Finding the village in the city

This blog is contributed by Catherine Kearney. Catherine is one of City to City’s key connectors and she was involved in the London conversation in 2013.

As the African proverb goes ‘It takes a village to raise a child’. But what does this mean in daily life and what implications, if any, does it have on our cities?

Does it mean that parents cannot bring up children on their own? Is shared responsibility an ideal to aspire to?

Plenty of people testify that children are a blessing but few people would say that parenting is easy.  Clinical psychologist, Oliver James, went further and wrote a survival guide to family life, entitling it “They f*** you up”. He argued that the way we are cared for in the first six years of life has a crucial effect on who we are and how we behave.

The poet Philip Larkin was the source of James’s expletive. Larkin’s poem concisely describes a cycle of dysfunction between generations:

They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

For parents, this negativity, together with the intensity of the focus on the early years, is sobering, at the very least. So what about sharing the responsibility? Could this be where the village mentality might come in handy?

CityIf we recognise that parenting is not always easy, and we strive for the ‘good enough’ model rather than perfection, then surely parenting in isolation is going to be an uphill struggle – and not much fun. Individuals can feel excluded from society for a variety of reasons and parents are no exception. We need others. Parents need others.


On Mother’s Day recently, BBC Radio 4’s Sunday Worship encouraged us to celebrate all women (mothers or not) for their part in contributing to the growth and development of others. This was followed a few days later by International Women’s Day. Yet parenting is not just for women and the need for fathers (or at least male role models) has been highlighted in the media and research. Families can be diverse groups of adults taking parental roles. Is this a community? A village within a city?

Empowering communities

Empowerment within a local community, in a grass-roots context can transform. Community development can strengthen civil society in a participatory and democratic way by giving voice to those who are disadvantaged and vulnerable. Empowerment offers a route to inclusion, belonging and community development. Likewise, it could be key to facilitating the ‘village’ mentality – the raising of a child by the city.

Empowering individuals through community

It is important to bear in mind that empowerment is not an individualistic or self-centred endeavour. The close link between the empowerment of the individual and the empowerment of the community has been highlighted by practitioners. Families are an integral part of all communities, and some would say that they sit at a critical junction between the individual and the community.

If we agree that there is a link between empowerment, community development and participation, the implication is that we all have a part to play. We are in the city together. We are with each other in this. ‘Empowerment is not something we can do to or for people (that is a self-contradictory notion),’ says Neil Thompson in his analysis of empowerment and power in human services. ‘It is something that we can do only with them.’ True empowerment is transformational.

Peer-led projects

Budget cuts in the UK mean that policy is adapted so that the families who need the most help get it. Few would argue with ensuring this happens. However, there’s a time bomb waiting to go off as the families with lower levels of need aren’t entitled to support services. The underlying message when a parent asks to attend a group or course is ‘Come back when you’re a bit more desperate.’ Communities are often divided by into haves and have-nots.

I have the privilege of working in a project running peer-led parenting courses. It’s a fantastic project to be part of, but although parent engagement can be challenging, it’s really not rocket science. In some cases, parents can be fearful that their children will be taken from them if they’re deemed not ‘good enough’. The project is evidence based – research has been carried out that shows the effectiveness of peer-led courses in reducing children’s poor behaviour and improving parenting skills. This is really good news but it’s only part of the story.

When you speak with parents who attend the courses, they tell you how the simple things like a cup of tea being made for them when they arrive and the kindness of the course facilitators makes the difference. Parents make relationships with other parents and course facilitators, who are also parents and have attended the course. Parents become empowered by the knowledge that they are not alone in parenthood or the challenges they face.

What I have seen happen through peer-led parenting groups is a reciprocal empowerment ­– a parent feels that they belong to a ‘village’ (a parenting community) and so the wider community is strengthened. At the same time their engagement with community life empowers them as an individual.

The effectiveness of these courses is clear from the parents’ enthusiasm. Parents say how life-changing the course has been for them. Its impact for some is far beyond the scope of a simple parenting course, where particular skills are taught. Parents start believing they can do something – they can help their children and they can play a part in their local community. They find they are part of a village in a city.

