Alison Gilchrist, the research fellow on the Birmingham team, describes her initial explorations of their ‘anchor neighbourhood’ just to the east of the inner-city. She shows how the combined Sparkbrook/Balsall Heath area meets the project’s criteria for somewhere that is vibrant, diverse and active in finding solutions to local challenges.
These two areas combine as one political ward on the edge of inner-city Birmingham and are home to around 10,000 residents drawn from all corners of the world. They have been described as a ‘microcosm’ of the city and are renowned for many reasons. We decided to select them as our anchor neighbourhood because of its reputation as a place with a ‘can-do’ attitude, as well as being a locality characterised by both high concentrations of deprivation and ethnic diversity.
Discussions with our two co-operation partners indicated that Sparkbrook and Balsall Heath are vibrant, with lots going on at community level, while facing a number of serious challenges in terms of poor health, low educational attainment, poor housing and crime, including terrorism-related incidents.
After a couple of hours searching online for information about the various landmarks and organisations operating in the area, I spent a cold and drizzly afternoon on ‘walkabout’ with my camera, strolling round the streets, observing what was going on and dropping in to some of the local projects I had heard about or just happened to pass.
I also attended the Balsall Heath ‘dynamic youth’ awards evening, which was hugely inspiring for its sense of community pride and got to meet a few of the local characters who had been mentioned to us as potential ‘intermediaries’ as well as introducing myself to some new community entrepreneurs.
My main impression from these two encounters was of the friendliness of the people I met in those few hours. Nearly everyone I spoke to was positive and helpful and I collected lots of leaflets, photographs and contact details along the way. Many of these have formed the foundation for our first round of fieldwork, both in terms of arranging interviews but also providing points of reference in the conversations.
Our team has now completed 21 formal introductory interviews, and are about to choose the dozen individuals who we will be working with over the next year as our ‘smart urban intermediaries’. We feel we have a pretty good gender balance in the sample, and people from a range of ethnic backgrounds as well as practitioners, professionals and activists occupying different roles in the community.
In our initial reflections on these interviews, we have been struck by the passion people feel for the area – their sense of commitment, pride and rooted-ness, often coming from families who have lived in the area for many years or simply because they love the variety of cultures and community connections that are evident in the shops, the inter-faith activities, the streetscapes and languages heard all around. But no-one is under-estimating the severe problems facing the residents or the agencies that serve them. Some of these are long-standing but have been exacerbated by cuts in public services, lack of sustainable funding for core costs, growing inequalities and loss of social cohesion.
Many of the interviews revealed similar worries about the future as well as tensions between some of the organisations. We are currently underway in setting up the first Living Lab to take place on March 19th and have been pleased at the level of enthusiasm for this opportunity for people to come together to share their experiences, find common interests and to learn together about the practices and conditions that support smart ‘connecting’ for social change and innovation.