If you went strolling in the streets where you live, this evening and asked yourself “what could I do to improve the area for everyone?” and then listed what you could do to contribute to that – what would it be?
When I do the stroll, it’s usually in someone else’s community on my travels. I mutter about “litter in the streets“, “lack of shelter for young people who might want to gather and chat” and “absence of colour and nature to lift the spirit“. Then I stroll back to the hotel, continuing to mutter along the way about how people give too much leeway to their local Council for structuring and maintaining their community.
There are many reasons why we mutter but actually do little – you might find yours below:
It’s just the way it is
It’s not my business
Neighbour’s will think I’m a busybody
It’s what older, retired people do
I haven’t got time
The Council wouldn’t let me get involved
and a multitude of others.
Despite the reams of research that suggests that the built environment is key to people’s good mental health and reduction of crime, we fail to implement the findings in real ways within communities. Some Councils really get this and encourage local businesses to get involved by sponsoring flower baskets, art installations etc and some take the opposite route and secretly install “noise alarms” that wail in places where young people gather in order to move them on.
Because my professional interest is in the welfare of young people – when I visit communities across the UK, I take a stroll around in the evenings and try to see things from a young person’s view:
Looking at a community from the perspective of a young person is a humbling experience: What are these streets telling me about my role in the community? What is the expectation? Often I see that everyone expects me to break the windows of shops as soon as night falls because the shutters are all down (unless you live in affluent areas where shops will attract you with their window displays). I always hope for good weather so at least I won’t have to shelter in a doorway to meet up with my friends. I would like to go to the Health Club to hang around in the cafe at least but its Members Only and neither me or my friend can afford the fees.
Its a sad reflection on us, as community custodians, for that, after all, is what we are (same goes for the planet of course but as we have very little power on keeping that well, let’s at least think local….). So, we all live in our little boxes, and keep our sweeping and pruning firmly to the inside of our boundary wall. I once extended my sweeping to 300 yards either way outside of my own front door and curtains twitched and worried heads shook.
But there is a group of people in Ferndale, in Rhondda Cynon Taf, Wales, who are doing something that most of us could do, mutter about doing but don’t: they have organised a “community improvement” group. Started by Cathrine Silver, a social care professional, the group now has 30 members and growing. Their aim is quite simple: to improve the aesthetics of the community for all, aware that their young people need to know that they are valued and that the community is thinking of their needs and raising funds in order to fulfill that.
If I lived in Ferndale, I would know that I was valued as a member of the community because a group of people are “doing something” to improve the aesthetics, to keep me from being lonely if I am, to raise funds to better the lives of young people,and if I am the parent of a young family – to give us something to get involved with as a family.
I met the founder of this group when I was working in Ferndale and she is the epitome of someone who is passionate about her community and who wants to contribute to that community. Rather than moan about “Why it isn’t being done”, Cathrine Silver, just upped and and did it. While I was there, I watched a Programme on BBC Wales, headed by the actor Michael Sheen, about the decline of community involvement. I was inspired by that Programme and by Cathrine Silver, to believe that it is the people of a community that know best what is needed to bring hope and inspiration to the young and it is wonderful to see this group, Ferndale Roots, taking charge and involving the Council under their own terms rather than the other way round.
This is a great project that we could all emulate in our own communities – people need social events as much as they need food banks and young people need to see elders rooting for them in this way.