Tag Archives: resistance

Developing Potential: a report from the Local Trust

Around this time last year, I started doing some freelance work with a community development consultancy. We were working on a report-cum-strategy-guide for the Local Trust, and more specifically for community groups who are having redevelopment done to them: advice not on how to stop the development process — because once it’s started, it’s effectively impossible to stop, and that’s very much by design — but on how to stand up to it and, perhaps, wrest some concessions and community benefit out of the suits, flacks and hucksters who play The Regeneration Game.

That report — finally given the stirring title Developing Potential — was released earlier this week; you can read the guidebook for communities and the Big Local case studies as separate documents, or you can hoover down a pdf of the whole thing with all the trimmings.

Despite my shocking lack of objectivity on the topic (as demonstrated above), Blue Chula put me to work on background research and report drafting. My text is in many places unrecognisable in the final version — turns out my prolixity is about as appropriate for third sector publications as it is for academia — but BC and the Local Trust have nonetheless done me the great honour of naming me as one of the report’s authors.

It’s a shame we couldn’t have released something closer to our earlier drafts, but recent changes in the legal system mean that charitable organisations have to be extremely cautious about criticising the government, as they risk forfeiting their charitable status and/or funding if they are seen as being too “political”*. But nonetheless Helen at BC pushed hard to publish case studies in which the communities portrayed could see themselves and their experiences represented fairly, and while the guidebook is notably less torches-and-pitchforks than my earliest outlines suggested it should be, I think it’s realistic about the prospects, and about the sacrifices necessary for a community to get involved in the redevelopment of their neighbourhood.

In other words, I am genuinely honoured to have my name on it — even as I’m fairly certain that it doesn’t entirely deserve to be there.

[ * — Thankfully I am not a charitable organisation, which leaves me free to decry this policy as being born of the same craven sleight-of-hand that trumpets a rejigging of the planning system in the name of “inclusivity” while actually watering down what remains of the planning system to the extent that developers can largely do what they want, provided they have the funding for a good law firm, which of course they always do. If there’s one thing I learned from spending a few months digging into UK planning law and the way such projects play out on the ground, it’s that not only is the planning system of the UK deeply dysfunctional and biased toward the developer, but that it is working exactly as its designers intended it to work. I’d hold those designers in somewhat lesser contempt if they had the courage to admit that. ]

Resistance to the colonising present

While I was in Hebden Bridge, I looked out of the window of a coffee shop one Friday at lunchtime, and saw a small crowd of schoolchildren on a climate protest. Sensitized by being in England, it dawned on me that what I was seeing was a rebellion of the natives against the colonizers – the inhabitants of the future marshaling resistance to the colonizing present and to the extraction of the resources that they will need to thrive.

The response of colonizing powers to uprisings has been chillingly consistent. […] It’s hard to stay optimistic when the worst of history is repeating itself, and writing a thousand words about colonial atrocities isn’t exactly helping. I want to be able to say with total confidence that we’re not going to open fire on anyone’s children for standing up against us and demanding a better world, but it’s really, really hard.

Deb Chachra

The notion that the present is colonising — or, in economic terms, externalising — the future is a powerful, if distinctly bleak metaphor. But I think it also contains some cause for hope regarding the ultimate result of this struggle, provided we lean into the metaphor a little further.

If the future stands for the colonised territories, then the past stands for the colonial core, the base of power from which the colonial project is directed and sustained as both project and narrative, through and into the present.

And we are currently seeing a substantive and drastic remapping of the past, a new narrative being pieced together by ever more subaltern voices: the enslaved, the oppressed, the exploited, slowly and painfully dragging into the light the stories of their subjection.

Empires collapse from the center outward. As the hold of capital and whiteness (which are effectively synonyms) over the past is loosened, its ideological supply-lines and recruitment strategies are thus broken and undermined. This would seem a good explanation for the recent surge in overt attempts to reassert this narrative, which previously had relied upon euphemism, effacement, and a veneer of scientism. The old metanarrative is breaking down, and we are living through the ever-more-desperate attempts of its primary benefactors to shore it up.

The hazard of collapse is the absence of a new narrative to take over from the old one. Deb goes on to say that:

… there absolutely is a path through to a better future for everyone, one that’s sustainable and resilient and equitable. But we have to learn to see it, to stay focused on it, and to follow it down. That’s the work.

That IS the work. It is all of our work — not just to tear down, but to replace. This holds true for physical systems as well as social ones — which, as I hope you know by now, are so entangled as to be inseparable.

Network is a verb. A network is a becoming, a thing that happens — a performance taking place upon and across a physical substrate. The engineering of the latter is part of the poetry of the former, and vice versa.

Dispositionally or structurally retrograde

… typically as designers, and in broader culture, we’re looking for the right answer. As designers we’re still very solutionist in our thinking; just like righteous activism that pretends to have the right answer, dispositionally, this may be a mistake. The chemistry of this kind of solutionist approach produces its own problems. It is very fragile. The idea of producing a ‘master plan’ doesn’t have a temporal dimension, and is not a sturdy form.

Having the right answer in our current political climate only exacerbates the violence of binary oppositions. Our sense of being right escalates this tension. I’ve been trying to think instead of forms which have another temporal dimension that allow for reactivity and a branching set of options—something like a rewiring of urban space. They aren’t vague – they’re extremely explicit – but they allow for responses to a set of changing conditions.

[…]

Regardless of spectacularly intelligent arguments, the bending of narratives towards ultimate, teleological ends – and the shape and disposition of these arguments – doesn’t work for me. Dispositionally or structurally it seems slightly retrograde.

I just don’t see change as singular or ultimate. It doesn’t come back to the one and only answer, or the one and only enemy that must be crushed.

There are many forms of violence, and it almost seems weak to train your gun on one form of it. There isn’t one singular way in which power and authority concentrate, and there’s not one giant enemy. Such thinking leaves you open to a more dangerous situation.

Keller Easterling interview at Failed Architecture, riffing on her latest book, Medium Design (which is apparently only available in print if you get a copy mailed from Moscow). Easterling is among the brightest of lodestars in my personal  theoretical pantheon; her Enduring Innocence not only rewired how I thought about space, but also rewired my conception of how an academic text could be written.