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Just Space Network

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This case study has been generated by a collaborative research study of community-university partnerships. Part of the ESRC-funded Imagine Project, the study was conducted jointly by Susanne Martikke, research officer at Greater Manchester Centre for Voluntary Organisation alongside Professors Angie Hart and Andrew Church of the University of Brighton.

This project is led by Richard Lee, Just Space Network Coordinator and Michael Edwards, UCL.

The Just Space Network has been in existence since 2007, when London community organisations taking part in the public examination of the London Plan came together for mutual support and information sharing. Both Richard Lee and Michael Edwards had a long history of activism around planning issues and their relationship predates their participation in the Just Space Network by several years.

Just Space Network is firmly rooted in local civic activism, however, as its funding became more reliant on the university, particularly after its core funder London Civic Forum ceased to exist in 2012 as a result of local government cuts, questions about control and ownership began to emerge. This became manifest when the network increasingly came to be perceived by some people as a university project.

All along Michael had seen his activism as an appropriate part of his academic job and had also involved his students in his activist work as far as possible. By and large, this was possible because of the great amount of autonomy granted to academic staff. Nevertheless there were some tensions with senior management figures about what constitutes “research”.

This changed in 2008, when UCL became one of the Beacons for Public Engagement. It was Beacons funding, along with some funding from London Civic Forum, that enabled the network to continue its work after its initial funding from the Mayor of London ended. Although the sums provided through Beacons initially were quite small they helped sustain Just Space meetings and publications. The core membership of the network, which is around 20 organisations, meets every two months. In-between, various activities including conferences on issues such as transport and housing policy, draw a larger number of participants.

Since 2012, the student involvement with organisations in Just Space has been formalised as a specialised optional module in the Barlett School’s and Geography department’s curriculum. This is a ten-week course, which can also be attended by Just Space members and whose early sessions are used to co-design projects that the students then carry out. This has the advantage that students are getting exposure to real-life issues and experience of working with citizen activists in the field. For Just Space organisations, most of which are unfunded community groups, this means that they’ll be able to share their expertise about the neighbourhood they live in with students, who might have more of a theoretical grounding, as well as knowledge and access to important planning documentation.

Interestingly, even those Just Space community members who are most sceptical of the link to the university are making use of students, which seems to indicate that the process of doing things together can overcome initial barriers. Community and academic participants in the collaboration have drafted a protocol for community-university collaboration that captures learning over the years.

The protocol aims to ensure that both the community and university participants get tangible and balanced benefits from cooperation and avoid the many pitfalls which can sour relationships. It also seeks to foster a shift in research priorities among academics and students towards issues generated in community action.

Contacts

Richard Lee, Just Space Network Coordinator: richardlee50@gmail.com

Michael Edwards, Senior Lecturer, Bartlett School of Planning, UCL: m.edwards@ucl.ac.uk