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Open minds

‘That lady’, she said, ‘had a talent for friendship’. Someone told me this recently.

It was an observation from a funeral. Can making friends be a talent? A friend maker, and a friend keeper, is a kind of agent that connects with people, sees potential and links people across networks.

This woman knew how to make friends and keep them. What’s more, she was recognised for it. Her talent was validated at the most fundamental of levels, at the level of the deep connection between individuals.

In many ways this woman was seen as an asset for the place she lived and worked in. She was an initiator. She had a profound understanding of networks. She was a network  integrator.

Cities are diverse networks. This diversity creates both intrigue and distance. As part of a project with the Academy of Urbanism, I recently walked the Garnethill area of Glasgow with Professor John Worthington.

The project was about learning landscapes, exploring the learning potential in the resources we already have. John Worthington has an unquenchable thirst and enthusiasm for discovery.  He sees the learning potential in junk shops, in side lanes, in empty buildings. He saw the potential in connecting across community networks.

He knocked on the door of a Chinese community centre and struck up a conversation with the lady that manages the place. What was interesting was that he crossed a simple threshold out of curiosity and the curiosity was reciprocated. What was really amazing is that this simple act probably rarely happens on any other day, but its power to unlock mutual learning, respect and understanding is massive.

Our urban places are being challenged in terms of their potential for growth and equality. In all this, it is important to think of the resources we have, and the learning we have to re-imagine our contexts. This includes the ruins of old ideas and structures.

In this regard, we might argue that the most fascinating idea about famous ruins like Emscher Park in Germany are not in fact the ruins. It is the idea that re-framed how we see these structures as generators of a new landscape, a new regional economy.

I saw a presentation once on the Emscher region. It was interesting on two levels. First, it began with a discussion of competencies: ‘what can we do in this place’ and how can we use these capabilities to drive a sustainable future. These issues were debated and developed as core to the regeneration strategy.

Second, the presentation looked at the overlay of networks that make this place this place at regional and local scales. It struck me that the story they were telling was not about ruins. It was about people and relationships. Fundamentally then, this enabled the Emscher regional landscape to re-form as a landscape of thinking.

Doors Open weekend’, is an initiative for people to move through buildings and spaces to engage with the story of the making and function of these structures. What if we progressed to an ‘Open Minds’ weekend, where we opened ourselves to the possibilities, and potentials of networking with others?

A talent for friendship or networking is about recognising potential and building trust. It is about sharing values, norms and capabilities. This is a talent that can be developed in our places.

It is a lifelong talent, valued and valuable. It is this talent that the wise woman acknowledged at the funeral of her life long friend. Maybe then, to make better places, we need to build the possibility for more network integrators.

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