for placemaking to slow down cities.

Our fast-paced world of automation and smart cities prioritises speed and efficiency. Yet the health and wellbeing of city residents can be improved by slowing down.

This is about not only a slower pace of pedestrian flow, traffic and life in public spaces. It also relates to appreciating artisan crafts, food provenance, seasonal changes, local customs, and even boredom and getting lost. In Australia, the cities of Goolwa (South Australia), Katoomba (New South Wales) and Yea (Victoria) have joined Cittaslow – “the international network of cities where living is good.”

Le Dîner en Blanc, Brisbane, September 1, 2012. brisbrad/flickr

This “slow cities” movement promotes the use of technology. Yet this is different to how technology is portrayed in many smart city visions, which liken cities to corporations that are about growth, efficiency and productivity. However, a city is neither a business nor a computer.

Making cities collaboratively

Revisiting Henri Lefebvre’s “right to the city,” we understand placemaking as a strategy to bring about much-needed social change and urban renewal through grassroots democratisation.

Cities often invite people as participants in urban planning decision-making. Yet why limit people to just providing feedback to city governments as part of conventional community consultation processes? Genuine placemaking regards them as co-creators in collaborative citymaking.

The exposure to diverse ideas, places and communities is crucial for innovation and the functioning of democracy. We believe placemaking can help develop a better dialogue between citizens, communities, government, businesses, civic groups and non-profits.

Placemaking is meant to provide a close connection between people and their locale. Placemaking has to be specific and unique to urban space, taking into account its community, environment, culture, food and social practices.

Finally, cities certainly need to face up to the challenges of climate change. Placemaking provides opportunities for more sustainable ways of life not only by creating accessible, healthy, democratic and slow cities, but also by imagining the post-anthropocentric city.

Marcus Foth, Professor, Urban Informatics, Queensland University of Technology and Mirko Guaralda, Senior Lecturer in Architecture, Queensland University of Technology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.