A Tale of Two (Participatory) Cities
Updated: Nov 23
PART 1 In the first part of this two-part report, Nick Mahony and Matt Thompson set out why Barking and Dagenham needs more than a privatising, asset-stripping and unaccountable scheme like Everyone Everyday; and call for councils, funders and other institutional actors to listen to and support the community development priorities of residents and local civil society groups.
We are proud to add our voices to the growing list of residents’ and groups who have signed the ‘open letter’ calling for power-holders to urgently give their support to the #SaveOurWarehouse campaign and demanding an alternative, resident-led approach to community space and social infrastructure in Barking and Dagenham.
Every time we aspire to move on, the Everyone Everyday project (led by the Participatory City Foundation) once again shines more light onto what can go wrong when local authorities and funders invest in top-down and undemocratic forms of community development and social engineering, instead of more bottom-up and democratic alternatives. We’re interested in what needs to happen to turn this situation around and to secure community space for people in Barking and Dagenham.
Over £9 million of philanthropic and public money has already been spent on Everyone Everyday; and despite the closure of its warehouse hub, the Participatory City Foundation’s leadership team, along with its trustees, are still refusing to have a conversation with local residents’ groups and other stakeholders.
Local people urgently need answers about how this project has provided value for money (or not), how and where money is actually spent, who materially benefits from this investment, why the project hasn’t left any social infrastructure legacy, and what can still be done to salvage from this situation some secure community space for local people.
What they don’t need is yet another multi-hundred-page glossy brochure showcasing the scheme as a ‘success’ through a barrage of contentious data and theory claims, which makes absolutely no acknowledgment of the growing criticisms of the approach or the impact of its failure to secure any long term community spaces. And yet this is precisely what the Participatory City Foundation has given us with its 5-year evaluation report entitled Places to Practise, published in October 2023.
While Participatory City have been busy circulating marketing material, the recently published ‘open letter’ signed by a growing list of local residents’ and civil society groups has so far been met with stony silence from those it addresses: the Everyone Everyday leadership team, Participatory City’s trustees, Barking and Dagenham Council and the project funders. We believe such power-holders urgently need to reconsider their position and meet with residents at the earliest opportunity. The open letter represents yet another episode in the ongoing struggle over how the contribution of the Everyone Everyday project to community development is understood, both in Barking and Dagenham and beyond.
While growing numbers of people and groups question the approach and overall contribution of Everyone Everyday – and remain seriously concerned about the lack of any secure community space or other social infrastructure legacy generated by this scheme – the Participatory City leadership team continue to hold the line for the project’s efficacy and relentlessly publicise the idea that it has been a success.
Places to Practise should be viewed in the context of this ongoing and increasingly public struggle. It claims to present a ‘comprehensive account’ of the progress of the 5-year £9 million Everyone Everyday scheme. But despite being 281 pages long, this detailed report is very far from comprehensive: it’s as misconceived, poorly executed and misleading as the Everyone Everyday project itself.
The report treads similar ground to the team’s previous (and even lengthier!) publications – Designed to Scale (405 pages), Made to Measure (300 pages) and Tools to Act (404 pages). All these evaluation reports, including Places to Practise, say essentially the same thing: that the model ‘innovated’ by the team behind Participatory City produces great value both for participants (in the form of social capital and entrepreurial opportunities) and for public partners (policy solutions and financial savings).
However, rather than commission an external evaluator, as would conventionally be the case in a multi-million pound project of this kind, Participatory City demonstrate the value of their programme through cherry-picking a set of data collected by the team itself – a striking conflict of interest – and presenting this ‘evidence’ in carefully curated prose backed by complex theory to provide a veneer of scientific and technical credibility for supporting what are actually very contentious claims. Such claims have been comprehensively and critically deconstructed by academic research – and found wanting. In this piece, we wish to highlight some of these shortcomings – those most pertinent to the current political situation – in the hope that power-holders will take note and forge an alternative path ahead.
One of our concerns with these research and evaluation reports regards the general approach taken to assessing the success of Everyone Everyday – in a context in which the success (or otherwise) of this project continues to be a highly contentious issue.
When the Everyone Everyday project was just starting up, the Participatory City leadership team repeatedly asserted that one of the most innovative aspects of this experimental project would be how it would work ‘at-scale’ – to enable a very significant proportion of Barking and Dagenham’s residents engage in the (re)development and improvement of their communities. In a 2016 presentation to the council, officers were assured that Everyone Everyday would achieve ‘local and regular participation of residents at 30+%’.