Posted on Categories Housing & community

Know your source

Greg Valerio MBE is a fairtrade jeweller, activist, rebel and social entrepreneur.

Greg has been pioneering ethical fine jewellery collections and acting as an advocate for social and environmental mining since the 1990s. Standing in a filthy gold mine in India that he described as the ‘gateway to hell’,  convinced Greg that he had not only to be an innovative jeweller, but also a campaigner on behalf of those who were being exploited at the source.

In this video blog Greg explains why knowing your source is so important when it comes to buying a piece of jewellery.

Posted on Categories Change, Justice

Housing for homes

Some amazing innovations are quietly taking place on the edge of mainstream thinking that challenge the culture of low affordability, price inflation and market-led housing.

HousingThe housing market is a friend to investment but a threat to relational-living. The collective direction of housing policy over the past 100 years has meant that a house has become an investment that you can live in rather than a home that could provide generational stability for the future of families.

Past, present and future

In the UK of the 1920s the picture was quite different. A significant majority of housing – 80 per cent – was rented. In the years that followed there were periods of council home construction, a growing ownership market and, in the Thatcher era, the sale of council properties.

In 2016, 64 per cent of housing is privately owned and 32 per cent is rented either privately or through housing association/council provision.

The housing market has created highly inflated prices in cities that few can afford. In rural areas the affordability of houses is jeopardised by fewer jobs and lower wages and this brings a complex mixture of pressures for individuals and family groups. The average multiplier for affordability in England and Wales is 5 x a person’s wage and that rises to 10 x in urban centres such as London.

It is projected that an extra 250,000 households are required per year until 2033 in the UK. Yet the country is only building 100,000 to 150,000 houses each year.

So what could change this?

A political u-turn? We might be waiting a long time.

Another economic crash? This would quieten the current market but may only provide opportunities for vulture capitalists ready to exploit the down turn.

Yet despite these negative indications, some amazing innovations are taking place quietly on the edges of mainstream thinking, building upon a legacy of creative philanthropy and cementing stable, multi-generational communities.

Living on the water

Although living on the water paints a nomadic picture of existence that few can contemplate, we have an unbelievable supply of rivers, lakes and sea moorings. We don’t advocate spoiling beautiful vistas and environmental eco systems, but residential accommodation on waterways is a chance to turn a static leisure industry into a living community. Boats, barges and other vessels are relatively cheap and have provided an incredibly eco-friendly lifestyle and strong communities in places like The Netherlands and parts of Scandinavia.

Given the environmental shifts that are happening and increased weather instability (i.e. higher rainfall), living on water is both sustainable and basic common sense in the light of the increasing climatic shifts we are experiencing. Waterways have the potential to be living communities in urban and rural settings, and in some places they are revitalising parts of the country and the countryside that struggle to survive economical and socially.

In one example of water-based living in south-east London, 175 people live alongside each other, sharing a system of walkways between boats, joint laundries and showers. The importance of these communal spaces provides strong motivation to manage the environment well, grow small business infrastructures, small eco-communities and mini economic hubs.

Community building

We tend to think of self-builders either as ‘eco warriors’ or ‘grand designers’, but beyond these stereotypes ‘community build’ provides an altogether different set of possibilities.

Community Land Trusts (CLTs) are local organisations that are set up and run by ordinary people to combine their finances and skills and develop homes as well as other assets important to that community, for example, community enterprises, food growing or workspaces. They build on land that might be council or brown-site designated, given as a gift or bought by a community group.

This is a sustainable alternative to private rental or private ownership. You can get a flavour of a CLT in action in a feature in the Guardian newspaper and a TV interview for London Live:

CLTs make homes affordable by removing the cost of land from the cost of a new home. This materials-only model could empower many more community builds. ‘We aim to establish a new precedent, a replicable model in community-led housing that will benefit people currently unable to access housing on the open market,’ says Kareem Dayes.

There are multiple advantages to a CLT. Those who build together usually stay together over longer periods – this has been statistically proved through early and more recent ‘Walter Segal’ builds. These communities are more socially diverse, multi-generational, stable and safe. They are literally built on interaction and community cohesion and they have proved to be great places for more holistic community care.

