New York…Amsterdam…Wellington? How grassroots projects are putting us on the map

If you visit one new website today, make sure it’s the Community Lovers Guide to the Universe. It’s an inspiration. On the front page you’ll see a grid featuring dozens of world cities – from Bristol and Birmingham in the U.K. to New York, Chicago, Hong Kong, Utrecht and all sorts of other places across the globe. In the bottom left hand corner, sandwiched between Berlin, Dublin, Karachi and Genk is ‘Wellington’. Of course, standing amid such esteemed metropolitan company as this, it must refer to Wellington, New Zealand, yes? Actually no – this is OUR Wellington: Wellington, Shropshire. And if you’re in any doubt, click on it and you’ll see my big gurning face, along with some text about why I’m so excited about the way in which local people are making a difference to their town.

So what’s this all about, and how come Wellington is being listed alongside the likes of Sydney, Australia and Washington D.C?

The Community Lovers Guide to the Universe is an international project conceived last year in Rotterdam by Tessy Britton and Maurice Specht. It builds on the success of Tessy’s book ‘Hand Made’, which captured stories about grassroots local projects that are seeking to improve local areas and bring people together.

Hand Made

Local editors are being recruited around the world to collect stories from their town or city in order to launch a series of seperate guides, and when I met Tessy last year through work, she talked me into putting a Wellington version together. Collectively, this bank of editions will draw attention to the community activity going on in scores of places worldwide – things not organised by councils or charities or big companies, just ideas that have taken root amongst a few people and are making good things happen. We should be really excited that Wellington is on that list of places in the ‘first wave’ – because it means we have the chance to share what we’re doing with the world.

What sort of projects are we talking about?

To get an idea of what these guides are trying to unearth, take a look at Tessy’s Hand Made book, chapters of which you can download here.  There are a few things the projects she talks about have in common:

They all involve learning, sharing or making. In other words, they’re about something that’s practical, sociable and creative- rather than being about abstract theories or well-intentioned words and dull reports. Through this learning, sharing and making, these projects bring people together in new ways.

They emphasise the talent, resourcefulness and self-sufficiency that people in a community can demonstrate when encouraged to draw on the assets they have, rather than gripe about what they don’t have. This is what you might call an ‘asset-based approach’, as opposed to a ‘needs-based approach’. Without getting too caught up in jargon, the point is to start with what we’ve already got and make the most of it, rather than starting with the depressing idea that we (or people in our society) are just ‘needy’ and have to rely on people with more skills or money to help them.

For the most part, they by-pass existing, formal ‘systems’. They start with little or no money and ask for no permissions. And so, whilst traditional systems can bog people down in structures, committees and constitutions, the projects Tessy writes about usually find ways to just crack on. This is really important, because it means that all sorts of people get involved and stay involved – not just the people whose background and characteristics make them predisposed to attending meetings and filling in long forms – the very things that can sap energy and be so dispiriting.

Inspiring examples

Pie Lab, Alabama

Hand Made features a host of brilliant projects along these lines. The Pie Lab in Alabama, for instance, saw a group of young designers turn their studio into a pie shop which encouraged local people to come in, have a chat and generate new ideas for their area. In Australia, the Mensheds movement has created 400 workshops where men can get together and discuss health or family problems in a way that traditional experts rarely get them to do. And in Brixton Village Market, South London, 20 empty shops were brought back to life by a series of creative projects and new community-driven business start-ups.

What about Wellington?

So this is the exciting bit. What are the projects in Wellington that fit the bill and will enable us to put together a Community Lovers’ Guide to our town? I need your help to find out. Off the top of my head, I can think of a handful that we should maybe include. First off is AFC Telford – the football club in Watling Street that went bankrupt and was re-born as a supporters’ trust, setting the example for how football can root itself back into its community and be an active force beyond match days.

AFC Telford logo

Another is the Peace Garden – a simple idea pushed by George Evans which is now becoming a reality, and which will rely not on council money or council grounds staff, but local people all doing their bit to make a new green space with a special meaning. The work I’m involved in with H2A could also feature, whereby volunteers come together to run the Midsummer Fayre and Sounds in The Square events in summer, putting colour into the town’s historic public spaces and hopefully giving local people a good time in the process.

Square dancing

Then there’s the Wrekin Co-operative Allotment Society, which aims to find, buy and manage its own allotment site as a collective; the volunteer walk leaders assembled through Walkers are Welcome but who are now doing all sorts of things like organising a town Walking Festival; and the history-lovers of the History Group who pull together those quarterly Wellingtonia magazines and organise monthly free talks without relying on external funding.

Allan Frost at the History Group stall

There are a few other things I’ve heard about but aren’t too familiar with which could be interesting to find out about. I remember reading about Mark’s Pit Stop a few years ago, which helps get homeless people back on their feet – is that still going, and if so should it be on the list? And more recently, I’ve heard about the King Street Cafe, a new social enterprise that provides a home and workplace for people with learning disabilities in a way that demonstrates their skills as well as their needs – so that’s one I should look into.

Help me write the guide!

What have I missed? Do you know of other projects that could go on the list – projects driven by the drive and enthusiasm of a few people rather than big organisations or large pots of funding? Projects that are not about opposing and campaigning, but about the positive act of coming together to learn, to make things or to enjoy an activity? And projects that emphasise the contributions that we can all make, rather than setting up ‘advocates and recipients’? If you think you do, say something about them in the comments boxes below. And to end, here’s one last challenge for you: how about having an idea and start something new yourself? Right now, this week! Plant a fruit tree in a public place. Make a bunch of cakes and go and give them out to people in your street. Get together with friends to form a ‘time bank’ where you get exchange time and skills with neighbours. Or do something entirely different. But do something. Then tell everyone about it on this website and make Wellington’s Community Lover’s Guide good enough to sit on a shelf next to New York, Paris and all those other slightly more famous places.