Julian Dobson is a writer and researcher. He used to run New Start magazine, which focused on places and urban regeneration. More recently he works as an independent writer and researcher. He is author of the excellent ‘How to Save Our Town Centres‘. You can hear the podcast below, or the transcript below that. When I read his book, I was struck by the thought that the city centres around us reflect a system that’s run out of ideas, and run out of imagination. So the first thing I asked him was “does that resonate with you, and if so, what do you put that down to?”
“Maybe it’s not so much a lack of imagination as a lack of imagination about how imagination is applied, if that makes sense. There’s lots of creativity being applied within quite a narrow focus. So it’s being applied in order to market stuff, in order to make retail more interesting. And there’s a huge amount of creativity that goes into that. If you talk to people who are running retail businesses, they’re actually hugely creative.
But if you look at how town centres work, if you look at what’s going on in our town centres, as a whole, actually there’s a complete dearth of imagination about what are those places for, who should use them, how should they use them, what can you do in those places, how can you use those spaces. It’s almost as if the creativity is there but it’s only being channelled in order to serve particular purposes and particular logics.
If you want to break out of that, I think you need to step back and say not just, “Are we being sufficiently imaginative?” but, “Are we thinking broadly enough about how we apply our imagination? Where is our imagination allowed to go?”
I’ve been thinking quite a lot about ideas of utopia recently. Particularly from around the 16th, 17thcentury, through to the Victorian era, you had these visions of utopia that kept being expressed by people like the Levellers, like the Diggers with Gerrard Winstanley. People like William Morris. These were works of imagination. They were works of fiction. Utopia is ‘no place’. But the purpose of utopia is to enable us to think more imaginatively about the places that we do live. Utopia presents a challenge to what is. To what we see around us.
What we see in our town centres is that utopian thinking is out of bounds, almost. You can only have this very, very pragmatic approach which is about the market, which is about the market economy, and the success of the market economy. And values that lie beyond that almost are taken out of the equation. So ideas of a successful town centre are ideas about a successful retail centre, a successful commercial centre and success is measured in very, very limited ways. About the profitability of development, about the amount of money that is being spent, and about possibly the amount of jobs that are being created.
Imagination to me is about expanding our range of values and saying, “What really matters? Why does it matter? What kind of people can we be? And how can we start to translate that into the spaces that we live in, and not just keep it in the private sphere, which is about beliefs or our hobbies, or our campaigns?”
When did that happen, do you think, that imagination and creativity got side lined into this little bit down the side and airbrushed out of everywhere else?
It’s been a process that’s being going on probably for decades, maybe longer. But one of the things that has exacerbated this is that fewer and fewer people have a seat at the table. There are fewer people in the party. So if you want to do something in a town centre, you have to have capital. You have to have land ownership. You have to have investment money.
The small scale is more and more excluded. Where it is allowed, such as in the craft beer movement, where it does appear it’s often in the marginal spaces. What happens is you have this process of retail gentrification almost, where the creative people are allowed into certain spaces, in order to create a culture of things happening. So that value is created then for the big developers who move in, cream off all the financial value from that, and eventually force out a lot of the independent activity.
To me, diversity is absolutely at the heart of creating a more imaginative space. And that needs to be diversity in all sorts of ways. It needs to be cultural diversity, crafts diversity, financial diversity, diversity of age, of gender, backgrounds. How can you increase the mix of people who are working in a space? Because that allows that sort of spark to happen. It allows connections to be made. It enables imaginative solutions to be brought forward. When you exclude, when you do things that are entirely predicated on economic growth, you’re automatically moving out of the equation all of the people who don’t bring financial clout to the table.
In the last 10 years or so, particularly since the financial crash, as we’ve seen attempts to regenerate high streets and town centres that have suffered from that: we’ve actually seen a much narrower group of people having, I think, a long term stake in those places. There have been quite a lot of interesting things going on at the margins with ideas like ‘Meanwhile’ projects, temporary pop up things, but the whole point of that sort of activity is that it’s there for a while to enliven the space and then it gets moved out as commercial value is created.
There’s a real problem there in terms of exclusion of people. Also just in terms of the built environment in general, it’s the exclusion of people who don’t have something financial to offer. And that’s in terms of spending, it’s in terms of acting as consumers rather than as citizens in a space. You mentioned earlier the idea of ‘playable cities’, playful spaces. Places where people can feel okay about doing nothing, just hanging out.
One of my favourite spaces in Sheffield is the Peace Gardens in the middle of the city. That’s just a park with fountains in it where kids run around, get soaking wet, annoy their parents. That sort of thing. A place which is totally devoted to hanging out, to play, which is not about creating an immediate financial return. And actually that does create value for the commercial operators, the financial people, the retailers as well, because it creates a space that people want to be in.
There was a quote I always attribute to you, and then I had your book out a couple of times and I couldn’t find it, and I notice that Locality use it now, which is to talk about “places of possibility”. I wonder what for you constitutes a place of possibility? What you mean by that, and then what constitutes it?
That’s a really good question. Is it something about the place or is it something about the people? It’s probably something about the people first of all. Being able to come to a place and say, “What can you do in that space?” But it’s also about having the leeway, having the freedom to take action. Or having the opportunity maybe, without permission, to take action in the space.
That’s about coming to a space and saying, “What could it be like? What could you do here? How could it be different? Who could benefit from it?” When you think of imagination there’s maybe three ways of thinking about it. There’s the imagination of – what is it you can imagine happening in this space. There’s imagination for – who are you imagining it for? Who is included in that vision of what might happen? And there’s also imagination against, which takes you back to that utopian idea, which is you can use imagination as a critique of things that are going on in the world. Things that are going on your doorstep, in your high streets, in your town centre, in city centres, or politically at a larger scale.
