Griff Rhys Jones: Be a local busybody. It's exactly what your city needs

Let's not leave it to the Mary Portases. It's not elitism or 'nimbyism' to bother about the casual vandalism that straitened times drive us to
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The Independent Online

Do you live in Bournemouth? Have you ever taken a walk into a Bournemouth that even Kipling rarely ventured into? Blackpool? Ever had a street party in St John's Square? For once, never mind the mountains, the moors and the country houses (I mind them a lot, but leave that to one side for now). Let's look at our towns.

The top achievement of mankind is developing those confusing brick warrens where we all live. Towns are complex, exciting, functioning, infuriating, semi-organic machines. They are a mad mixture of human traffic, habitation and flowery tubs – sometimes breathtakingly active, sometimes serene and measured, sometimes noble or pompous or covered with yellow plastic pavers.

But they are magnificent. From Bewdley to Blackpool, from Gloucester to Camden Town, there is an awful lot of hard work, human ingenuity and imagination on display in the urban maze. There must be some aspect of some city somewhere that you do at least slightly like. Not just an iconic building but a neighbourhood or a particular riverside footpath – a bridge, a view, a row of shops, a football stadium, or a cinema frontage, a walk home, a line of front gardens, a canal topped with Victorian factories, a new shopping centre, or even a faded wall. Sometimes it's just right. The place just got there. Sometimes it was built and planned.

But let's stop and ask why, because we need to think about what makes it work. This isn't elitism. This is human security, safety, comfort and convenience. If cities can be the most alienating places on the planet, they are also the warmest, the most exciting, the most social and most inspiring. They are the crooked timber of humanity made of timber, brick, stone and concrete.

Politicians readily believe that nobody cares. So every now and then they leap into action. City centres are problems that respond to big professional solutions – car parks, ring roads, superstores and mega-plans. But over the last 50 years these mega-intrusions have changed direction more often than the one-way system in Reading. Most of it was well-intentioned. But that doesn't stop it being rubbish.

Zoning was a mistake. Greater car access has swung into the contradictory dead-end of congestion plans and bus lanes have hit "park and ride" solutions. Big commercialism is hollowing out city centres in order to keep them commercially viable, but clearly creating dead wood. Our high streets are so debased that the politicians have asked Mary Portas, the retail guru, to find a solution. And when the shops close, nobody wants to visit the business heart of a town if it becomes a wasteland of floating plastic bags and drunken thugs. These are social problems.

But they are also civic problems. Citizens are being invited to become a Big Society and to experiment with development plans. So let's not leave it to the Mary Portases. Let's start by reoccupying and assessing what we have and what makes our hearts lift. It is rarely great swathes of motorway links and huge expanses of supposedly pedestrian-friendly concrete desert, is it? Haven't cities and towns evolved and grown by capillary action? Haven't they often proved adept at solving their own problems?

This is because there are plenty of people who already do the "localism" the Government is currently preaching about. There are tens of thousands of civic volunteers. They want you to become aware of our shared heritage outside drawing rooms. So tell Portsmouth what you like about your city. The Portsmouth Society wants to know. Have a cup of tea with the Chelsea Society in the farmer's market in the Duke of York's square. Log on to Merseyside Civic Society's new website. Be civic.

Writing about the glorious Stour Estuary once I once casually referred to Harwich. "You don't need to linger there," I postulated. Why did I write that? I don't even half-believe it. I love Harwich. I wish I could linger now. My off-hand dismissal made the front page of the Harwich Advertiser. The Mayor and the local MP joined forces. They offered to take a posse down the A120 and string me up. I won't tell you what happened when I criticised the ring road in Ipswich. You see, people do feel pride.

There are hundreds of civic-minded people across the country that do a lot of boring work for the rest of us. They are the unspoken guardians of a thousand assaults on your living place. They consult with planners and architects and they alert the authorities to chancers. They are the nosy busy-bodies who bother about the poster on the side of the Robert Adam house at the end of the square, or the air-conditioning units on the face of its Elizabethan brick work. They go through the paperwork that monitors not just the greatest creative architectural minds of the century but ordinary mistakes and cheap solutions and casual vandalism that straitened times drive us to. And we all benefit. Every time we walk down a good place we benefit from local concern. People do this because they love their home.

It's not "nimbyism" to protect what survives of the imagination of our forebears, it is common sense. It is not interference to recognise and salute recycling of buildings within successful urban landscapes; it is green, imaginative and economically sound. Part of the excitement of any town is its story. Karl Marx had a fight in the street just down the road where I live. A giant beer keg exploded and drowned people in their basements at the end of the road. Bernard Shaw annoyed people from the house opposite. The road directly to the north was a cattle drovers' route. I happen to inhabit a continuous, unfolding drama. We all do.

The first national "Civic Day" takes place this Saturday. The name may rank alongside "Cucumber Week" or "Make Time for Braces" in your mental landscape, but may I urge you to gird your citizen loins and have a look at it? Nominate your favourite building in Winchester. Make a difference in Buckingham. Take a guided walk starting from the main market square and discover Newent. Ask not what your city can do for you, but what you can do in your city.

Griff Rhys Jones is president of Civic Voice. For details of the first national Civic Day on June 25, go to