Liverpool – in what way are you Maverick*?

Evija Taurene (Cēsis Municipality, Latvia) visits Kate Stewart (We Make Places, UK) in July 2017 in Liverpool.

*an unorthodox or independent-minded

There are many reasons why I decided to use my Mobility grant to visit fellow Citizen-Labber, artist, activist and local change actor Kate Stewart in Liverpool, United Kingdom.
Kate runs the community interest company “We Make Places”, which works for and together with local communities in Liverpool, organising urban happenings, building a community of activists, and engaging people in creative placemaking and DIY projects. Since the moment I got familiar with Kate’s work, it has inspired and motivated me to do more for my own local community in order to empower them to co-create the city. With that in mind, I was enthusiastic and eager to learn more about Kate’s work, organisation and its projects, and to be a part of the annual Liverpool Maverick City Symposium. However, what I got out of the mobility experience was much more than I anticipated.

Symposium Poster
Symposium Poster

Read on to see my thoughts on how “We Make Places” contributes to creating a more engaged city, and what new ideas the Maverick City Symposium brought to the table.

Hello Liverpool!

In the afternoon of Tuesday, June 20, I step out of the train in the Liverpool Lime street station ready to absorb everything this urban adventure will bring in the upcoming days. Soon I meet Kate in the main hall of the train station, we exchange our joy of meeting each other, hug, shortly talk about my journey and head to the exit to start our walk towards the apartment.
After the first 15 minutes spent in Liverpool, I feel intrigued and warmly welcomed. We pass by the famous Churchill Way Flyover I’ve heard so much about, then we cross the street and almost immediately we are stopped by an elderly citizen who runs the Everton (a neighbourhood in Liverpool) community garden and wants to have a quick chat with Kate. He also invites me to visit Everton park, claiming that it is “the best spot in town” (and soon I find out, why)

Everton Park
Everton Park

As we continue to walk, not even 10 minutes go by as we have to make another stop to chat with the ex-Lord Mayor of Liverpool (The Lord Mayor in Liverpool is the first citizen and chosen representative of the city, acting as the focal point of the community as well as promoting the city and forging national and international links.), who surprised me with a question I am not quite ready to answer:

Needless to say that this question still occupies my mind!
As the Maverick City Symposium is planned for Friday and Saturday, I had some time for ‘urban diving’, trying to catch the unique feeling of the city. Walking around the most crowded spaces and little quiet streets, and exploring the rapidly developing culture of street-food and speciality coffee shops makes me think of Liverpool as a really dynamic city.

Exploring the City
Exploring the City

In order to understand a city like Liverpool, I felt it is quite essential to start with paying a visit to the history museum, so I did. It highlighted the most important urban, economic and social development phases this city has gone through on the way to create the city we see and experience today. There, I got the feeling that both the willingness to excel and innovate, as well as strong community ties are historically enrooted in the local society. This certainly helps organisations like “We Make Places” to exist and sustain.
As I soon find out, Kate’s organisation is in-between very interesting times – they have just expanded their workshop, new projects and ideas are blossoming, and the whole team – Kate, Steve, Mark, and Angelo – seems to be very excited.

Kate in her Office
Kate in her Office
We Make Places – and you should too!

I love this statement on the “We Make Places” homepage: “As Designers, Communicators and Makers we make long-term change happen with speed and passion”, and this is what I experienced as well. The team behind the organisation takes pride in being active in doing, not talking, proving that everything can be learned through active exploration and a DIY approach. Just one example of that is the pallet furniture they created in a public green space near their office in the Baltic Triangle district of Liverpool. It really takes just a small bunch of interested people, some material and time, but it gives much more.

Baltic Triangle
Baltic Triangle
“We Make Places” Projects

“We Make Places” currently runs several projects in Liverpool, all of them are meaningful and created with places and local communities in mind:

  • The Maverick City Symposium happening June 23-25 is an annual gathering of urban and cultural activists from all over the globe, who come together to talk, learn from each other, and get inspired for more action (my learnings from this year’s event are further below in the text)
  • Urban Workbench – a new learning hub for individuals and communities looking for new skills (build, repair, DIY everything) to deliver self-build projects and improve places. Once launched, the project can provide assistance and mentoring for existing ideas, skill sharing and CNC/workshop services. Open community build sessions will also be organised. The project was launched as a part of the Maverick City Symposium
  • Friends of the Flyover annual Culture programme is also in the making. The project aims at eventually transforming the Churchill Way Flyover into a unique urban park and cultural venue in response to the city council’s initial plans to demolish it completely. Each year a cultural programme is created to show the community the possibilities of transformation.

To my mind, “We Make Places” is the perfect organisation for Liverpool that every city would need. They have the power to positively shape the city and its communities, creating a more liveable, playful and integrated city for its people. And through hard, but inspired and passionate work they are reaching results no public administration could. I believe that all municipalities and both larger and smaller cities actually face quite similar issues – the lack of participatory culture and initiative among the citizens, the lack of quality public spaces in the city, open dialogue between the public and the administration etc. Challenges like these can and should be solved by local actors of change, if there are opportunities for these people to devote their skills and knowledge, and at the same time – to be appropriately appreciated.

The Maverick City Symposium 2017

One of the main reasons for my visit in Liverpool was to participate in the Maverick City Symposium – a gathering of brave city makers and change makers from (as Kate jokingly called this little international bunch) the “United Nations”.

