The death of the highstreet and decline in the quality of public space have been salient issues for over a decade now. Covid 19 has accelerated the trend and now many highstreets up and down the country are struggling, from Swindon to South Shields. Where there were bustling boulevards there are now clearance signs and chip-board; where there were cultivated green spaces and public works, there are now unkempt patches and empty shopping plazas patrolled by private security. Even with Covid, this may not seem so much of an issue in Bristol – at least in the centre – with its vibrant, local independent economy and dynamic communities. Other problems however, of gentrification and the displacement and atomising of communities, occupy the other side of the same coin. The need for greater community engagement and civic participation is clear.
While the death of the highstreet is a particularly sharp issue in the UK, it is not unique to it. In the Netherlands – an otherwise wealthy country – places and spaces are still left behind. The former mining town of Heerlen in the south-east of the country, nested in the Belgian coal fields, has had a boom/bust history. It is currently a symbol of post-industrial decline in an otherwise relatively wealthy, healthy country. Unemployment is high, civic engagement is low and the population is both aging and shrinking; a story familiar to many places in the UK. The municipal authority has been working on ways to revitalise a town that was once the second wealthiest place in the Netherlands.
Part of the toolkit the Heerlen city council is trialling is a civic engagement platform, funded by the EU’s Urban Innovation Actions project. This platform, an app called We Service Heerlen – or WESH – draws on the typically Dutch entrepreneurial spirit. The platform is an effort by the municipality to reduce the deficit in civic engagement, while simultaneously improving public space and increasing social capital. Citizens of Heerlen can apply for tasks assigned by the municipality simply by downloading an app and registering. These tasks could be painting a park bench, removing stickers from lampposts or weeding a public garden. By completing a task to the municipality’s approval, the citizen will be rewarded a ‘Heerlens Heitje’. The name comes from the Dutch saying “heitje voor karweitje” (which roughly translates as “bob-a-job”). One Heitje is one euro, which can be spent at local retail and bars. The WESH platform consists of the following:
Obviously this is not a holistic solution, and the WESH project is well aware of potential shortcomings. The platform is currently just finishing its trial period, and is set to launch to the wider public at the beginning of April. Tools like WESH, which may feel like something thought up by a nudge-unit, are not solutions by themselves. They are, however, useful as part of pre-existing projects on civic participation, and would work well in tandem with more conventional localisation strategies.
While not as expansive as WESH, civic rewards are also being trialled in Bradford, with similar hopes and aims; to stop decline and allow our communities to re-engage with space and place. It feels like we are at the start of a new wave of localisation projects, growing from previous movements but this time driven by platform innovation.
Bristol, with its ground-breaking local currency and history of creative innovation, could be part of this too. While Bristol isn’t shrinking or aging, we are all familiar with the rough edge of gentrification, and the further out from the city centre you go, the more frequent the obvious neglect becomes. Both are part of a broader social and community atomisation, and the conceptual distance between people and the places they live in. Yes, Bristol is a vibrant, lively city with an active non-profit sector and dynamic community groups; but it is not uniquely isolated from the broad trends of the last four decades. Projects like WESH could easily be trialled in Bristol, and Bristol Pay – the latest development from the Bristol Pound – would be a perfect and willing host platform to such a project. Conversations are already being had with stakeholders and groups across Bristol about how the payment platform being developed by and for our city can improve community cohesion and civic engagement, even beyond the goals of the project in Heerlen. I think this could be a perfect opportunity for the City Council and others to be part of a pioneering project that will make our city a fairer and more resilient place to live.