Jump starting suburbia: Sharing and making (his)tory

We arrived late at the Waiting Room in Colchester, which perhaps was fitting, although we never intended for people to have to “wait” for us.

The Waiting Room was the second in a trilogy of spaces that used the term “room” to describe their environment — from the Common Room further north in Norwich to the Living Room down south in Canterbury.

Like with Sunday Soups and PieLabs, these “Rooms” use terminology of infrastructure that not only everyone can relate to, but that remind people of their childhood rooms, from having soup at the dinner table to eating a piping hot pie in the winter.

When we think of a room, we think back to the “home”, but there are different rooms — from the dining room where people break bread to the living room were they come together to relax and have fun, via the bedroom which provides a safe space for people to take refuge from the hustle and bustle of the rest of the house. It’s a space for reflection and for intimacy.

1. Create spaces that make people feel at home

Within our Transeuropa Caravans, you physically have these spaces, albeit constricted within a very small environment — where the “living room” doubles up as a “dining room” and as a “bedroom”.

But while you can come together, you can’t also have that thinking space for intimacy and reflection. Which heightened the importance of the values that the spaces we visited provide!

The story of the Waiting Room connects the past, present and future of Colchester, which is concentrated in the neighbourhood of Colchester.

The past, where this quarter slowly lost its use as a place where people came to meet new arrivals and depart themselves from the city. Indeed, this is where the main bus station was.

The Waiting Room provides a physical memory of the past, while overshadowed by the present, the new gallery Firstsite, designed to provide a platform for cultural regeneration. It’s spaceship-like shape does remind us that regeneration which has landed from above does stick out.

While this is important to create a new dynamic that others can build upon and gravitate around — the Southbank in London and Gateshead in Newcastle provide testimony to this — it is critical that this is complemented by supporting home-grown civic infrastructure — like the Waiting Room — that has the local know how to blend in with the landscape.

2. Jump start the latent energies of your neighbourhood

But it’s not enough to just repurpose disused spaces and give them a new lease of life.

If we are to talk of civic infrastructure and not confuse it with civic aesthethic, then these spaces need to “jump start” the latent energies of the neighbourhood and “blend in” practices inspired from other places — such as hacker / maker spaces.

This is particularly important in suburban areas which don’t benefit from the magnetic attraction of cities which have sucked in the creative fuel of people from suburbia.

Which makes it all the more challenging…and thought-provoking about what motivates civic entrepreneurs who choose not to gravitate to the bright lights of the city to instead “jump start” the places they grew up in.

3. Help people develop a civic literacy of the world around them

And that’s also true of “jump starting” the traditional social institutions around them, such as libraries.

The challenge that the people behind the Waiting Room is indeed far more ambitious than meets the eye, but the space provides a meeting point for these different ambitions to be prototyped.

The “give-get library” is described in a very humble way, but it’s part of a movement to transform the way people see libraries.

Indeed, how can these social institutions maintain the trust they’ve built throughout the ages of a trusted environment, while responding to the challenges of helping develop the literacy of the world around them.

You need that deeply-rooted trust to introduce people to new forms of literacy — from how to engage with the opportunities that digital technology can bring to producing and commodifying local know how into community assets.

Neither of these objectives has anything to do with the role of a library as lending books. In fact, given the different ways that people use it — from bullied teenagers taking refuge to lonely locals looking for a space to meet others, via people needing to access the internet — “lending books” provides a convenient cover for people to not have to justify using it for much more vulnerable purposes.

4. Curate interventions where (hi)stories can be shared and (re)made

You could describe developing your literacy of the world around you as “civic literacy”, discovering, making sense and enacting the different cultures, behaviours and stories that have been embedded and refined by the people that make up the community.

While the Community Lover’s Guide to Cambridge provides a way to document those stories, the Waiting Room hosts more physical spaces where (hi)stories can be shared and be (re)made.

Our Transeuropa Caravans wanted to discover not only the unseen ways of developing civic activism, but the places off the beaten track.

If you think of the poems that best articulate the eccentricities and contradictions of our civic culture, it’s those that start from the surburban — from the Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureshi to Bombing Slough by John Betjeman…to err The Office…in Slough.

Head of Strategy (Communities) @camdencouncil #localgov Director @euroalter Co-founder of #systemschange & #servicedesign progs. inspired by @cescaalbanese