This post has been inspired by another wonderful post by Phil Kirby which has provoked quite a lot of debate in various bits of the Internet. Phil’s point, which seems to be shared in a lot of quarters, is that the people who are paid to promote his home city are failing the place, in that they don’t seem to understand its true nature and clearly lack the insight and passion of the people who live there and care about the place.
Quite by coincidence, on the day I read Phil’s post, I also had a conversation with a regeneration officer from Leeds City Council. It was a conversation which I found quite encouraging because it suggested that this officer at least (I cannot vouch for his colleagues) was thinking about whether property-led regeneration was really effective.
Both of these experiences got me thinking about the issue of Civic Pride and the Internet. For some time now, I have been an admirer of how the bloggers, tweeters and hyperlocal journalists of Birmingham have collaborated with each other (sometimes formally and at other times randomly) to hold the politicians and administrators of the city to account, promote positive images and news stories of their local areas, and build new forms of civic infrastructure. I hesitate to single out individual initiatives, because there are so many of them, but Birmingham It’s Not Shit, Digbeth is Good, BCCDIY, Big City Plan Talk, Podnosh’s innovative use of podcasts, Help Me Investigate, and, of course, the original Social Media Surgeries, are some that stand out.
While I do not wish to be unkind about any of the many people who work hard in public agencies, it can sometimes be the case that some of the people who work in them treat what they do as “just” a job, something to be forgotten about at 5 o’clock. Often promotional work is done by agencies bought in from outside and they just don’t understand the area. On the other hand, the people who live in the place do understand it, and often feel passionate about its positive aspects, and have inside knowledge about what needs to change. The reaction to Phil Kirby’s views about Leeds suggests to me that Birmingham might not be the only city where grassroots civic pride might bloom if people who feel strongly about the place can use the Internet to express their views, find each other, and build a collaborative movement.
While there is still a long way to go, I understand that Birmingham City Council has made some tentative steps towards making positive use of this new phenomenon (I am sure those involved will correct me if I am wrong here – it may be an optimistic view). I believe that local authorities should find ways of working with movements like this to mutual benefit. While Social Media tools may be nice to play with, ultimately, I believe they should be judged on their effectiveness in enabling and empowering people to find their voices, and then find each other to work together on issues of common interest.
I hope I am right that this is the start of a real grassroots Civic Pride movement in Leeds. And I also hope that it is happening elsewhere too. I am sure there are many such movements in the country that I don’t know about.