When you’re thinking of places of possibility, they can be places for all three of those kinds of imagination, and probably all three need to be at work in those spaces in order to catalyse something happening.
Can you think of a couple of examples for you of the best examples of those?
Well there’s one that I always come back to which is Incredible Edible Todmorden. What Incredible Edible have done really well is see the possibility in very, very small actions. But the huge ramifications that are possible from that. So just by planting in public spaces, you can start a conversation about food. Where do we get our food from? Why do we import beans from Kenya when we can grow them here? Why do we import strawberries from other parts of the world when we can grow them on our doorstep, even in a wet place like Todmorden? So you can start creating conversation about food.
You can start conversation about place, which is how do we think of this place? How does it work? How do people move around it? What is there to see, what is there to do? And you can start a conversation about why are decisions being made in the way that they are? Why do we need another supermarket in this town? Why is the market not flourishing in the way that it might? Why does the place not connect up in the way that it should? So you can use something small as a way of starting a whole range of conversations. So Incredible Edible started as a conversation about climate change but it actually moved into a whole load of other things which are all connected. It’s a really good example.
It can happen at a very, very small scale. Another example is a town called Wooler in Northumberland where the local tourist information centre was due to close and a local community development organisation came up with a plan which was basically to move various services in the town around. So you had a library and a tourist information centre in the same building, that freed up the former library space which was turned into affordable housing. You can start to capitalise a number of different things happening in a place.
There’s that sort of conversation which is saying, “Okay, if we start with this one issue, but we then think about what are the other things that it connects to, how can we start to make that place different? And how can we start to use that process as a way of addressing some of the more fundamental more long-term issues in that place?”
So in Wooler it was an issue of affordable housing, and it was an issue of local services being cut by the County Council. It’s how can people start to take their future in their own hands in a creative way, in a way that says, “Okay, let’s start here and see where it can lead?” rather than, “Here’s a project, here’s a pot of money that comes from some funding source, that’s it. Here’s your deliverables”.
Does that idea that we might have an issue in terms of imagination as a culture, does that resonate with you? Does that sound like it makes sense?
To go back to what I was saying earlier, I think there’s an issue in what we permit ourselves to imagine. It’s probably the application of imagination to me that is the issue. It’s not that people aren’t imaginative. It’s that they perhaps don’t allow their imagination to extend to really rethinking some of the really big questions about, “How do we live, who do we live for, what is the point of being here? Do we really exist on this planet in order to get more expensive bathroom?” A lot of the time those sorts of conversations are not seen as part of everyday discourse any more.
And why is that?
There were probably times when it was much more okay to talk about some of those big questions about life. We seem to have replaced a lot of the big questions with small questions. One of the things that you’re doing with Transition, and that many others are doing, particularly around environmental issues, is to say, “Look, the big questions are back on the agenda. We’ve got to start asking ourselves them.” And they’re not going to go away.
You have this concept of ‘wicked problems’, problems that there isn’t one solution for. There isn’t one solution for climate change. There isn’t one solution for environmental crisis. There are many, many things that can be done. And with each of them the problem takes on new faces, and so each time we need a new input of imagination to say, “Okay, how is the problem changing? How can we start to address it? And how can we use that to open up bigger conversations about how do we want to live? What does well-being really mean? What does it mean to flourish? What does it mean to be successful?”
Success is considered in an incredibly narrow way. It’s considered in terms of qualifications, in terms of income, in terms of particular achievements. Actually, again, we need to open up that conversation and make it much bigger. So when I’m talking about high streets, when I’m talking about town centres, what is a successful place? It’s not just the place with more shops. It’s a place where people feel a sense of belonging. It’s a place where people feel they have a future. It’s a place which is inclusive. It’s a place where everybody has a stake, no matter what their income is. No matter what their class background is or racial background. It’s a place where people feel that they have a say in society. And all those things are currently excluded from most of the conversations about town centres. And that’s just one example.
So again, if you take environmental issues, it’s not just, you know, “Does Trump pull out of the Paris Agreement or not?” That’s important, but actually it’s also, “How can we think about how we live, in a way that is more in tune with the natural environment? In a way that values the natural environment. How can we actually start to bring the natural environment into our urban spaces in new ways?” Which is a very pertinent issue where I live in Sheffield at the moment with the local council cutting down trees left, right and centre. And you have conversations going on there which show that there’s a loss of connection with the natural world. Again, imagination can start to reconnect us.
If you were to run for government on a platform of ‘Make Britain Imaginative Again’, that your aim was to make this a place where people’s imagination and creativity just flourished in an historically unprecedented way, what might be some of the things you would do in your first 100 days in office?
I’d bring the civil service in and find ways of getting them to be imaginative. Bring the people from the Treasury in, because they’re the ones who are really dictating what is of value. Bring in the people who are responsible for the National Planning Policy Framework, which is predicated entirely on economic growth, and start to get them to understand that there are things that are of different value. And that economics is not the lord and master that we must all bow down before. It’s a tool that we should use in order to achieve the ends that we want.
One of the first things that I’d want to do is get some of those key decision makers in and say, ”Okay, this is where we want to go as a country. You have the tools. Make them work for the purposes that we want them.” Rather than use them as something that bind us into a set of choices which end up with really bad outcomes. So I think that’s one of the first things. Kind of policy level.
Possibly the other thing, which is really pertinent during an election campaign, is to start to re-imagine democracy. Do we really have to do it this way? Is this the best way we’ve got? How can we start to rethink democracy in a way which brings more voices to the table, in a way which better reflects the spectrum of opinion in society, and in a way that is more deliberative and less about deferring everything onto elected members, who then defer it on to their leaders? The kind of individualisation of the democratic process, to a very crude question of who is in number 10, I think is highly damaging. That would be one of my main priorities. Start to rethink that process.