With a population of more than 200,000 residents, a target of 30+% of Barking and Dagenham’s population equates to Everyone Everyday engaging with more than 60,000 residents. Although in a subsequent 2017 press release these expectations were significantly (and inexplicably) lowered to ‘at least 25,000 residents’.
The recently published research and evaluation report, Places to Practise, presents the team’s data on what they say has actually happened over the past five years. This is that around 5,000 residents were engaged via the project – a figure that’s 55,000 (over 90%) lower than initially promised in 2016. Such a considerably lower figure surely debunks one of the main claims of the project: that it would work ‘at scale’.
To be clear-sighted about this would mean equating this figure of 5,000 residents over 5 years with the level of engagement that a small to medium sized community centre would likely expect over a similar period, and at a fraction of the cost and fanfare of Everyone Everyday.
We accept that the pandemic presented a significant problem for a participation experiment of this kind. More difficult to accept is the way Places to Practise neglects to mention the existence of the 2016 and 2017 benchmarks and thereby avoid any public scrutiny or accountability for these significantly lower than expected 2023 engagement figures.
The original benchmarks are also important as they were cited in papers presented to the B&D Council Cabinet to guide the local authority’s view of the project’s expected impact; as well as help raise funds for the project, with over £9 million of philanthropic and public money eventually being invested.
The absence of these original 2016 and 2017 engagement benchmarks from the recent report is but one example of how the Everyone Everyday leadership team refuses to engage with what could be genuinely helpful learning about what actually is needed to ensure people have places that are free at the point of access to gather and organise together, offer mutual aid and have greater autonomy in their lives.
If you’ve read our two previous posts (here and here) you may recall that Participatory City’s leadership team have, time and again, failed to address all those legitimate concerns voiced by local residents, civil society groups and researchers. And although you wouldn’t know it from the most recent so-called ‘research and evaluation’ report, the last few months have been the most intense period of public dispute over the Everyone Everyday project to date.
Over the spring and summer of 2023, the #SaveOurWarehouse campaign has organised a series of four resident-led public demonstrations outside Barking and Dagenham town hall to protest against the closure of the warehouse. These protests have featured in the local press and national media, including the BBC. In early Summer 2023 a resident-led business plan was also developed and published with the aim of securing the warehouse space for ongoing community use.
The residents leading the #SaveOurWarehouse campaign group have repeatedly requested to meet with the Participatory City leadership team and the local authority to discuss their demands. So far their calls for an open conversation have been met only by silence.
None of these important developments are given even a cursory mention in Places to Practise, which fails even to note the decision to close the warehouse, let alone account for why the Participatory City leadership team and the local authority still refuse to meet the #SaveOurWarehouse campaigners.
Instead, the report features a more limited and curated selection of reflections, case studies and quantitative evidence in order to present a very partial and highly affirmative, even sometimes celebratory, story of Everyone Everyday’s reception and impact in the borough.
There is a brief section on ‘research limitations’ and this does caution against over-claiming about what has been achieved. Although this doesn’t restrain the report from then stating that Everyone Everyday has done more than enough to prove the efficacy of its ‘theory of change’.
On the basis of the very flimsy evidence ‘amassed’ (and notwithstanding the fact that the project has massively under-delivered in terms of its promised levels of engagement) the report boasts that the Everyone Everyday project should be viewed as being ‘the world’s first full-scale practical participation system for the creation of social capital’.
We beg to differ. Not least because we believe that social capital theory never provided a robust enough basis for a social design project of this kind that aims to address systemic inequalities and improve community cohesion in a complex context like Barking and Dagenham. And, indeed, no evidence is presented to support the idea that this project has been able to tackle any of the systemic inequalities that still exist in the borough.
The evidence that is presented to support the claim that Everyone Everyday has ‘created social capital’ is thin and highly disputable. And the counter-evidence that now exists that demonstrates how disruptive and divisive the project has been on the ground – a glaring omission from the report – suggests the reverse may in fact be true. The continued unbroken silence in response to a genuine request for dialogue only compounds strong feelings that this is a project more adept at generating division than cohesion or social capital. If it has created unity, it’s a unity of people finding common cause in mutual aversion to the scheme imposed on the borough from on high.
