Constellations of Practices around Europe

Argyro Barata (FEAST Greece) and Mateja Softic (Iskriva, Slovenia) visit Louise Armstrong (Peckham Coal Line, UK) and Kate Stewart (We make places, UK) in July 2017 in London and Liverpool.

We were at the first CitizensLab Network Meeting in Berlin, when the striking news of the EU referendum in the UK was announced. For the whole day we were numbed, speechless, offering moral support to the two English members of our network, who were opposing the Brexit decision. My thoughts were flowing like a torrent in my mind. Coming from Greece, where in 2015 a referendum about the terms of an agreement with the EU was also held and its result divided the people of my country and left a wound, still open to heal, I couldn’t help wondering… Why did this happen? What will it mean for the UK moving forward? Why in Greece we are so hooked up with the idea to remain in the EU, while Great Britain decided to leave? Are the effects of a Brexit the same as the ones of a potential Grexit? Are the economic consequences of such a decision a short-term dip for the UK or the beginning of a new long-term recession across the world? How will civil society be affected by or respond to this new situation?

I have visited the UK in 2005 and 2009, long before the Greek crisis and the global awakening of civil society. So, the idea to have an insider look, now before the official Brexit, into the community-led initiatives in the UK through the eyes of our two new CitizensLab members Kate Stewart from We make Places and Louise Armstrong involved in The Peckham Coal Line couldn’t be more appropriate with the goals of my project, FEAST Greece. At the same time, another member of our network, Mateja Softic, from Iskriva, Institute for Development of local potentials in Slovenia, was also interested to spend her mobility grant in the UK during the same dates. We decided to do this trip together and take advantage of this opportunity to get to know each other better as well as to search for fruitful common ground in our fields of work.

We started our UK exploration from Liverpool and we only had 48 hours to discover the hidden gems of the famous harbor city. I knew that Liverpool had more to offer than a memory lane tribute to the Beatles and a visit to the Anfield stadium. I also knew that the city faced social challenges characteristic of the postindustrial era. What I didn’t know is that significant portions of its docklands and downtown areas are under the UNESCO World Heritage Site umbrella and that recently a creative quarter was established in the historic city center area of Baltic Triangle. In this colony of creatives the headquarters of Kate Stewart’s social enterprise, the community interest company behind amazing projects like the appropriation of the Flyover Takeover, the Artist Provocateur Projects, the Maverick City Symposium and many others can be found.

Mateja, Kate and Argyro meet in Liverpool

Together with Kate and Mateja, we strolled around the Baltic Triangle to see the big cluster of creatives reclaiming and resurrecting the area’s glory days when 40% of the world’s trade was passing through the city’s docks during the 18th and 19th centuries. Now all these warehouses are a lively hub where musicians work next to photographers, artists, fashion designers, architects, film-makers and young entrepreneurs thanks to the redevelopment scheme of the Baltic Creative CIC.

Baltic Creative CoWorking Space, Liverpool

We also visited the footprint that the 2017 Maverick Symposium left to the local community (read more details about the project in Evija Taurene’s blog post here) and the premises of the We Make Places workshop, where the backbone of Kate’s social enterprise is set. An enormous and impressive laser cut machine, that is used for building sheds, is the revenue maker, allowing the extra profit to be reinvested in Liverpool’s community-led projects. This inspiring walk ended up at the annual summer barbecue of the Baltic Creative, held in the heart of the Baltic Triangle neighbourhood, the co-working space of the company. There, apart from enjoying delicious food, we briefly meet with the other CitizensLab member from Livepool, Gerry Proctor from Engage Liverpool, who shared his efforts to secure the endangered status of the UNESCO World Heritage site due to massive commercialisation of the docklands. The definite decision will be taken in February 2018. Gerry and the CitizensLab member Jekaterina Lavrinec from Laimikis, urban games & research are using the board game methodology, Urbingo, to engage more citizens in this issue in order to put pressure on the local and national governments. After only 10 hours, between burgers, beers, and a feminist punk concert in an organised squad in the city centre, I found myself mesmerised by Kate’s passion to support her local community, I empathised with her perseverance to secure the investment for the machine’s purchase and I felt inspired by the clever idea behind the business plan of her social enterprise. She is a true maverick and a tireless actor of urban change.

Kate's Workshop

The next and final day, we had more things to check out and one of them was the event “What if?” by the national charity organisation for homeless people Crisis at the Liverpool Museum. It was a photo exhibition of artwork captured by homeless people, a recite of poems and songs written by people in rehab, and the screening of a short film produced in collaboration with a local artist. A moving experience and a real manifestation that creativity can be an outlet during hard times for everyone. Lastly, leaving Liverpool without paying a visit to Tate Liverpool, would have been a big mistake. So, before taking the train to London we saw the exhibition Constellations, Highlights of nation’s collection of modern art. The exhibition was curated in “constellations”, where at the heart of each constellation was a “trigger” artwork chosen for its profound and revolutionary effect on modern and contemporary art and surrounding the trigger works were artworks that related to it and to each other, across time and location. An interesting curatorial approach on how to reintroduce to the public the masterpieces of the Tate collection.

Tate Liverpool

Off to London and during our two and a half hours-trip Mateja and I couldn’t stop talking about the similarities and the struggles that we face in order to engage more people into our local initiatives and how to spark new citizens-led ideas in our cities. Also, we were looking forward to getting to know the South London neighbourhood of Peckham, an area far away from the touristic mid-July central London and the acclaimed “new place to be” in the capital of England.


