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Our Hammyhill | Paul Ede [ANVIL vol 34 issue 1]

Our Hammyhill: Mission is from the ground up

Paul and Esther Ede
After 15 years living and working in marginalised communities in Scotland as a non-stipendiary incarnational pioneer and community development worker, including 10 years as a founding church planter, Paul and his wife Esther have moved to Fife where he is retraining as a town planner. He holds an MTh in theology and urbanism and has taught Christian Mission at the Scottish Baptist College. He also curates White Canvas Collective, a collaborative blog giving voice to pioneers in Scotland.

Reprinted and expanded from the White Canvas Collective blog

What creative ways can a church express its mission at the heart of the community, for the benefit of the community? How can the church engage in the ‘new commons’ [1] in such a way as to fulfil the promise of Jeremiah 29:7, that we will prosper if we seek the prosperity of the city to which we have been called?

Churches as midwives as a community births its own vision

Our Hammyhill was a weekend event in April 2017, designed and delivered by a group of local residents from Hamiltonhill, a neighbourhood of Possilpark in north Glasgow. It is an area very near the bottom of the multiple-deprivation indices, but blessed with a few remaining residual assets – a common story in post-industrial Britain. Our goal was to develop a community-led vision for Hamiltonhill from the ground-up. It resulted in a full-colour brochure with a community and spatial vision for our area that has now been delivered to all 1,500 homes in the neighbourhood. [2]  

Supporting and helping catalyse Our Hammyhill was instinctive and natural. We had become deeply entwined in community life and had deliberately cultivated this connectivity to our place over the previous 10 years, having built up rich reciprocal gift-giving connections with our neighbours. The local residents were seasoned like salt by members of Clay Church (Clay) [3] – salt in the sense of fertiliser, not preservative! [4] Ourselves, local residents and members of Clay got involved in different ways, acting simply as citizens and agents for the common welfare of our whole community, a counter-culture in service to the common good.

As a whole group, we were on a budget: just £4,000 from our local area budget. We’ve always been good at being creative on a tight budget in Hamiltonhill. Church members (as citizens and among fellow citizens) can engage with local institutional structures and help secure these types of funds. Those who endeavour to turn up to community (or neighbourhood) planning meetings and community (parish) councils are the ones who can influence how that money is spent.

It takes a community to reach a community: the thinking behind it all

As citizens and neighbours, we wanted to take ownership of our role in the process of establishing a major development of 600 homes on our doorstep. After more than two decades of feeling like the land and built environment had been razed in front of our eyes, and poor community engagement from our social landlord, we wanted to explore what a community and spatial plan for our place might look like.

In collaboration with other local residents and our local community connector, we decided to apply the best principles from both an asset-based community development (ABCD) approach, [5] and that of the Project for Public Spaces, [6] by combining them at a grassroots level. ABCD is a superb framework for any church to embrace that wants to work alongside its community for the betterment of all. It focusses on discovering the gifts and resources of the people and local area, connecting them to one another in associational life for particular, tangibly realised actions, and creating spaces of hospitality where people can meet and share their aspirations and do something about them. It focusses especially on involving the gifts of people at the margins and welcoming the stranger. It asks three basic questions:  ‘what can we do for ourselves?’, ‘what can we do with help from outside the community?’ and ‘what do we need to ask others to do for us that we cannot do for ourselves?’ The order is important – empowerment starts by creating space for the community to tackle its own issues first, even if appropriate and timely outside help is subsequently sought.