Having tied themselves from the start to a masterplan for top-down urban change, which positioned itself as needing to be distinct from existing infrastructure organisations and groups, this meant that they were reliant on an ill-conceived (and inflexible) process of social engineering to ‘create social capital’. It also meant that the Participatory City leadership team were left entirely unprepared to engage people in many of the kinds of conversations on the ground that are expected and necessary as part of any process of community development.
The leadership team’s rigidity and intransigence created a tightly controlled environment in which dissent was anathema. The possibility that people in Barking and Dagenham (and beyond) may not all entirely agree with £9 million being invested in a community development experiment based on such unyielding, myopic and contentious operating principles just does not seem to have occurred to those leading this project.
Rather than supporting inclusive spaces for discussion and collective decision making, where all kinds of different interactions and uncertainties, creativity and glorious unpredictability could potentially play out – as it should be able to in community development projects – the Participatory City leadership have systematically closed down open-ended conversations about the project’s approach, limited discussions about how resources are allocated and used, blocked exchanges about Everyone Everyday’s governance, and policed the community’s role in the scheme. And this well established pattern of behaviour continues to this day.
There is a fundamental principle at stake here: who should have control over community development?
The Participatory City leadership team have been given highly privileged access to community development funders, the local authority and a whole range of unused council-owned spaces, including empty shops and what became the Everyone Everyday warehouse. These were secured and managed for the duration of the 5-year project but apparently without the foresight or expertise needed to secure them for the community for the longer term.
Why weren’t pre-existing civil society and residents groups in Barking and Dagenham given access to empty spaces in the first place? Why couldn’t local people have been given control over the resources needed to develop these spaces and the possibility of owning and governing them democratically on an ongoing basis for community benefit?
We are now at the stage where residents have been kicked out of the main warehouse space and the equipment it was kitted out with (worth many tens of thousands of pounds) dispersed. As no new tenant has been found by the local authority to take on the commercial lease and the warehouse is not in great working condition, this building and former community asset could now remain empty for the foreseeable future.
The Everyone Everyday project has therefore effectively led to public asset-stripping and to botched privatisation by stealth, whereby (temporary) community control has been wrested from residents and community space put out to let in an attempt to gain a more profitable return.
If the Everyone Everyday project was supposed to be a project about empowering local individuals but – as it turned out – couldn’t even find a solution to the problem of a severe lack of community space and social infrastructure in Barking and Dagenham, then what has it achieved?
It’s not just public assets (equipment and community space) that have been lost to asset-stripping and that principles of municipalism have apparently been inverted; the total expenditure on the Participatory City project in 2022 was over £2.3 million, with £1.4+ million spent in 2022 on personnel and more than £80k on ‘promotions’. Imagine what the community could have done with such resources.
The Everyone Everyday scheme undoubtedly, if temporarily, gave rise to new community spaces, infrastructures, assets and support systems and these certainly have encouraged a range of specific (approved of) forms of participation that wouldn’t have otherwise happened. And much of this has been well received by some residents. Nevertheless, forms of engagement and participation deviating from those sanctioned by the leadership team and their masterplan have been largely foreclosed. Perhaps this, as much as the pandemic, helps explain why the project hasn’t attracted anything like the levels of engagement and concrete, ongoing and long-lasting community development work on the ground that had been promised.
None of these problems or unresolved tensions arising as a result of the Everyone Everyday experience are documented in the recent report. Questions raised go unanswered. Problems flagged remain unaddressed. Requests for solutions continue to be stonewalled. Criticism has been kept at bay by the application of intense pressure on critical individuals and groups. The very currency of community development and public participation is being devalued by the uncollaborative, paternalistic, technocratic and sometimes authoritarian approach taken by Everyone Everyday and the local authority in Barking and Dagenham.
Several months have now passed since we raised concerns about the culture and practices of Everyone Everyday in our previous blog posts; while the #SaveOurWarehouse campaign has been active for much longer. The Participatory City leadership team, trustees and project funders have had months to consider how they could respond to and possibly even help resolve these issues. The Everyone Everyday team has also had ample opportunity to publicly account for these issues as part of their recent research and evaluation report. Instead, the project team, along with the council, the funders and the wider sector, have chosen to remain resolutely silent about all of these problems.
It has been left to residents themselves, supported by sympathetic civil society groups such as Thames Life Community Development Trust, to engage in the hard labour of calling out these dysfunctional practices and campaigning for public accountability, democratic responsiveness and some form of reparatory justice in securing the future of a community space.