Our host was Louise Armstrong, the mastermind behind the Peckham Coal Line project. Together with her partner, in 2014, they spotted a hidden open green space while walking in their neighbourhood. After taking a closer look from above in Google Maps they discovered an urban “treasure”: a disused coal line. Immediately, a dream was born: to transform the coal sidings, which were decommissioned in the 50’s, into a one kilometer elevated urban park that would cut through the heavily built-up ex-industrial area, providing an open space to enjoy the nature, to cycle, to relax, to play. This grassroot initiative engaged many more committed local residents on the way and attracted media attention, when it was successfully funded with 76.000 pounds by more than 800 people, the City of London, the Network Rail and the Southwark Council. The money was also used to develop a feasibility study through the scheme Crowdfund London, led by the civic crowdfunding platform, Spacehive. You can find the whole story here. For me and my project FEAST, in which I implement crowdfunding tactics to support local projects in Thessaloniki, understanding the engagement actions of the Peckham Coal Line crowdfunding campaign and having a deeper knowledge of the scheme of Crowdfund London was the reason behind this trip.

We met with Louise at the Brick Brewery, a local micro-brewery, that actually supported the crowdfunding campaign by labelling a special beer for the cause of the coal line and offering the earnings to the campaign. After catching up and hearing from Louise about the bad news that the project is under threat because developers bought a part of the coal line, the three of us decided that we will not spend our time on just talking, exchanging practices and ideas, but to work on a common project. And with this commitment in mind we called it a night.

The morning after, we walked by the coal line: a beautiful place with Victorian Arches, an old stable yard, a nature reserve park and many linkages to transform the area around the Pechkam Rye Station and to connect it with the national cycle network, creating a continuous green route stretching from Brixton to Rotherhithe with potential to reach Canary Wharf. We had brunch together with two other collaborators of the project on the rooftop of Bold Tendencies, a car park going through a major transformation into a co-working space ready to host the creative community of Peckham from the beginning of this fall. From there we were also able to see the stretch of the coal line.

At that point, we started brainstorming on ideas for our common project. We were puzzled on how to make our projects more appealing in order to engage more citizens, which engagement tactics are more effective than others and at the same time we were discussing about our similar challenges, whether a project is based in Britain or the Balkans and how CitizensLab can be a playground for new initiatives or a laboratory to test ideas and practices. Then, an idea sparked up: to produce a matrix of civic engagement practices by measuring the resources needed for their completion with the equivalent impact on the project. We started mapping practices by writing down types of engagement like media reports, field trips to similar projects, walking tours in the project areas, community dinners etc. and analysing them in terms of time, budget, resources and their impact on awareness, acceptance and ownership. We were happy with the progress of our idea, however, the visual aspect of the matrix wasn’t clear to us yet. We said to continue the work the following days.

Civic Engagement Practices Mapping Notes

The next couple of days were full with meeting and events. We participated in the Living Change: Civil Society is all of us event, organised by the Forum of the Future organisation, which Louise works for. The event was an informal gathering between actors of the civil society to discuss via role playing the challenges civil society is facing today and to co-develop visions for what the picture might look like ten years from now. Also, Louise asked us to take part in an experimental process that they are developing at the Forum of the Future, the Next Wave, in which they are exploring the paradigm shift that is emerging in people’s mindsets, behaviours, and societal structures. Our conversation focused around two questions: What is the most radical thing you are doing right now? And, what is the most radical thing you see others doing right now? Here is a brief blog post by Louise about the outcomes of this test. Additionally, we had the opportunity to meet with Silvia Gullino, an academic on urban planning who studies civic crowdfunding in Europe with other colleagues of hers from London, Sheffield and Milano. She is exploring new forms of public participation, urban governance, civic engagement and democracy and she was interested to learn more about the “soup model” of crowdfunding we are implementing at FEAST.

But, the best was saved for last. Louise arranged for Mateja and me to meet with Harriet Gridley, Community Manager at Spacehive, to walk us through the Crowdfund London project. The meeting was set at Second Home, an amazing co-working space in the heart of East London’s creative cluster. We discussed about the platform and its unique software, which matches projects with grant-makers alongside the crowd, the procurement needed from the municipality to support the scheme, the communication campaign implemented by the City of London to attract projects led by citizens and how Spacehive supports the projects in order to organise effective crowdfunding campaigns. The meeting was an enlightening experience for me, making me understand how to foster collaborations between local governments, private organisations and community projects through crowdfunding tactics.

Second Home, CoWorking Space, London

However, these past two days, my mind was stuck on how to solve the visual aspects of our new matrix and then it struck me. What if the matrix doesn’t have the image of the classic four-part canvas, but it looks like a constellation of stars? I immediately shared my Tate Liverpool inspired idea with Mateja, who added the notion that our practices depend on time and location just like when we are gazing at the night sky in different spots around the globe. We started thinking about the design and it made sense. The parameters of the engagement practices are the earth’s latitude, where the volume of each parameter and its impact is defined vertically and the geographical place of each practice is the earth’s parallels. At the end each practice is mapped as a unique star constellation!

Constallation of practices Generic Matrix

So, with pleasure, Louise, Mateja and I present the Constellation of Practices by mapping as an example one practice that our organisations implement and we invite anyone who wishes to map their own engagement practices to use it. Of course all comments and amendments are welcome!

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