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

Share
Related Topics

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 www.civicvoice.org.uk

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive - OTE £25,000

£13000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to be part of a ...

Recruitment Genius: 1st Line Technical Support Engineer

£19000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT and Telecoms company ar...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Manager - Visitor Fundraising

£23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Visitor Fundraising Team is responsi...

Recruitment Genius: Developer

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
An investor looks at an electronic board showing stock information at a brokerage house in Shanghai  

China has exposed the fatal flaws in our liberal economic order

Ann Pettifor
Jeremy Corbyn addresses over a thousand supporters at Middlesbrough Town Hall on August 18, 2015  

Thank God we have the right-wing press to tell us what a disaster Jeremy Corbyn as PM would be

Mark Steel
The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future