Other examples are Habitat for Humanity who build sustainable low-income housing globally and are also active in the UK. The organisation has successfully transformed the housing conditions for individuals and families from sub-standard housing conditions into sustainable housing solutions through ‘community builds’. This has provided long-term community stability and empowered individuals within those communities to reach for their life goals and aspirations.

One single mother in a re-built community housing scheme said ‘my daughter barely went to school when we were housed in a tower block in SE London … but she has now qualified to go to university to train as an architect’. Community housing is more than the fabric of the building but the essence of a more cohesive, safe and creative community.

Long-term vision rather than short-term solutions

The pressure is on for more housing at affordable pricing. However, the kind of quick, easy-build, non-eco housing that is being rushed into construction is only a short-term illusion. It gives no thought to the future community and long-term sustainability in terms of materials and environmental credentials.

We could be repeating the housing nightmare of the 1970s. It is important for architects, planners, environmentalists, housing experts and potential residents to sit down together to plan and dream the communities of the future. These are not pie-in-the-sky ideals but innovations that harness the creative skills of individuals and multiply them through collaboration.

CitytoCity is helping to bring together innovators and inspirers to encourage the cross-pollination of creativity and the willingness to re-imagine urban living.

Posted on Categories Housing & community

Not all regeneration regenerates

Cities and gentrification

There is nothing new about cities being centres of money, power and activism, places where heritage and change exist side by side. Over the last 50 years gentrification has gained notoriety as a modern, global force for change at the cutting edge of urban policy. It’s a phenomenon that is having a huge impact on cities.


Simply put, gentrification is the change that happens to an area when it becomes a property hot spot. The influx of wealthier residents displaces older generations, attracts ‘yuppie’ businesses, pushes up rents and causes segregation.

There are many voices to be heard on this subject – from protesters to property developers – but many settle for the grey area between the sharply defined political colours. So what, if born-and-bred locals walk to the shops in disbelief beneath advertising hoardings that shout about the new desirability of their community … aren’t there some good things about ‘going upmarket’? The vintage shops, ale bars and cafes create tax and wealth for local councils to spend in the local area. The crime rate drops. Green spaces are regenerated. Who wants to live in a tower block that’s been earmarked for demolition, anyway?

Gentrification is a provocative subject

Here are some of the sentiments you’ll hear expressed about suburbs that are undergoing gentrification:

This place is a victim of its own success
What’s happening here is social cleansing
Blended communities are what you get from gentrification
A city is a force of nature, it will change whether we like it or not
Gentrification is a boost for everyone
Quirkiness, individuality and working-class prices will be lost
People around here have been priced out of their own home
This area is safer now.

Every sphere of life is affected by gentrification. However, those of us who are passionate about transforming and re-imagining cities don’t want to be negative or nostalgic about processes of change – but we do want to be realistic. We’re asking, what is driving these changes? We want to challenge the enterprise argument that says that money makes things grow, that growth is good and that more growth means more money.

If you think that money is the key, you are opening the wrong door

The economic argument says that everything has to grow and that it’s only money that pushes creativity further. But, using a Christian value ethic, we believe that money exists as a means to serve the planet, not run it. When money is used ‘fruitfully’ for the common good, people and places are replenished. So there’s an eco argument for genuine, shared transformation in cities that we would like to make heard. The planet will give more if we interact with it in responsible, creative and caring ways.

In this ethic for the world money is not the evil, although the way that we spend it can be. We want investors who invest with good economic sense but also with long-term community sustainability in mind. City to City is looking to sow the seeds of an economy that is not focused on money but on growing diverse communities sustainably. We don’t want to see money ‘grown’ but money ‘spread’. Money that is spread will see everyone benefit.

Seeking the common good

Who cares for the common good? We believe that there are people who seek the good of everyone. Every place, organisation or community group needs a few people like this who will be advocates for integration. That’s where we see City to City working best – we put the ideas out and ask, who’s up for this?

When we seek the common good we start to find something that is not attached to our own material conditions. 

