25 Feb 2019

__________’s Neighbourhood

Mr. Roger’s Neighbourhood

Growing up in the U.S meant I had my own classic moments of a ‘great American childhood’ – morning cartoons – or in my case, vintage television programmes with an educational slant (always streamed through the Public Broadcasting Service). My mother was both pragmatic and steadfast in her belief that even downtime provided an opportunity to learn.

As I licked my fingers after toast or reluctantly spooned my porridge, the honky tune of Mr. Roger’s Neighbourhood would reverberate through the television. During each half-hour segment, Mr. Roger’s would speak directly to me about various issues in his neighbourhood. When Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, Mr. Roger’s talked about death. For a whole week, he discussed the subject of divorce with friends and acquaintances, visiting people and places to explore the topic through personal stories and reflection. Regardless of the subject, he instilled a belief that a neighbourhood and the people and places within it would listen to you, help you to solve problems and be there for you when you needed them.

The programme instilled in me a curiosity for place and an appreciation for what constitutes a good sweater (Mr. Roger’s sense of fashion was pretty great). It also grounded my belief that strong neighbourhoods are an expression of healthy, local communities. What I learned through the television, I lived through in Montclair, New Jersey (the town I grew up in) and now, as we embark on a project with Camden Council, I hope to embody in our research.

Picture source: H. Mark Weidman photography / Alamy

The neighbourhood as a unit of change

Camden council are working to discover how a neighbourhood can function as a unit of change in how public servants think about and talk with residents. A neighbourhood sits nicely as a theory. It gleans cozy feelings of a structure, order and familiar characters. In practice a neighbourhood has no form; it is not geographically bound, it changes regularly and its meaning may differ depending on the individual, their life stage and perspective. For this reason, we’re not defining what a neighbourhood is. Instead, we are mapping the characteristics and components of what it means for the council to ‘work in a neighbourly way’; relational and networked rather than transactional and paternalistic.

Our benchmarks are people and place:

The people: A neighbourhood is composed of people with a variety of needs, interests and talents who care about and learn from each other. Everyone has routines, rhythms, rituals and relationships.

The place: Neighbourhoods can be analysed from different views; from a micro-estate level, a street, or a ward. Across these views, we’re working to understand how physical assets (i.e buildings and space) contribute to neighbourly working.

Already, conversations with Camden’s teams have uncovered a variety of inspiring ways the council are working in neighbourly ways. We’ve identified components necessary to relational, assets based working, like joint contracting, regenerative planning and co-location. We’ve discovered instances of staff relinquishing power and moments of preventative problem solving that have been surfaced by communities directly through the building of trusted relationships over time.

We’re bringing these instances of neighbourly working to life through conversation, illustration and Show & Tells to present what’s possible. Through this approach, we are identifying how to mobilise and align the council around a shared understanding of neighbourly working and make it commonplace. It’s important to note that we’re not building on the idealised notion of ‘the collective’; one that steps in to assume responsibility when the state can no longer provide support. We will always have public services, but it’s necessary to explore and identify how the provision of these services and the role of the council needs to change under the current and future economic, environmental and social constraints we are facing.

Won’t you be my neighbour?

As a neighbour, Mr. Roger’s was great at listening, not putting anyone down and explaining complexity in a simple manner. As we start building a narrative and practice of neighbourly working at Camden Council, we’ll be donning our Mr. Roger’s sweaters in the hope that we can bring the same reason, kindness and communication to understanding how the council can work more constructively with the people it represents.

As Mr. Roger’s would say, it’s a beautiful day in the neighbourhood.

Are you structuring a neighbourhoods approach, curious to learn more or have a project to share?

Please get in touch!