Community groups in the lead: collaborations between academia and civil society

Community groups in the lead: collaborations between academia and civil society

One of the main issues tackled in the UEL symposium dedicated to social mapping was the collaborative research between community organizations and academia. Maybe one of the most experienced researchers in this concern area is Just Space, London based community groups network. Richard Lee, whose presence at the UEL Symposium was a valuable gain in this debate, gave an overview of the network’s main ways of empowering communities through relationship building, citizenship voices participation, transformations, and shared relationship.

The starting point in working with communities is how do we move from the good intentions in, from, and about the community and make them real? This question is the main gate for community organizers, research networks and civic associations — to the challenges of working with the community

Richard Lee (Just Space) with part of the UEL team in Bucureștii Noi neighborhood (Bucharest,2018)

But the question is what community is? In the case of community groups in London that form the Just Space network, a community means individuals that come together in their free time for a common good, by their own choice by sharing their time, energy and interest in solving a shared way of living together in a given space, be it neighborhood, market places, industrial workshops, parks or housing areas. So a community group is understood as a voluntary association of individuals rather than a public or private interests group — a shared space conditioned group of people with the same concerns, without an office or employes, that work in co-create togetherness in a given set of desires, concerns and principles to a commune space of interacting and living.

Being active in London for 12 Years, the network worked with different groups of professionals, researchers, and academia. Actually, linking researchers and practitioners is one of the principles of the network and the main curiosity for UEL team at the same time: how does a community group network cope with University? What is the mechanism and how is this working?

Academic knowledge has always been involved by Just Space in solving and planning together with the future of the city on different scales, says Richard Lee. Just last summer (2018), in one of their thematic event, the network brought face to face with a consortium of 13 partners led by the University of Glasgow in presenting the needs and profiles of 250 community organizations, mapped by Just Space in an open dialogue: what can universities can bring to the network’s agenda for the needs of these London community groups. In this key, Richard Lee mentioned one powerful observation, made by one of the representatives of the academic: all these 13 universities had to be invited by a network of voluntary and community groups to think about “working with the community” out of the common knowledge abstracting. Hoping for a better future of this common issue, this can be regarded as a step further on this road.

Just Space collaborates with students and academic staff in various London universities and actually has two community-centered master programs held in UCL, designed by the network — directly by the community and translated in academic language by the academic members of the network. So, from one way of looking at this mechanism, one can say that the expression “working with the community” is not just a wooden word and these programs are the real proof that this engine is fueled bottom up. One program is centered on urban planning and social inclusion and the other is about community participation and urban strategies (purposes and outputs). The programs are designed directly by the community and translated in academic language by the academic members of the network. As one of the keywords for this network is relationship building, the line between these two entities is held by networking with individual professors with a real and direct interest in working with the community, nor with the head of programs or decision-makers in educational strategies. The line is bottom-up cleared from this side too. Because we mentioned working with community rhetoric, Just space opened this topic also not just debating about it but by writing a protocol to help community groups and researchers/students get the most from these collaborations, and avoid pitfalls. This document grows out of experiences of interactions between researchers and local action groups in London, and out of the strongly-felt need that these collaborations should be more extensive, but also that they should be more productive for both parties than they often are. The protocol basically reminds us about the sharing principle in a given relationship in this case between community groups and researchers, known for a bad practice of not returning the findings back to the community once they were allowed to study it. This is a common-sense tool of this organic machinery, but a very poignant wake-up call to those that are wearing top-down sightseeing in this fragile working field.

The resources exchange in this building relationship is happening on one hand, by Just Space giving tutors to the classrooms of the university and on the other hand, by University returning funds back to the network community, funds used for other similar projects of the network. The tutors aren’t necessarily professors, they can be non-academics chosen by the network willing to share this type of community knowledge to academia. Among academic institutions that have been partners with Just Space, we mention UCL (Bartlett School of Planning, Department of Geography, DPU and Engineering Exchange), King’s College London (Department of Geography).

Maybe at the same height of importance for the grass-roots network is the relationship between space and community, keyed in participation as a guiding concept line in their action plans. This aspect has shaped the network’s activities and interests by these main areas: community spaces, industrial workshops, environmental, housing and economic issues.

As a reaction and response to the global aspect of the best way of land capitalization, between academics and community groups has appeared another group of small industrial business associations concerned in keeping industrial services in proximity and direct use of the community, not in the city’s outskirts. This work area of the network has created a rearrangement of the working group with Economy Just Space — a workgroup concerned in local economic transformation. This workgroup gathers researchers, small business associations and civic activists concerned by the future of this type of economy for industrial small businesses. One way I which Just Space fructifies the relationship with the university is the publication edited with the efforts of a Ph.D. student who studied and wrote about local economy related to participation in London for all — a publication sustained by a grant from Just Space that opens the debate on London’s economy. The publication talks about how the economic diversity of London’s economy is poorly represented in plans, policies and stakeholder engagement processes, where developers and large businesses generally dominate and looks at less well-heard voices of London’s small and local businesses, industrial activities, social enterprises, and ethnic retailers, for example.

The economic key of land use has brought together energies for sustaining traditional market places by a network of associations and groups concerned in maintaining healthy alimentation options for communities in the contextualized crossroad of the UK traditional; on one hand pushed out by changing retail trends and urban redevelopment, on the other championed as desirable, vibrant spaces which are the key to reviving town centers. Regeneration plans threaten what many traders and customers see as a unique and necessary public space in the heart of towns and cities. Just space is a research partner of the University of Leeds (School of Geography) in a national scaled project aiming to map all the market places form the city in order to give and empower visibility to common interested groups city.

The project looks at both qualitative and quantitative of community capitalization of traditional markets and critically examines the changing fortunes of the traditional market, with an emphasis on wider urban regeneration and gentrification strategies, and secondly to explore ways in which customers and traders can successfully maintain markets as places which serve particular and often marginalized groups of people, and in which the social value of these spaces is maintained. The project’s (traditional markets under threat) report can be found here, read and downloaded.

Social housing has also pushed Just Space buttons of this tool called academic researchers & urban communities by editing together with Kings College London Staying Put — Anti Gentrification Handbook. They have given grants to encourage tenant associations to react not necessarily to protest against the proposed demolitions but to trigger reactions from an early stage. The book contains positive examples, ways you can ask for information and the right questions in the context of London’s gentrification and the last ten years of systematically planned demolitions. This handbook explains why the regeneration of council estates often results in established communities being broken up and moved away, and housing becoming more expensive. It is designed to help local communities learn about gentrification and the alternatives they can fight for. Through the experiences of council tenants, leaseholders and the wider community in London, it contains ideas, stories, tools, and resources.

Urban Education Live teamwork in Bucharest urban space (autumn, 2018)

By its presence at the UEL Symposium, Just space has been an open book to our UEL state of the art looking at things in the adventure of understanding and working with four very culturally different types of communities from Romania (Bucharest), UK (Sheffield), Slovenia (Ljubljana) and Finland (Tampere) in designing a new model of collaboration between universities and urban communities.

Here you can watch the whole presentation that Richard Lee kindly shared with us, on the 6th of October 2018 in Ion Mincu’s conference room in Bucharest.

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