News and Comment

Reflecting on our work in Cantelowes, Camden

Friday 30 November 2012

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OPM has recently been working with residents of the Cantelowes ward in Camden on a project that successfully encouraged people to get to know one another, whilst simultaneously making improvements to their local area.

The Cantelowes initiative followed a three stage process: first discovering resident’s preferences and priorities for projects that involved the community; then developing practical and positive projects that met these criteria and which also brought residents closer together; and finally implementing these ideas in the ward.

Throughout the project we were overwhelmed by the passion, energy and all round commitment of local residents to change their community for the better. However, whilst all parties enjoyed the invigoration of the discovery and development stages, it soon became apparent that taking these ideas forward in practice – a process which is still ongoing – is an altogether more challenging task.

Reflecting on our experience of this process to date, we’ve observed first hand how the capacity to make positive change is not always evenly distributed across communities and that in order to become successful, community-led actions need dedicated support.

So here are the top tips we think it’s crucial for all those dedicated to unlocking capacity in communities to bear in mind:

– Focus on the issues that have the widest appeal: In Cantelowes, ideas tabled to improve local communication were those most enthusiastically backed by the majority of residents because they were deemed beneficial to the entire community. It is therefore no coincidence that the project that has proved most successful so far, involved creating a series of notice boards and an online community events calendar that provides community organisers with a helpful resource to avoid meeting clashes.

– Prioritise the process as well as the project: A key and reoccurring aspiration for residents was to become more connected with their neighbours and the wider community and to create bridges across this diverse ward. The projects, even in their planning stages, have helped to forge and extend connections between residents and networks – this shows that the process itself can lead to positive outcomes even if the project itself does not achieve ‘lift off’.

– Ownership and responsibility are vital: The local communications group has succeeded in attracting a core of committed residents who feel a sense of ownership for taking various projects forward. This has been a key success factor.

– Don’t get caught in a meeting cycle: The delivery of projects invariably involves asking residents to come together to plan and resource tasks. This can sometimes make maintaining good levels of attendance challenging. Rather than arranging meetings, projects could be tackled during events and activities that have a fun, social, or cultural focus. This helps to make participation more attractive to potential volunteers, rather than asking residents to attend yet another meeting.

– Work with established community and voluntary sector players: Established voluntary and community organisations can offer community-led projects vital access to their networks and resources. In the Cantelowes project for instance, ‘borrowed’ community centres proved to be dynamic hubs generating huge amounts of intelligence and insights about the landscape of the community and connecting different projects with the right participants and partners.

– Good things come to those who stick at it: Looking at some of the older groups and projects in Cantelowes it’s clear that community initiatives often take time to grow. Some have taken years to establish, and they have periods when levels of participation either expands or contracts. The local communications work stream for instance has taken some time to organise and there have been several stops and starts in the process. But as many of the residents involved in the process emphasised, community projects undoubtedly bring positive changes, it’s just these changes are more likely to occur gradually than overnight.