We’re a group of residents in Peckham, south-east London, who in a traditional sense have no right to imagine the possibilities offered by our local spaces – we don’t own them. More often than not, we leave new development ideas to the ‘experts’. But we didn’t settle for this: instead, we dared to dream past the rubbish-strewn sidings, knotweed and nettles of some disused railway coal sidings that connect to an existing nature reserve. After all, we work, play, walk and cycle past them each day.
Our imagination and ideas were a form of emotional engagement with the space. In our minds we took a small bit of ownership of these otherwise non-places, and we published our ideas. First it was snatched conversations, then a Facebook page and a website created in an evening, and it rippled from there. Neighbours we’d never met emailed to say they loved the idea and asked how they could help. Very early on itbecame obvious that by harnessing the wealth of amazing local skills and energy on offer we were at the start of something special.
Now, there are plans in the mix to develop an elevated park, path and cycleway. The project goes by the name Peckham Coal Line, and I am one of a team of volunteers helping to take it from vision to reality.
Skills of residents are an underused resource. There is latent, abundant talent and ability in all communities. The challenge is really how to organise and make sense of this. For us at the Peckham Coal Line, a self-organising approach has evolved over time. The project has taken twists and turns in all sorts of directions, adopting a ‘go with the energy’ approach. If someone wants to organise something, great. Small clusters of people started to emerge, each responsible for moving a different part of the project forward – organising walks, architecture-themed events, fundraising tea parties, researching the history and story of the area. Even a beer was brewed under the project’s name. This approach worked, as those involved had a shared vision and ambition for what the Peckham Coal Line could be – and, importantly, see themselves as having a part to play in making that vision real.
Ambitious infrastructure projects traditionally take years to get off the drawing board. But, thanks to our crowdfunding campaign on Spacehive, a platform designed specifically for civic space projects, we went from having £0 to £75,000 in three months, propelling the project into the next stage. The funding came from a diverse group of 928 backers, 60% of whom were individuals and residents. Others ranged from local businesses like the nearby local fish and chip shop to city-wide groups such as the Inner London Ramblers Association, and large national charities like Sustrans.
The crowdfunding campaign brought with it global publicity, and interest from more people wanting to help out – but maybe, and importantly, it provided the project with legitimacy for those who conventionally hold the power and decision-making ability. The public support gave confidence to the local authority, Southwark Council, and also the Mayor of London to contribute funds to the project: Boris Johnson is the first European Mayor to crowdfund development projects. It has also seen these authorities commit to exploring the potential of the project further. The campaign also acted as a collaboration tool between the usual and unusual suspects, creating shared ownership early on for the project. The success of this approach suggests a wealth of opportunities for regeneration projects.
The Peckham Coal Line is about creating a new physical link – but long before that exists, it is giving people a platform to connect and create around too. Negotiation and collective imagination seem far more powerful than simply having a voice heard by some remote authority; we are involved and making it happen. The Peckham Coal Line is a reason for residents, business and authorities to meet, discuss and collaborate – connecting a community and contributing to building a resilient neighbourhood, one that is stronger in the face of change.
Community activism has historically been about stopping and preventing things, and community participation about asking people what they would like to see, then giving their wishes over for other people to deliver. The Peckham Coal Line has turned that on its head. It’s been about empowering the people directly impacted by the project and about those people who will eventually use the park creating and building something together.
The experience to date has created really unexpected sensations too for those who have been intimately involved. For me, personally, it has been stressful at times: learning in public, your every move scrutinised by someone equally as passionate as you about the local neighbourhood, can leave you feeling exposed; striving to move beyond the usual suspects who get involved in these types of projects and meaningfully engage those whose worldviews and experiences are wildly different from your own takes time, patience and tenacity; dancing between multiple roles – talking to local residents over a cup of tea one moment, holding your own in formal ‘business’ meetings with the council and landowners the next. And I’ve seen those involved really start to question and reassess the value of what they do day to day and how their professional skills can be applied to new contexts.
We’re really only at the start of the journey – there are many more twists, turns and challenges to come – but in a relatively short amount of time it has given me a glimpse of how people can flourish, and communities can co-exist and work together in powerful ways.
This story is by no means unique: it’s just one chapter of many being created by communities the world over. We are reaching a time where change can no longer be prescribed. We have shared responsibilities, and collective action is needed. Change doesn’t have to be done to you by someone else, but can come from within all of us. The Peckham Coal Line has shown me that when you’re venturing with others in pursuit of something bigger than yourself, it unlocks a very powerful force.
Louise Armstrong is Principal Sustainability Advisor at Forum for the Future. She has been part of the core Peckham Coal Line team since its public website was launched at the end of 2014. You can follow the journey on twitter via @peckhamcoalline or @louise_a