Symposium in Action
Symposium in Action

The Symposium was represented by people both located in the UK and also far away in different continents – the US, the Netherlands, Brazil, Latvia and Italy. The event was opened and facilitated by Torie, who is the chair of “We Make Places”. Her wise words could easily characterise the whole event:

As the event was a rather small, but cosy one, we all found ourselves in the middle of stories and conversations, which disrupted the traditional conference format and created a space and time for new ideas to spark.

Fellow C-Lab member Chiara Organtini shared her story of CAOS art centre located in a former factory building. She shared with us her firm belief in co-creating spaces with the local citizens and stakeholders, which has led to unimaginable and wonderful results.

Tiago Cosmo, a violinist and the co-founder of Camerata Laranjeiras (a string orchestra in Rio de Janeiro) shared his passion for music. He believes that music is so powerful that it can break any barriers – between rich and poor, between groups of society, and even between countries. He said: “Music can change people. And if you can change people, you can change the world!”.

Coming far away from Chicago, artist and advocate Carron Little told us about her relationship with culture and cities. She challenged us with a question: “Is the council REALLY looking for a safe/boring/consumerism city?”. Carron also brought our attention to the fact that we are actually building our cities around the official narratives, however artists are the ones taking a lot of personal and political risks just to be a part of the city. This thought had never crossed my mind, but now I see every artistic action as an act of true bravery.

Tiago, Carron and Chiara
Tiago, Carron and Chiara

Kate Stewart, the CEO and co-founder of We Make Places, shared with us several stories of how the simple act of making things can transform lives. Kate separated the act of making into three equally important parts: planning -> anticipation -> self-forgetting movement. ‘Making’ is also something “We Make Places” (as the name of the organisation already reveals) has tested in their work with local communities and volunteers. Kate invited us all to be makers in our everyday life back home, and this is certainly something I have taken home.

Steve Threlfall, who is also a co-founder of “We Make Places” and Friends of the Flyover, and had just returned from a residency programme in Madrid, introduced us to their newest project Urban Workbench, which aims at bringing practical maker skills to communities and individuals. He again emphasized the approach of understanding cities and contexts through activities and ‘doing’, not academically. His speech evoked a discussion on how we actually teach the younger generations to analyse risks and claim spaces.

Kate and Steve
Kate and Steve

Jurriën Mentink, a young urban designer and innovator from the Netherlands has found his passion in the area of Elderly Healthcare. He spoke a lot about the way different generations can interact and co-live, without judgments and with ‘play’ in mind. During the last four years, which he has spent in the Humanitas retirement home, his life and perspective as an urban designer have changed a lot, but he has also changed the life of many of his elderly neighbours. Game nights and casual pranks is nothing unusual when Jurriën is around.

The last but not the least of our maverick speakers was Chris Coates. Chris is a person with such an interesting life story that his current occupation is hard to put in any words. He comes from Lancaster, UK, and he is one of the people behind the Lancaster CoHousing project – a co-living community sharing not only a common neighbourhood, outdoor space and dining area, but also values and lifestyle. Chris’s story certainly found a way to my heart and mind, and gave an invaluable affirmation that co-living is not only possible, but very needed for the modern society.

All in all, the first day of the Symposium was really packed with valuable insights and ideas, conversations and discussions. Each speaker had come with their own story and no one spared personal insights – that is something to be grateful for.
However, the Symposium did not finish with a group dinner and ‘bye-bye’, we still had a full day ahead of us to be spent together in action. So, we all took Kate’s suggestion and became real makers.

Community Build

West Everton Community Council waited for us to get our hands dirty in action. We gathered, had a quick coffee and 10 minutes of planning, and jumped straight to work. The initial idea was to create whatever pallet furniture to liven up a large asphalt area in front of the former neighbourhood school. Basically, we were the first group launching the “Urban Workbench” open community build session, and we loved it!

The asphalt field was filled with drilling and sawing noises, conversations and laughs all through the day. Some had the first ever experience of taking a drill or a saw in hand, some were more experienced and were happy to share skills, some had the best design ideas and others were just happily observing or taking photos, which is an equally important job. In the end, thanks to Angelo’s thoughtful mentoring process, we managed to make two wonderful benches, which we are truly proud of.

Our House is very Fine House
Our House is very Fine House

The highlight of the day though was the lunch break, when our violinist Tiago wanted to share his music with us, so he played “Imagine” by John Lennon. I must say, there was no person in the room who would not feel lifted.

Leaving Liverpool

Now I can say, that the opportunity to experience Liverpool, the Symposium, the community build project and to meet Kate and “We Make Places” in their own environment, has not only widened my understanding of local contexts and given a real interaction opportunity with the local change actors, but it has also taught me practical skills to use later in my own work in Latvia, Cēsis. However, the most valuable thing about the mobility, was the ability to leave something behind for the city and the local community.
So, in what way is Liverpool maverick? The question is easy to answer, as behind every blooming, dynamic, bold and different city stand its people and its communities. And Liverpool can certainly be proud of its people, especially those behind “We Make Places”, who are willing to put in time and resources to work for the mission of strengthening communities. But most importantly – they do it in an inclusive, integrated and their-own-kind-of-crazy-creative way, which makes them…well, maverick.

Liked Evija' story?

Read here about the Maverick City Symposium from the viewpoint of another CitizensLab member Chiara Organtini (Indisciplinarte, Italy)

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