For City to City, intervention in the processes of gentrification starts in the micro context, in small localities where communities are under pressure. We want to hold on to a city’s multicultural, multigenerational identity – and we believe that we have to fight for it. Now is the time to act, to make some inroads, before genuine communities – artistic communities, lower-income communities, intergenerational communities – disappear. We want to resist gentrification as the norm in our cities.

Protecting creativity

Every sphere of life is influenced by gentrification. The artistic and creative industries in our cities, places where edginess, prophecy and politics thrive, will be knocked back, if not knocked out by gentrification because our society puts a higher value on money than it does on creative energy.

Our hope is that creativity will be nurtured and empowered as alternative ways to live together are explored. Creative people are those who say that without much money they will throw open the window of new possibilities – workshops, small operations for community activism, affordable retail units and food outlets. When these enterprises are run by local people, prices are lower because the people running them know what is affordable to other locals.

What does creative energy need to thrive? It needs a realistic business base with a realistic price freeze. It also needs space – physical, communal spaces for hire. We can all picture the shabby community venue, the prefab Scout Hut or the converted manufacturing unit. They’re not necessarily places of beauty but their available communal space is where creativity and relationships can thrive.

Protecting the power of relationships

Gentrification exposes fundamental questions of home, identity and community. City to City believes that there is a tangible quality to relationships in longstanding communities that is damaged by the influence of economic forces and individualism. What is important about community life is relationships, and what is important about relationships is the presence of possibility.

What we love about cities is the way that they define us, and we define them. City to City aims to encourage all of us to be intentional about our actions to support communities in the face of gentrification. Whether we pray, gather together in a City to City conversation, form a cooperative or campaign for amendments to the Housing Bill, we need to be intentional – otherwise nothing will happen.

A man living in Newcastle in the UK was recently interviewed about the massive changes he had witnessed over the last 10 years in the Byker Bridge area of the city. Protesting against the huge investment in this part of Tyneside, he said that the community had ‘organic potential’ of its own, for its own development and progression. To him, gentrification resembled a bad sci-fi movie … ‘local people invaded by aliens’. There’s cynicism here but we also hear in his words a powerful call for humanity to prevail. Let’s work for the re-making of cities around principles of justice, integration and relationship.

Bring your experience, your connections, your ideas and your hopes, and join the conversation with City to City.




Where could a City to City gathering or conversation lead?

This is a question we get asked all the time because our human instinct is to look for outcomes and results

City to City translates the ideas that come out of a conversation and puts them into action. We can’t do that as City to City alone but we can when we all utilise our own networks. We can’t quantify the potential that there is in each person who gathers around a sphere or a C2C event!

City to City uses these human resources gathered from our global connections, to accelerate the expression of a vision on the ground. We are not gathering a global vision and implementing it locally, we are picking up the local vision and accelerating it with global resources.

It is sometimes helpful to express these thoughts as an image, so picture this scene: urban buildings alongside a beautiful green space, with people wandering into both areas. Some are on roof tops or in offices, and some are in fields. It is a multigenerational community. There is a sense of space and movement. As good architects know, space and light are important to people. The words ‘light’ and ‘space’ are two key words for our world today, and in many ways they are a better explanation of what we mean when we talk about ‘hope’.

If we have light and space in our heads then we have possibility of change. In contrast, if we put our heads down to graft we may not get anywhere. When we are in the midst of ‘doing’ we are task-focused. We run out of breath, but we have not gone anywhere. We may become highly stressed. A few days space to think about our sphere of expertise and experience in a way that is not orientated towards a ‘task’ can be transformational.

You can find out more about future City to City gatherings by visiting our Events page. Please join in with the discussions and comments that are growing around the conversations that we have hosted in recent years.

Posted on Categories Change

What do we mean by ‘conversation’?

Conversations are at the heart of City to City

Those individuals in the group that gathered around William Wilberforce at the end of the eighteenth century all had different callings and gifts. They brought their vocation into their debates but the conversations they had also transported each of them out of their own area of expertise and gifting and into someone else’s sphere of influence or culture.

The model of the Clapham Sect is important to City to City. We are trying to bring people together so that this exchange can take place.