A collective of residents are now working together to campaign for a fair legacy from this £9 million project in the form of community space and a more substantive role and stake in the ongoing development of the area. The question remains whether Barking and Dagenham Council, the Greater London Authority (GLA), and other power-brokers and policy-makers across the public and third sectors, will take stock of what’s gone wrong here in Barking and decide to back the community-led alternative.
The resident-led alternative plan for the warehouse in Barking would ultimately cost less and probably achieve more than Participatory City. If such a counterplan were adopted, it might well turn the page on Participatory City’s failures and write a new chapter for community development – one that prizes democracy and community leadership and generates lasting benefit for people and place. Barking and Dagenham would no longer be known for the experiment that failed, but for the pioneering - and highly innovative - plan that worked.
The pieces of the puzzle are (almost) all there on the table. What’s required now is a new commitment to listen to residents’ ideas and priorities, and the public leadership to provide that one last missing piece.
In the first part we spelt out the problems with the specific Everyone Everyday approach to community development and municipal reform. Part 2 delves deeper into the distorted logics, anti-democratic practices and power imbalances that have shaped the project and will continue to shape community development in general – unless, that is, the sector is radically reformed. We explore what such reform might look like and how communities could benefit from change.
The community-led alternative emerging out of the #SaveOurWarehouse campaign in Barking is just one of many alternatives springing up all across London. From the Seven Sisters Indoor Market in Tottenham to West Ken Gibbs Green Community Homes in Hammersmith, countless community-led initiatives are contesting privatisation, dispossession and top-down forms of community development by seeking to gain collective democratic control over important assets, from indoor markets to affordable housing. Many of these groups are coming together through wider networks at various scales, such as the Southwark Planning Network at the borough level and Just Space at the Greater London level.
Just Space is a grassroots alliance of over 80 community groups, campaigns and independent organisations, formed to act as a voice for Londoners in London’s planning strategy-making process, particularly the London Plan – and backed by academic experts from institutions such as UCL.
When it comes to devising the next round of community development projects, at whatever scale, we need power-brokers (from funders to councils and the Greater London Authority) to support and resource the recommendations made by networks like Just Space. Without the critical voice, energy and creativity of communities articulating plans, the failures of Participatory City will only be repeated.
The tragic, if not farcical, story of Participatory City in Barking and Dagenham warns us of what can go wrong with local economic regeneration and neighbourhood renewal when the design, development and delivery of such projects remains the domain of social designers, local authorities and funders without any substantive input from the communities at stake nor any recourse to public scrutiny or accountability through democratic forms of organisation. How have we got to a point where it is accepted that community and municipal development projects largely reflect (and often end up imposing) the biases of power-holders, rather than support and resource the ideas and priorities of people and groups on the ground?
Why weren’t the failures of Participatory City and the Everyone Everyday project called out by the institutions involved earlier? Why were they enabled to access such huge pots of funding and continue to ‘experiment’ on a borough despite apparent shortcomings in the approach being regularly flagged from the start and right through the course of this 5 year project? Why is the sector so reluctant to discuss how such a project (and many others like it) came to be funded, commissioned and showered with awards? The silence amongst community development professionals speaks volumes about the deep conflicts of interest now permeating the sector. There’s often too much money and skin in keeping the game going for its own sake, regardless of the impacts these top-down approaches can have on local communities. We urgently need more open and safe spaces for communities, practitioners, activists, commissioners and funders to come together, engage in dialogue and debate, and better understand what’s needed and what’s at stake in community development. We need new governance mechanisms and incentives for professionals and funders to be held accountable to the residents and civil society groups they work with and should be there to support.
Without such structural reform of the sector, communities will continue to be treated as mere ‘participants’, as lab rats to be experimented upon or ‘nudged’ in social-scientific design experiments, technocratic placemaking schemes and neoliberal ‘urban living laboratories’ – reproducing and entrenching still further the stark inequalities in power and resources that divide and taint British society. Residents and communities should be leading the process of community development from the outset, democratically designing the specific approaches needed to intervene in and improve their neighbourhoods, with the support of professionals and public and philanthropic institutions; not invited as participants in a project already designed from top to bottom without their consent.
