There is a growing movement of communities making things happen for themselves, and we are among the professionals helping them to do so. In some cases, existing organisations take on new initiatives, but often the initiative leads to the creation of something new.
Ideas to Action
Community initiatives can be sparked by an unmet need, a threatened building, or by a funding opportunity, among other catalysts. The challenge is to convert the initial impulse into a coherent plan and then make it happen, all with community support.
Most of the funding available for community projects is directed at groups with wide support for their proposals and a credible plan for delivery. It is therefore important to get the balance right between keeping momentum going and being thorough. A good idea can generate enthusiasm from volunteers, but it is also important to discuss it widely to ensure it is indeed the right idea.
Events and activities which are community-building in of themselves are an effective way to bring people together, enabling ideas to be developed with a cross-section of the community before forming an action plan for their delivery. These should be carefully managed to ensure the conversation moves forward and that the right people are engaged in making it happen.
A community conversation carries more credibility when it is facilitated by an organised group, especially if its results will later be used to evidence a proposal. The further this goes from ideas to action, the more likely it becomes that a formal organisation will be appropriate.
The models for community activism are as diverse as the places they serve, and in many cases a combination of models is used. The principle role of Community Councils has traditionally been to communicate people's views to public bodies such as the Local Authority and they are therefore well-placed to lead community conversations. However, taking action to make specific improvements and generate the income to do so often requires a distinct organisation, such as a Community Association, Co-Operative, or Development Trust.
The key to the success of any such organisation is for it to be open to a diverse range of input. Those who have lived somewhere for a long time bring local knowledge, whilst new people can bring fresh ideas, for example. Keeping an open group with a friendly atmosphere should help avoid burn-out, but good leadership is also required to get things done. This should never be just one person, however, as this is unsustainable.
Help and Support
As the movement of community initiatives grows, so does the collective experience new groups can benefit from. New legislation, such as the Community Empowerment Act, makes Local Authorities better placed than ever to help and each Local Authority area has a Third Sector Interface. In Midlothian, for example, a number of groups are supported by Midlothian Voluntary Action. There are also a number of national organisations such as the Development Trust Association of Scotland and Community Enterprise.
Facilitating a meaningful community conversation can be a big task for voluntary groups. Whilst the authenticity of this process is of the greatest importance, managing the progression of the discussion can be enhanced with the involvement of professionals. As Architects with a passion for these projects, we are well placed to offer services tailored specifically to working with communities.
Our services are most effective when our involvement begins at an early stage. By helping facilitate the conversation, we are helping manage a process that may ultimately become a brief for a building or other changes to the built environment. In doing so, the Architecture is far more likely to be successful.