ABCD was theorised by a Christian called John McKnight. He has managed to encode within it some powerful theological ideas, without using jargon. [7] McKnight himself was influenced in his thinking by a Catholic priest and philosopher called Ivan Illich. It is a theory readily used by the CCDA (Christian Community Development Association) in America and is applicable to all communities, not just those at the margins. Through ABCD approaches, churches can become abundant communities that can foster and be fostered by abundance in the wider locality. But it starts with churches who become relational before becoming ‘solutional’. To put it another way, it’s about “discoverables not deliverables,” [8] working with the Spirit to discover gifts latent in the community and seeking first its prosperity and wellbeing. The point about ABCD is that citizens and church members can implement it without paid community development or church leaders needing to be involved. Anyone can kick-start the process of building abundant community in their place. [9]

Some context

Over 25 years, disinvestment and planning choices have removed from Hamiltonhill its community centre, three primary schools, a secondary school, two swimming pools, office space for community groups and a community gym. Even our allotments were shut for several years because of soil toxicity (just as plans for houses to be built there were revealed, but never came to fruition because of the 2008 economic crash). Not to mention leaving two huge areas of residential land (now vacant brownfield). Since 2001, Hamiltonhill and its surrounding area has lost over 20 per cent of its housing stock to demolition. A triple whammy of the 2008 crash undermining development, austerity, and ‘residualisation’ has taken its toll. Residualisation is the phenomenon of social polarisation in urban areas which creates “a pattern of movement of people excluded from society from place to place as social problems become sequentially concentrated and then displaced without dealing with the underlying causes of worklessness, poverty or poor housing.” [10] Poverty is often concealed and shifted, but won’t budge until the structural questions are properly addressed.   

Karl Polanyi once suggested that contrary to popular portrayal, laissez-faire [and ipso facto neoliberal] capitalism was and is planned. It is in fact social resistance that is the spontaneous humanising response to damaging market forces, not the other way around. [11] These forces dislocate us in our relationship to others and the land, for example, by monetising previous reciprocal and gracious exchanges between neighbours, or privatising common good land. Drawing on Polanyi, Bruce Alexander suggests that dislocation is the inevitable consequence of a lack of psycho-social (and I posit psycho-spatial) integration. [12] Dislocated communities are rendered more vulnerable to the effects of addictive processes such as alcohol and drugs or online gaming.

Recently local people living around Hamiltonhill have shown that we really love our community and care about its space. We are determined to resist being dislocated from our own context and community by the power of market forces. We don’t claim to be the first to stage this resistance.  We do sense that this is a new wave of the old impulse to re-integrate our neighbourhood. From painting rusty lamp-posts, to a mini-winter festival with a marquee and games; from a DIY football pitch in a wasteland, to a community barbeque; from securing planters to brighten up the area, to the story of the Bench – a place for folks to stop on rest on the way back to the shops, local people have begun to organise resistance. That’s a lot of love considering how battered and neglected the community had been. Clay sensed that this is where the church should get stuck in.

To be clear, the story is not solely one of neglect. There have been two new school sites launched, though now they are outside our area. There is one remaining covered meeting place – Clay Church’s Bardowie Hall. The ‘Back Garden’ community garden behind the new health centre is important to us. And we worked hard to secure Local Nature Reserve status for the Clay Pit between us and the canal, with Glasgow City Council and Scottish Canals support. In 2015 a vision to create a new inner-city eco-village emerged and pre-crash visions of development were dusted off. A new development framework finally came forward from Queens Cross Housing Association and Glasgow City Council’s Development and Regeneration Services which seemed to give the possibility of taking it to the next level, re-stitching our community back together spatially as well as socially. But for the two years leading up to Our Hammyhill, the only meaningful follow-up community engagement about the masterplan for our area had been led by the community (in May 2016). A co-production approach could have further empowered and restored dignity to our battered community using a proper engagement process. But that option was not pursued amidst lack of vision and tax cuts.

Since we’ve always been told that “the plans aren’t set in stone”, one resident suggested we should come up with our own plan. So a small group including local kids put the weekend together. This meant educating ourselves about the planning process from scratch. We received some help in this from the council, but there has been more support from our local community worker Ali Mitchell, as well as retired planning professionals.

No eating, no meeting

We wove many elements into our programme, from community celebrations including a ceilidh and a barbeque to some self-education with a high-profile visiting speaker (we secured Cliff Hague, president of Edinburgh’s Cockburn Association, [13] a charity dedicated to conserving the built heritage of the city, pro bono). We wove food into every element we could. Indeed, Clay Church’s informal motto has long been “no eating, no meeting”, and that held true for Our Hammyhill.