There is nothing inherently bad about breaking the grip that the state once held on urban regeneration and community development. For all its abuses and injustices, fiscal austerity since 2010 has forced local governments to seek help from civil society and to outsource and commission projects rather than deliver them in-house. And this has opened up the community development game to more diverse ideas and players (non-profit agencies and philanthropic funders, alongside public partners) who are often more willing and able to try out creative, ambitious, engaged and potentially democratic practices. However, one key player is too often missing: citizens and communities themselves. And because of this, circumscribed forms of ‘participation’ have been substituted for grassroots involvement and democratic community control. It’s time for citizens and communities to take back control of community development and be supported, rather than directed, by public institutions.
The problem with ‘participatory experimental’ (in contrast to directly democratic) approaches to community development is that ‘participation’ places the power in the hands of those who design the participatory experiment while disempowering those participating. The relative power and privilege of the professional social designers vis-à-vis the community participants can lead to a distorted process in which the former’s material interests are privileged over the latter’s, and to projects that reflect the aesthetic tastes, political aims and cultural assumptions of the designers over those of the participants. Inequalities, exclusions and gentrification tend to get reproduced and exacerbated – rather than reduced – by such an approach.
When participation happens predominantly on the terms set by the social designers, commissioners and funders, it all too often results in heroic, spectacular – and superficial – forms of community development in which ‘innovative’ models and ‘novel’ brands are privileged over people’s lived experiences and the necessarily messy and mundane, collective and conflictual process of making radical changes happen. The marketable brand value of Participatory City, as we have seen, is deemed more important by its designers than the long-term impact on people in Barking and Dagenham. There is thus skin in the game for professional social designers to protect this brand value at all costs – to double down on marginalising and silencing any dissenting voices; to place an even tighter controlling grip on the community development process; to curate the narrative in their own image through a paranoid and defensive proprietorship.
We need approaches that flip this hierarchy on its head. Approaches where professionals take a big step back and, rather than impose a fully-worked out theory of change onto a community, instead work much more closely with residents and local groups from the very beginning of the design and community development process and act as a supporter, translator and interlocutor to help support communities to translate their own ideas, plans and visions into the bureaucratic codes and languages spoken by gate-keepers, power-holders and funders. This means helping to resource open spaces from the outset of the community development process for people to come together to debate the fundamental questions of how they’d like to live, what wellbeing and development means to them, and how they’d like to see their local area change for the better. In other words, to be successful, and legitimate, community development needs to be less circumscribed, less predictable and far more flexible, to be driven by residents’ own agendas through dynamic dialogue and dissensus rather than by static blueprints.
We aren’t against the mediation of community development per se, or only on the side of an overly simplistic idea of authentic community development that somehow spontaneously and organically emerges from the grassroots. Community development processes will always be initiated and mediated, just as social and political movements are. What matters most is who mediates community development; how; with what aims; and how democratic, transparent and publicly accountable these mediations really are.
We need public commissioners and philanthropic funders to adopt much more ambitious and exacting requirements: to commission and fund only those projects that demonstrate genuine community ownership and citizen control, and with the organisational structure and governance mechanisms in place that will ensure democratic accountability to (and representation of) the community in question. If no such projects are forthcoming, then power-holders need to invest in the social infrastructure and spaces needed to build social life in particular areas and the genuinely community-led organisations that can initiate such projects.
We’re not against models or experiments, either, as long as they are led by the people living in the places they’re designed for, and responsive to their interests; and that the professionals involved act to support the development of local community priorities, rather than impose their own biases, agendas and plans made in advance.
What we’re for, then, is more robust, impactful and truly experimental forms of community development – bold and path-breaking approaches that place confidence in the capacities and capabilities of residents to lead in the redesign of their own neighbourhoods and that are genuinely open to democratic dissensus, conflict and accountability along the way. A democratic city – rather than a merely participatory city – is one whose future cannot be predicted in advance, nor controlled to produce the vision ordained by institutions and professional change-makers. The tragic tale of Participatory City shows what happens when trust is placed and huge sums invested in pre-designed systems and top-down schemes rather than in the people they’re designed for. To realise dynamically democratic and truly innovative forms of radical municipalism we need far less designing systems for people, and much more designing by and with.
Nick Mahony is a community development practitioner, social researcher and co-founder of Municipal Enquiry.
Dr Matt Thompson is a lecturer in urban studies at the Bartlett School of Planning, University College London. He’s written widely on cooperative alternatives, local economic development, new municipalism and urban political economy, and is the author of the open access book Reconstructing Public Housing: Liverpool’s hidden history of collective alternatives.