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Finally starting in earnest – My Street, not even My Square Mile

June 20, 2011

A while ago a few people asked, via various channels, “What happened to all that ‘My own Square Mile starts right here right now’ stuff that you were going on about?” This post is by way of an answer – though there have been some even longer answers, if not action, along the way.

In short – I did a lot of grappling with possible online applications, to support the simple opening idea of more awareness, more communication and a little bit of un-nudged deliberation amongst neighbours. I was hyper-sensitive about putting people off, by indirectly asking them to sign up to other unfamiliar things in order to gain access to a shared online space. I also fretted about anything that might make this an existing-confident-internet-users-only phenomenon. I dabbled with the idea of creating something new – to fit exactly my instincts about the end user requirement – then decided this would be too much of a diversion.

At the same time, partly as a bi-product of this search for support and solutions, I found that I kept getting drawn back to the debate that I had attempted to eschew… e.g. by writing once-and-for-all point of view posts. This is the debate between different interpretations of the Big Society, between those pro- and anti- the Big Society idea (whichever one they chose to react to), and then to ‘Your Square Mile’ as maybe an offshoot which was closer to my interests and hopes. That also brought me to ‘Our Society’ and all manner of ideas, people and projects. Some of the stuff I saw on there – and I make no claim to this being a representative conclusion – made me feel that even Your Square Mile had a top down, paternalistic (even if in a nice way) flavour to it and, more importantly, seemed to be sticking too close to old structures and old ways of thinking [BTW – why do I dislike the word ‘activist’ so much?.]

Along the way I was trying to make the balance work between my day job and these community aspirations of mine, creating a social media workshop to help raise money for this project, and doing other things like being ill now and again, getting tempted to catch up on neglected DIY or long term admin and finances…

In the end I have come out with some conclusions – not least because all of this has helped me to question and re-state my original premise.

  1. I can’t wait for ideal technology any more. I’ll find it when I need to and, in the first instance, I will find a way to make do with e-mail and a public, one-author-many-comments, blog.
  2. I either have to spend all my allotted time trying to engage with a large and complex network of practitioners, theorists, writers and politicians – in order to ensure that I call everything by the right name and align with the right things – or stay almost completely away from it. I have chosen the latter and, again, if I’m going to be doing the right sort of thing, my natural allies and logistical supporters will find me once I’m doing something worthy of attention. So long as I write the odd post and tweet the odd tweet.
  3. I don’t want to try to cast what I’m doing in some well-fitted aspect of Big Society or Your Square Mile. So I have to find my own vocabulary and model.
  4. I need to do this with people I can initially be face-to-face with, and understand their own ideas and responses, before I use online to make networking and collective deliberation/sharing etc ‘more possible’.
  5. I have to do this in a setting which is personal for me – has ramifications for me – not a hypothetical neighbourhood that is comfortably diffuse or arms’ length-able.
  6. Even a circle of one square mile in area is too big to do that with at first.

So I’m going to start with my street – every single house – face to face and then online, so long as enough people are OK with the latter. From the outset I will pose the question to those people who buy in and *are* comfortable online, ‘how do we keep everyone who is offline, but still wants to ‘belong’, inside the circle?’. Doing something literally up my street? Close friends and former colleagues will see something either ironic, or inevitable, or both, in this fact. [It also has echoes of projects in the early days of the web, to put every house in a street on dial-up, and so on].

I really do start tomorrow – putting leaflets through the doors of the first quarter of Warren Road’s 114 houses. Leaflets long in the drafting, in an effort to maximise the principle that less is more, but only enough is enough. I’m as keen to identify those who just want nothing to do with it (at least for now) as I am to find those who want to help, and not just participate. The leaflets state the very basics of what I want to do, show people what I look like (for when I turn up at the door) and give anyone the chance to opt out of even speaking to me, from the start.

I will be recording the whole experience via this blog. But I will be respecting a great deal of the privacy of my neighbours – so don’t expect to be suddenly peering in through their lifted rooftops. But the diary will be here – what happened, how it affected me, what works, what doesn’t, how many of my skeptical instincts are confirmed, and how many of my optimist’s hopes are equally rewarded. The starting premise?

“There’s a theory that, on average, if more people in a neighbourhood actually know each other, and have better ways of communicating and cooperating, *everyone* there has a better quality of life. I want to try that out and I want to know if you, my neighbour, are interested in helping me to make that happen”.

I have some questions to ask, some practical examples up my sleeve, and an absolute openness to listen and learn from everyone that fate happens to have brought together by the having of a Warren Rd address in June 2011. Here, too, is a practical outlet for ‘50 ways to meet your neighbour‘.

One last acknowledgement I really must make. One of the biggest influences and inspirations that has lead me to this particular model at this particular time is Peter Lovenheim. I blogged about him a while ago, exchanged a couple of e-mails, and pre-ordered the paperback version of his book ‘In the Neighborhood’. OK – so America is different, his street is different, with big houses and a population of surgeons, lawyers and real estate agency owners, but two things resonated with me over and over again. The first is the personal, one to one, nature of the most valuable contacts (you can’t scale this past a certain point, but you should aim to build anything more online/remote on top of it as a foundation, if you seek to talk about ‘community) and the simple courage that it requires to approach strangers who live yards away from you. The second was that Peter kept discovering a real hunger in people for greater connectedness with their immediate neighbours, right alongside the belief that “other people” would find this intrusive or a bit eccentric. Whilst I may not (who knows?) be going to Peter’s lengths of asking to sleep over in his neighbours’ homes, my practical plan is really his, with some online amplification grafted on top. I hope he derives a sense of my gratitude from this post, and will keep in touch as things progress. Obviously there’s a tension between being able to open up in ‘personal’ ways and being able to share and communicate with a larger group – but that’s one of the things that Peter acknowledges and explores along with the recognition that it’s not just in ‘problem’ neighbourhoods that people need support, or experience extreme difficulties and personal tragedies, and who need people close by that they can trust either in such a crisis, or just to help make each others’ lives run more smoothly and with a touch more fun.

I’m not quite in real time blogging mode yet. Tomorrow I will follow up with a piece about what it was like simply to be walking up and down my street with no official excuse and just a notepad and pen in my hand. I was just counting the houses and checking the types, numbers, boundaries, but I actually felt quite exposed… I’m very excited, and I’m just a little bit scared.

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