Q & A with Tessy Britton: Building an urban Commons

Tessy Britton4Tessy Britton has documented people-led initiatives across the country and is now helping to create civic ecosystems in the west Midlands and Lambeth. She talks to New Start about having her imagination captured by the idea of widescale creative civic participation.


You started on this journey with Hand Made, which documented the emergent community culture. Where did the idea of people-led initiatives come from?

I put together the crowdsourced book Hand Made four years ago. It was a diverse mixture of projects but they really inspired me. I then did the Travelling Pantry and that was an incredible experience going around the country for six months meeting people and seeing if these innovative local ideas had a similar effect on other people. I’ve probably talked to between 4000 – 5000 people in the last four years and see how excited people are by the ideas. All of our work is about these amazing new ways that people are creating things – whether citizen projects or social initiatives. This is a new way of doing things and citizens are doing it outside of the existing participatory systems. Indeed, sometimes the system actually puts barriers in place of it. I’m totally in the grip of this idea and can see there’s something amazing happening.
From my own experience I’ve been through traditional routes of participating: I’ve chaired committees and done a lot of campaigning and charity and representation work. What I discovered is that each of these types of civic participation had serious limitations and I recognized that these emerging new projects were showing another route. That was very exciting. A lot of the other means of participation is about repair work but this new type of participation is about building and it’s a lot more creative.IMG_9546

You’ve been working with Lambeth council helping them put their co-operative council into action, through the Open Works project. Can civic participation be fostered by a local authority?

Lambeth council has put itself in a unique position to take a prototyping approach. The Open Works is so against mainstream thinking and to do that it takes visionary leadership and lots of grit. Councils are suffering from trying to reconfigure themselves. The day-to-day work has become quite tough, and every year the cuts go deeper. With Open Works we are trying to see if we can create a different model that will foster civic participation and co-building between the council and citizens.

‘If citizens are building structures for future sustainability

there’s no doubt the government has a role in that

Open Works is a shop on the high street in West Norwood in south-east London. We use a membership model and have around 300 members who join for free. We encourage them to start and participate in projects. We’ve set up a number of co-produced projects including a Trade School – where people teach and barter for lessons – and The Great Cook – where people bring ingredients and batch cook meals together. We’re reducing the barriers between people having an idea and making it happen and we’re changing a lot of the existing frameworks to do that. We’re seeing what happens if you give people space and stimulate them to think about building a new participatory ecosystem together – one that doesn’t currently exist.

What have you learned so far?

We’ve made a list of over 12 things we need to change in the current system to make this kind of participation become the norm. One of them is space. These kinds of projects don’t need meeting rooms or event spaces, but instead need more functional spaces like kitchens or gardens or workshops.  So we need to think about how we make these spaces part of the common infrastructure. People still use the room rental model but there is such low occupation and that model means that all activity has to be funded. We are working with Dudley CVS on a project at the Wren’s Nest estate in Dudley called Open Hub where their community centre has only 6% occupancy. It’s really well resourced with an industrial kitchen, IT equipment, and every cupboard bulging with something they got funding for. If you take that room rental model away you can create fresh opportunities for more experimental work, for people with an idea to come forward and grow it. What we are doing is learning from citizen-led projects and using that learning to look with fresh eyes at what we have and how we can change systems to make interaction between councils and citizens better and more effective. The models we create need to be equally attractive to citizens and government – because sustainable futures need everybody.

Clare Goff

Clare Goff

Clare Goff is editor of New Start magazine

1 Comment

  • mike reardon

    I’m chairing a partnership in East Salford called Irwell Valley Sustainable Communities (www.greenmyvalley.com). This is one of a series of Big Lottery projects across England looking for fresh approaches to sustainability. Our philosophy or theory of change is broadly in line with this. The community is amongst the most challenged in the UK yet only a mile or so from Manchester city centre. Millions have been spent on regeneration during the Blair years, much if it welcome and needed, but fundamentals have not shifted in line with the bricks and mortar. Happy to make contact and share approaches and experience.

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