Forget sensors and big data: it's volunteers who will change our cities

A food bank in Salisbury in 2010. Not going to lie, we couldn't find one of Plymouth. Image: Getty.

Over the past few years Plymouth, like many other cities in the UK, has been faced with a major reduction to its grant from central government – from £106m in 2010-11 to just £62.5m in 2015-16.

As the council was forced to cut back on services, the effect on food poverty was staggering. Between 2013 and 2014 there was a 49 per cent rise in the number of people using Plymouth Foodbank. In the same year, the number of people trying to access Plymouth soup kitchens doubled.

Today, however, because of an initiative rolled out over 18 months ago, over 100 families who were once reliant on parcels of convenience foods are eating freshly grown local produce and taking part in cooking lessons. As a result, 84 per cent of people participating are less hungry and have a healthier household diet. 

This entire programme was run by a network of volunteers working as part of an initiative known as Cities of Service: a city-wide model that recruits volunteers to help address issues facing urban communities. Launched in 2009 under mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York, the model has been adopted in over 200 US cities and is making a difference for millions of Americans. 

In 2014, we at Nesta, together with the Centre for Social Action, set out the trial the approach in the UK. We were keen to see if motivated volunteers could help to address the kind of challenges which, particularly in straitened times, councils alone would have struggled to address.

In September 2014 in seven city regions across England – Barnsley, Bristol, Kirklees, Plymouth, Portsmouth, Swindon and Telford & Wrekin – the programme was rolled out.

Two years later and we are seeing promising results. Beyond some quite impressive statistics – over 10,000 volunteers mobilised and nearly 19,000 people assisted – the most marked impact of the UK Cities of Service initiative has been on the way in which residents interact and engage with each other and with public services.

Take the example of Telford and Wrekin, in which six of the most deprived neighbourhoods were selected to be part of the Pride in your Community programme. Volunteers identified improvements they felt would make most difference – such as litter picks or street planting. Previously engagement from these communities was very low; social action has reversed this. As one resident said:

“We’re getting our power back. I think for a long time, people have been frightened or apathetic of doing things because they think they are going to get knocked back… There’s so many places where it feels it doesn’t belong to you, it’s done to you.”

Why has the networking of volunteers proven so successful in changing cities? Certainly part of the reason has been strong leadership, and having a central role at executive level within the council to champion social action. Within every City of Service sits a chief service lead who convenes and corrals social action from the front.

Volunteers can see a direct and immediate impact of their contribution and local authorities see key issues are better addressed. In Swindon, both the authority and residents identified that helping isolated older people was a priority. Today, dozens of isolated older people are less lonely, thanks to the befriending efforts of volunteers.

Crucially residents are also involved directly in shaping the delivery of all improvements. People have agency over the areas in which they want to affect change; they are there because of their own inner motivations, and actively engaged in the success of what they are doing. 

And volunteers gain from the programmes too. As an example, Portsmouth ran a school mentoring programme which resulted not only in an increase in students’ level of GCSE attainment and improved motivation. The same programme also saw volunteers benefiting from training in coaching skills. In this way the relationship between volunteers and those being supported becomes two way and relational, rather than simply transactional.

To paraphrase Shakespeare, a city is nothing but the people who live there, so it’s only by engaging citizens with issues facing their communities that we can build better places to live. We often read about how the smart cities movement – use of sensors, widespread analysis of big data – will change urban living in years to come. But it is social action that will transform our cities.

Lydia Ragoonanan is programme manager at Nesta, the UK’s innovation foundation.

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Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.

So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image:

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?

And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.