Sunday, 24 July 2011

a field student of archives, libraries and consultations

Field Study’s Man in E17 currently resides in a billet measuring 280x340x370cm. This space has an ordinary assortment of domestic furnishings including a double bed, a wardrobe, and a chest of draws, a desk and chair, several book shelves. It also accommodates his archive of art works or field studies - a relatively large collection of boxes, crates, files, books and other items. To maintain the room as a place for art activity, the archive is tightly packed, remote and less than easily accessible. Various efforts to sort out the archive, e.g. chronologically, have never been completed and the physical/geographical inaccessibility has been accompanied by a temporal or cerebral inaccessibility. The prospect of trying to retrieve an item from this awkward and confused memory is daunting and often deters the effort. The stuff(ing) is effectively lost.
So it was this evening he remembered he has/had some photographs of a ‘planning for real’ workshop in action, dating back to the mid 1990s. He was involved with a community arts organisation in Stevenage that instigated some projects about countryside access. He was thinking about ‘planning for real’ in relation to Adrian Stannard’s talk about issues and ways of increasing participation in the public planning process. If he recalls correctly his photographs show members of a community working out, by modelling, how a new road/bypass might affect their locality, including access to the surrounding countryside. He scrabbled about in the far reaches, heights and depths of his 35,224,000 cubic cm alter-cranium for the images. A landslide of a crate of slides temporarily buried him and so put an end to his search. What of this failure? Would the photographs actually reveal anything about the process which could not be communicated by other more easily accessible images? Was this another instance of Field Study’s Man in E17 aka Julian Beere attempting to qualify some sort of notion of himself - the photographs akin to art boy scout badges? Field Study’s Man in E17 could award himself a medal for bravery in action under-the-bed and dress his chest up like a field marshal on parade.

Let’s return to the serious subject of participation in public planning, policy and implementation. Planning for Real® is real and I (who?) mentioned it to AS at the NfN talk and it transpired something similar may have been tried as part of the development of a new housing estate near The Epicentre. I don’t know if Planning for Real ® was what was used in Stevenage however it seems to me that embodied approach to planning is an accessible or inclusive way of getting people involved in a consultation.

The issue of civic participation and consultation is prevalent in the mind of Field Study’s Man in E17 as he has been trying to get to grips with the prospect of library closures in Waltham Forest. The London Borough of Waltham Forest has instigated a public consultation about this and Field Study’s Man (here shifting into citizen J Beere mode) has started to fill in a form while also consulting various sources of information and opinion about the issue of library closures - many of which are on-line.
From the pages of Prospect* magazine, Charles Leadbeater refers to the personal computer, the internet and the mobile phone as vernacular tools that allow people to collaborate and communicate. He says this in relation to an assessment of Ivan Illich’s Tools for Conviviality, which asserts an ethos aimed at undermining or subverting the dominance of technocratic elites. Top down, hierarchical professional policy makers, planners, and developers are to be challenged and accompanied by the cooperative and co opted citizen. The latter is not to be just a consumer of public services but more a stake holder and budget holder. This participation will be, in part, enabled by new technology.
Users of Harrow Green Library face the prospect of that library’s closure and thus ‘free’ access to the internet. Of course the internet provision is not really free; it is just not paid for at the point of access but paid for by Council Tax and the council asserts or rather proposes there is insufficient revenue via Council Tax to fund that library and its services. Harrow Green Library internet users will have to go to other libraries where there will be longer waiting times for the pc/internet use. Harrow Green Library is in an area of relatively high social deprivation in the borough and people who use the library for study and job searching will be disadvantaged socially, culturally and economically. The most used service at Harrow Green Library is the internet. Of course, there are other options for internet access via other publicly funded means as well as commercial and private facilities. Popular access to the internet is in a state of technological flux and all sorts of ‘smart’ devices can enable connection or connectivity. The long term question concerns, how the effects of decommissioning and losing genuinely local resources can be alleviated by such things as convivial ‘apps’?
The Harrow Green Library profile, provided by the consultation states, 84% of users travel less than a mile to get to the library. This suggests a considerable change for, inconvenience to and disenfranchisement of library users in the area. Unless the council accompanies such a closure by improvements in the provision of the remaining libraries, the closures of Harrow Green and South Chingford libraries will represent a form of deterrence against library use. I think the premise of the consultation is flawed in the way it isolates libraries, identifying some as less used or successful than others, and so does not maintain a sense of the library service as a whole. Taking away some libraries is not necessarily going to benefit other libraries.

* - Charles Leadbeater, The DIY State, in, Prospect magazine, January 2007.   

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