Why do we value conversation so much?

We don’t want to ‘just talk’, but conversation inspired by God and the Holy Spirit produces some incredible things. It sees possibility in small changes. It is founded on the belief that one person can influence an environment by being interactive, complementary, helping good things to grow rather than regress, and by encouraging signs of hope in society.

Conversations at City to City gatherings have proved to be powerful, fun, heated, challenging and, most of all, a release of encouragement, ideas and possibilities that can shape our journeys and stories as we engage with the different spheres we are called to be connected to.

We have seen conversations develop fruitfully when people start to take seriously the place (we call it the ‘cultural sphere’) they are in and their involvement in it. City to City aims to facilitate depth, to let conversations spread, and to foster initiators, gatherers and cross-pollinators. We believe that an artist needs a scientist, an educator needs a financier, and so on. Without these cross-overs it’s easy to get very narrow minded.

Posted on Categories Conversation

What would our cities look like if they were rooted in Christian values of love, grace and hope?

Going back to the Wilberforce model we see that those that gathered as the Clapham Sect were not just talking about ideals – they were looking for concrete, real changes

Most people are realistic as well as idealistic. But do we find that utopian ideals creep into our hopes and dreams? Yes, we do! We all have an idea of what utopia looks like – for ourselves or for the place where we live. There are utopian elements to all our dreams. But do we really know what this imagined state of perfection would look like? We often find it easier to define politics, systems and formulas than to commit to unpredictable, shape-defying human interaction?

In the New Testament Jesus is not prescriptive about action and outcomes. He doesn’t tend to say ‘Do this … and this will happen.’ We know that Jesus responded to practical needs but he also taught ‘ideals’: in Jesus’s life and teaching we see flesh and blood (real) human relations, imagined (ideal) human relations, and the meeting place of these two in the potential for transformation.

Jesus’s ideals were not a political system, but guidelines for how people should interact with each other. In the Sermon on the Mount we receive a model for holistic, healthy human relationships that includes value, creational enterprise, growth, cultivation and development.

So through the City to City network we are saying:

  • we’re not looking for a formula or prescription for change (prescriptiveness can crush local adaptations);
  • through our conversations and networks we want to inspire a set of ideals that are worth building our lives upon;
  • we believe that concrete changes are not monoliths but come through the scattering (and joining together again) of the seeds of ideas;
  • when we are rooted in these ideals, we will have a massive impact on our cities.
Posted on Categories Change

How can we begin to affect the language, systems and culture of our society?

We are not trying to take on all the issues in all the cities of the world but to be seed releasers and idea spreaders in key structures of society

There are three key themes for us:

  • to be inspired (and inspirational)
  • to be innovators
  • to be intentional.

We believe that the inspiration for all activity in society should come from the imitation of Jesus Christ. Innovation is a good thing that grows when we ‘abide’ with Christ. We are intentional about bringing people together because we believe that through each other we can release ideas and possibilities that will re-shape cities and communities.

Greg Valerio has asked a great question: ‘How can our activity in society for justice and peace become more relevant and more innovative? How can we see a multiplication effect?’

One of Greg’s answers to this question is to remind us that talking about action and activity can lead us into a project mentality. Conversations and networks are the opposite of this because they are not events or big decisions with the aim of directly changing something. Conversations are hard to pin down; even harder to measure.

It is always difficult to analyse what comes from a conversation but it is without doubt a truism to suggest that conversation that engages individual stories has a profound impact on individuals and groups. We believe it will result in visions and dreams that re-shape cities and throw out seeds of change into communities for the common good.

We tend to be obsessed with big ideas and social programmes. This was especially true of the nineteenth century. But our belief (and our experience) is that organisational change happens in small groups! It doesn’t come from a big decision to change something – you can change laws like that but not lives. Lives change through interaction with other people.

Posted on Categories Change

The conspiracy of minorities

images“Cities and even nations can be changed by the conspiracy of minorities. This ‘breathing together’ of those with a shared vision and values, really can change the world. I commend the City to City initiative as a brilliant way of making such connections for the sake of the kingdom.”

Pete Greig of 24/7

Posted on Categories Change