On the engagement edge

Ole Jensen’s mobility model is useful to visualise the connections between the environment, social and personal aspects of our mobile lives and human nature. It also wonderfully instrumentalises the socio-ecological model by panning out from an individual focus and seeing society. Jensen’s model has existing mobility at its centre. By splitting mobility’s surrounding scenery into “staging from above” and “enacting from below” it puts power into the equation of space production and space use. The model makes power visible and that is an important contribution. It helps us to find ways of engaging and influencing the flow of power to affect change. I have been fascinated by Jensen’s model for a while. And a recent coffee cycle chat with my PhD colleague Rorie Parsons made me take a look at it again. We scribbled and doodled quite a bit when sipping our coffees. We scrutinised the model for the “cycle community” – how it would be represented by the model; and asked where community action and empowerment were situated in the model. The overall aim, for me, was trying to operationalise the model, if possible, for activism. I think I found a relatively elegant way. The reader can be the judge.

Cycle community and engagement

Community engagement, here, I understand as the fuzzy frontier between an institution (in power) and the public at large (making appeals to power). Community engagement is the space where interaction takes place between the above-directors and below-actors on the film set of the civic ensemble. It’s an interesting (mine)field to investigate because it is where power is put into practice through institutional decisions. Institutional decisions range from decreed (prescribed) or collaborated (co-scripted) in nature. The movie script has either already been written, or we are still in the process of co-writing the script of the everyday play of

“What’s fair for folks in our future city?”

The answer to that ubiquitous question, it’s easy to see, largely depends on what’s been put on offer. If it’s a mobility strategy for the city, the answer would indeed be quite different to planning the installation of a simple dropped kerb somewhere. A “dropped kerb by edict” is quite acceptable whereas a decreed top-down mobility strategy may be less so without engaging the relevant community sections, I suggest. If the script is already ‘done and dusted’ on a bigger decision affecting the future of the actors without much of a preceding dialogue, any community engagement will largely be a random, meaningless or a rather painful act. This is especially the case when policy on that specific subject for engagement is weak, or has not been heeded.

The role of policy

Policy is a democratic glue. It is a reference point and forms a nigh-contractual arrangement for local politicians. Policy makes promises about the future. It gives politicians something to operate within and engage communities around. Policy shows boundaries of acceptability. And it gives direction.

Policy making is an important part of the democratic process, and policy should seek to provide clarity on the way ahead. If (draft) policy is addressing a problem inadequately, civic campaigns can be formed to change the policy (con)text. If policy is not heeded by its institution and democratic procedure is mocked, it must be pointed out and put right. If policy is too weak or too lofty, it needs an implementation plan or strategy. Again, civic action may be taken for that reason.

To me it seems as if local politicians in Newcastle are afraid of policy, when it ought to be their mechanism of structure and order, civic agreement, cross-party collaboration and general outreach. Policy provides a framework for future plans and can be used to engage community groups and even empower these groups. The policy process itself can be used for public engagement.

Who is on stage?

If we go back to Jensen’s model, you can see in the sketch below where I have sited the “engagement edge”.

Based on Ole Jensen's model.
Based on Ole Jensen’s model.

The civic meeting point – the “engagement edge” –  is where society (below green) and the institution (above red) meet.

So. There is the above (red) and the below (green). There is the institution staging the urban environment through design and planning regulations and practices, and there also is the public acting within the environment through everyday travel and civic tasks “from below”. The green section splits in two. The public consists of individuals (shown on right) coming together in communities through culture norms and social interaction, engagement and civic action (shown on the left).

Left or right? The edge rarely is where the personal meets the institutional: it could be case that a famous person takes up a cause. Arguably, then the personal, the individual, can influence the institution and affect change. As this does not happen too often (and it’d still rely on from-below grassroots community support buoying the individual in any case), I have located the engagement edge on the left-hand side.

The left-hand side is the porous one and connects to the institution above. It is on that left side where civic exchange with the powers-that-be occurs. Good transport and environmental policy can improve porosity and penetration for the type of community groups who support car (use) reduction and space allocation to walking, cycling and public transport.

The porosity of the edge – degree, depth and shape – determines the rules of engagement, the type of the civic actions and the conduct and level of exchange at the engagement edge. It’s on this edge that matters can become mainstream and enter into the institutional practice and regulations. But after some 900 words in this post, it may well be the fodder for another blogpost at a later date.


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