Last week, I participated in Townstock - a two day event focused on how citizens and communities can engage in and actively take control of the regeneration of their towns and local areas. It was a very interesting event, with speakers from various sectors and initiatives, giving examples and sharing experiences from across the country. Participants were encouraged to share and capture ideas - like this one about 'townternships'.
One of the most inspiring talks was from Pam Warhurst of Incredible Edible Todmorden - a fantastic example of how communities can learn and build enterprise together. It's an initiative taken by the community to transform their town, Todmorden, into an 'edible landscape'; taking over any and all available spaces and planting vegetables, fruit and herbs that are available for anyone to pick, for free. Incredible Edible Todmorden (IET) has subsequently grown to involve a market garden training centre, a whole series of local producers' and traders' businesses, and a growing international network of similar 'incredible edible' initiatives.
But possibly the most innovative and fundamental thing that IET has done is to take an issue that concerns us all - i.e. food, and the need to eat - and use it as a way of engaging people in a conversation, changing perceptions and behaviours, and building community spirit and resilience. Just to take two tweets from the day which highlighted this point:
"This isn't a veg scheme, it's a behaviour shift scheme" - Pam Warhurst. #Townstock— julian dobson (@juliandobson) November 5, 2012
Some great learning-related examples of Incredible Edible Todmorden's work include building an ambitious hydroponic unit next to the school, which will grow vegetables to be used in the school and in creating small businesses. As Pam said, "schools and communities don't talk the same language" - so this hydroponic unit is being built to bridge two worlds, and students of the school will help to run the enterprise. IET are also undertaking classes for 'lost arts training' - e.g., how to skin a rabbit, or make jams and chutneys - so that communities can retain knowledge and skills from the past. There have also been built structures for kids which guide them through motions which mimic bees' waggle dance - learning through fun, and transforming the physical environment in order to engage people and change the way they think.
Pam is very proud of the fact that this initiative has grown organically from the community - "with no strategy document in sight". Town residents just get stuck in and get their hands dirty. She is also critical of a funding model which forces projects into particular time-limited outcomes - as she so eloquently put it, "it's just not possible to shoehorn historic change into a 3 year programme." You can see some of Pam's energy and Todmorden's great work in the TED talk below (or via this link if the video isn't showing on this page).
We also heard about Totally Locally - a great initiative to promote local projects and enterprises. We heard about how Totally Locally has inspired and helped promote a fantastic community market in Brighouse - a one-woman show which has grown from nothing to hosting 64 trader stalls. The Totally Locally 'townkit' was launched at Townstock - giving communities practical tips and design templates to develop and promote their work. We also heard from Dan Thompson (@artistsmakers) about the potential for pop-up shops and the pop-up movement to transform communities and the high streets that serve them.
Amidst so much positivity, Neil McInroy from CLES, who also gave a hugely passionate and engaging talk, sounded a useful word of caution on Twitter:
I'm all for power of people and changing behaviour, but we must never forget systemic issues which fetter change. #Townstock— Neil McInroy (@nmcinroy) November 5, 2012
Without meaning to end on a 'downer', and in no way undermining the instances of amazing and innovative work we heard about, I do think it's important to recognise these systemic issues that underpin the work we do, and not to shy away from addressing the systemic level when we can, and where appropriate.
There are some further thoughts for the future from Townstock in New Start magazine. So, what kinds of innovative initiatives are happening in Manchester, and what innovative initiatives can we imagine and, even better, get stuck in with?
Update, December 2012: There is a book from Townstock containing 80 ideas from 50 towns here.