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Unleashing the #PowerOfUs

Image © Gensler

This post is part of our series on Vibrant Communities.

On June 11, I had the privilege of giving a TEDx talk, at TEDxBrum, sharing a platform with Birmingham’s most pioneering thinkers from across every discipline, background and culture. I came away not just with a wealth of inspiration and ideas, but also a heightened curiosity of what, collectively, could be achieved by this heterogeneous metropolis if we unleashed the #PowerOfUs.

Watching Craig Pinkney talk about and how to promote positive social change for disaffected youths, hearing Simon Parker’s thoughts on why politics should focus on unleashing society’s potential by giving power away, and Amy Martin’s vision for the future of childcare really got me thinking.

Birmingham is a place so rich in culture, history and character, and now, it’s a city on the cusp of a resurgence. The growth potential is huge and regeneration is already underway, especially in creative clusters, such as Digbeth. However, there is still a vast amount of untapped potential. So how do we go about unlocking this potential to tackle some of the city’s challenges?

In an ideal world, our cities would adapt and remodel around us, instantly changing as we interact with them—working hard to their fullest potential. But our cities are complex and multifarious—coloured with monuments and memories, buildings and infrastructure, people, empty plots and buildings left behind and spaces in between. Add to that the bureaucracy of governance, legislation, rules and regulations, planning, ownership and utilities and you begin to recognise that our cities are governed by their own physicality and traditional approaches to object-orientated master planning and old-school city thinking.

Red tape slows progress, stifles creativity and holds back innovation. Often backed into a corner, it seems like the only option is the failed solution of the fixed object orientated masterplan, which is often out of date before it is even built. More importantly, the masterplan fails to include the most important ingredient of the city—us, its citizens.

So if we’re not living in an ideal world and conventional planning tools don’t work, how do we participate now in the design and creation of a citizen-centric city–a city built around us? We have to radically rethink our approach to communities, city planning and engagement and instead we have to listen to the individual’s voice—the voice of the citizen. The powerful voice that has crowd sourced a revolution. The voice that could crowd build a city. We need to acknowledge the possibility of the self-made city, not imposed on us, but created by us.

The Buiksloterham district in Amsterdam is just one example where citizen-driven real estate development is creating buildings on vacant and empty plots in the city; real people building real homes with real money. Not surprisingly, the results are higher quality homes because a greater proportion of the funding goes into the fabric. The performance is often better too because they invest in the long term. The floor plans are more flexible because people know that life changes. Localised circular economy has grown up around sharing and sustainable reuse. But most importantly, the neighbourhoods are more cared for.

This model works well for exploring the citizen-centric approach on empty and vacant plots of land. But what about parts of the city that are already filled with buildings and neighbourhoods and communities? Well, we hack the city, we adapt, we repurpose, we rethink the buildings and the spaces in between. Gensler’s own hackable cities initiative grew out of our hackable workplaces and hackable building initiatives, where adaptive reuse creates new opportunities in the city.

TEDxBrum has opened my eyes to the wealth of amazing ideas being conceived, and the concept of ‘crowd power’ is no exception. I firmly believe that that a collective effort is essential through intentional and collaborative action from all the players within the city realm—the local authority, private sector, third sector and citizens. By engaging everyone at the right time and in the right way, in meaningful, ideas-driven design dialogue, and by really listening, we can empower one another and act together. As Henri Lefebvre surmises in his writings related to the city:

“The right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city. It is, moreover, a common rather than an individual right since this transformation inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power to reshape the processes of urbanization. The freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is, I want to argue, one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights.”

Alistair Cory is a Firmwide Health & Wellness practice area leader and directs the Birmingham, England office. With considerable experience in strategic and management delivery across a broad range of sectors, Alistair guides Gensler's growth throughout the U.K. markets and EMEA region. A skilled architect, project manager and business leader, Alistair is driven by the transformational power of great design. He applies his expertise – gleaned through projects ranging from leisure and healthcare to education and science – to hone his project approach: challenging the project brief, injecting fresh thinking to solve problems, seeking out efficiencies, and delivering more for less. Contact him at alistair_cory@gensler.com.