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Public space could unlock Big Society’s potential

CLES’ new publication, launched today and supported by Groundwork UK, highlights the importance of public space and the crucial role it plays in stimulating social action and realising the coalition government’s vision for the Big Society.

As prime minister David Cameron calls on Big Society to move from discussion to action, our research demonstrates how the development and maintenance of public space (local playgrounds, parks or green spaces) offers people in our communities the opportunity to get involved in Big Society. Public space is a useful medium to examine social action because it is ‘everyday’, it inspires high levels of interest and is a crucial facet of a civic identity.

It’s organisations such as Groundwork that can play an important role in facilitating the development of a Big Society and public space needs to be considered a key vehicle for creating social actors and as a key route for moving citizens to higher levels of social action and community leadership. More attention needs to be paid to the learning processes associated with engagement, as these are key to progressing individuals to deeper levels of social action.

With resources at a local level dwindling and many third sector organisations feeling the pain of budget cuts, what accessible routes to a bigger society will remain? We know that social action is often lower in communities with the highest levels of deprivation, and these are the places where the requirement for state intervention is highest and the demands on public services the greatest. Yet these are exactly the communities that need to have their voice heard and will need greater support to develop the skills and knowledge that can empower people to take action. A Big Society needs to ensure everyone can equally engage and be equally empowered to take action. As we see austerity measures start to have an impact in local areas, we must be careful that we don’t further close down pathways to involvement in Big Society.

One of the interesting outcomes of the research is the development of a typology to identify different ‘types’ of social activist: The ‘Searcher’, for example, wants to have a purpose and needs direction. The ‘Hunter’ is hungry to see goals achieved. The ‘Reluctant’ may only get involved because there is nobody else to do it.  The ‘Altruist’ is motivated by an unselfish concern for the welfare of others. The ‘Gardener’ needs to use their interest as a springboard to learn about deeper levels of social action. The ‘Curious’ is fundamentally nosey and are concerned they might miss out if they don’t get involved. The ‘Narcissist’ will continue along the route to social action for the reward and praise it brings to them and the ‘Escapist’ is looking for a diversion from their daily lives.

Recognising that there are different types of activists illustrates the diversity of approach required to engage all communities in a bigger society.

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