In this blog-piece, Pat Cassidy, Director of Govan Workspace and Govan Heritage Trust, reflects on his learning from the Smart Urban Intermediaries project and from over 40 years of working for regeneration and social change in Govan. Here he adds to the critical questioning of urban practice and regeneration the project is seeking to engage with by challenging the research team, the state and in fact ‘all’ of us to take more seriously the issues of inequality and disempowerment that working class communities continue to face.
These are personal reflections and wouldn’t necessarily be shared by others but I’ll make them nonetheless because they form part of conclusions I’ve reached from my work in the community over more than four decades.
A question of scale and local impact …
The various SUI reports over the course of the project tend to imply there’s an army of SUIs out there tackling and making serious inroads into the social problems facing our cities. On a positive note, it’s great to see the outstanding work of so many people who are too often ignored now being given credit. But from a more reflective, longer-term perspective, I think we should be careful not to exaggerate our impact. I believe it’s important and is no disgrace to recognise that the effect is inevitably limited and that we’re perhaps trying in vain to hold back the rising tide of a failed and discredited capitalism.
My aim here is not to undervalue the work we’re all involved in but instead to put it into a wider social and economic context. It bothers me greatly to have to contemplate that the work I’ve been doing all these years has essentially amounted to applying sticking plaster to a limb while the body as a whole is being devoured by disease. Maybe it’s not quite as bad as that. Let me put it another way: my sense of our achievements and contributions is that things would most certainly have been a lot worse if we hadn’t been around but, that said, we don’t have and never have had the wherewithal to make what I’d call meaningful impact on the big problems our community faces. In the case of Govan, the area might in appearance be better physically and environmentally, but regrettably the social problems remain deep-rooted and entrenched.
A question of language …
From this perspective, then, one central criticism I have of the SUI reports is that the language is too measured in contrast to the reality of the problems they refer to which are urgent and extreme For some of us in the SUI sector, our motivations and objectives are not really best described as simply ‘to make a difference’ or ‘to make the world a better place’ … although this undoubtedly applies to a number of SUI’s and their activities. Instead, I think that for some of us our projects are all about combating local poverty, social injustice and social exclusion — the struggle to grab power for poor communities. It is unashamedly political, in the true sense of that word.
I would prefer a more robust language to describe the dire plight of our poorest communities and the failure of the existing economic system. So for instance, whilst the Final Project Report – see end for details – describes how: The liveability and resilience of many European cities is under pressure from growing inequalities, persistent poverty, political polarisation, fiscal uncertainty and environmental threats, such as the climate crisis. … This could be described better as: The prosperity of our SMART European cities is being undermined because they continue to fail to solve the financially-draining problems of sustained long-term unemployment, the social exclusion and the dire poverty affecting a significant proportion of their citizens.
A question of resources and getting serious
Finally, there is a clear need to expose more about the failure of the public sector and wider state and government to provide an adequate response. Throughout meetings with SUIs from the various projects across Europe what I’ve picked up repeatedly from conversations has been about the lack of power to change things; the absurd and disproportionate time ‘wasted’ on raising funds just to stay alive; and the downright unwillingness of authorities to co-operate or provide necessary support – indeed their wilful opposition to change.
We need to highlight that our public authorities are missing a trick. If they’re serious about regeneration, they need to recognise that they could achieve so much more if they would invest appropriate resources and work willingly and directly with communities and the SUI sector.
- Supporting Smart Urban Intermediation – Scottish Supplement 2019
- Socially smart cities – Making a difference in urban neighbourhoods
- Social transformation in urban neighbourhoods – Supporting smart urban intermediation
If you’d like to respond to any of the issues raised in this blog-piece and/or other blog-pieces and reports on the Smart Urban Intermediaries website, please contact us via email – firstname.lastname@example.org