We started by enabling our kids’ vision to emerge and be at the heart of the process. Then we thought about what we could do for ourselves on Friday night, taught ourselves what might be possible with some outside help on Saturday afternoon and then began to think about what we needed other people to do for us only at the end. On the Sunday evening we delivered a ‘guerrilla playground’ on some abandoned land and had a big community barbeque surrounded by our friends and neighbours, which was shalom in action, delivery of immediate change by locals for locals.

In the run-up to the event, we distributed leaflets (hand-delivered by locals) with multi-coloured ribbons that could be tied around people’s favourite places in the area. Not only did this help to publicise the event, but it also helped us to see what the favourite spots already are, and why. We used Clay Church’s Bardowie Hall and open-air sites all over our area. We had an exhibition constructed from insights of local teenagers through the Planning Aid Scotland [14] “In the Footsteps of Geddes” project, using Google Cardboard Virtual Reality technology for panoramic photos and 3D selfie imaging. We held a community-build with the architects Baxendale out on the street, where local folks could stop, build and chat in a colourful timber-framed moveable viewing platform for community conversations called the Hammyhut. And a play engagement from PEEK where local kids were engaged in play spaces all over the area, and asked for their thoughts on community and space while they played.

We used the Place Standard tool for more structured resident-with-resident interviews. The Place Standard tool provides a simple framework to structure conversations about place. It allows you to think about the physical elements of a place (for example its buildings, spaces and transport links) as well as the social aspects (for example whether people feel they have a say in decision making). [15]

We operated a mini-design studio for a central public space after being inspired by Cliff’s Ingredients for Great Public Spaces talk (an Urban Design 101-type class). And we imagined, designed and implemented a community-built play-space intervention in one weekend, creating a tree swing, hopscotch and Twister play-space in ‘Hamiltonhill Park’, as our kids are now calling one of our local brownfield sites.

The end goal

The brochure was produced in time for the development’s pre-application consultation (PAC) with our social landlord, so that our community could enter that consultation empowered, confident and convinced as to some of the key community goals that we have for our neighbourhood, brochure in hand. Otherwise the PAC will be done ‘to us’ rather than ‘with us’. This forms the small-p political dimension of this collective act of resistance to neglectful powers.

Probably my most precious moment was finding a photo of a local lady we know well (and who has had a tough time and often finds herself at the edge) with big smile on her face, having climbed a local tree and tied a rope swing around it for the kids. This was a local idea, which was made to happen with local resources by local people for local kids, and put in place by our neighbour with real joy! This is ABCD in action…with church in the mix. It is seeking the prosperity of our place in a tangible and simple way, as an end in itself.  And yet it also paid off for us as a church.  Even more than before, we have discovered our calling at the heart of our community and now have the brochure to turn to as we go on to discern how we should apply ourselves to mission in our community over the next season. Our peace and prosperity is discovered by first seeking it for others: seek first the Kingdom and the rest will be added unto you. Mission is from the ground up. We start with the gifts the community has and the relationships we have built, assuming that what is best for our community’s wellbeing is what is best for our wellbeing. In this way, Clay offered its own gifts into the mix and helped generate a rich experience of reciprocal gift-giving and community envisioning for the whole of Hamiltonhill and we all had a lot of fun doing it.

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Notes

[1] Sparks, P. et al., The New Parish : How Neighborhood Churches Are Transforming Mission, Discipleship, And Community, Downers (Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2014)
[2] “Our Hammyhill” (PDF, 2017)
[3] Clay Community Church website 
[4] Kreider, A. Salty Discipleship: Bringing New Worlds to Life (online 2008) available at: http://www.anabaptistnetwork.com/node/291
[5] McKnight, J., Block, P., The abundant community: awakening the power of families and neighborhoods (Chicago, Ill: American Planning Association, 2010)
[6] Project for Public Spaces website
[7] For a theological exposition of the principles of abundance that McKnight draws on, see Sam Wells’s lecture to the Church of Scotland GA in 2017 entitled Catalysing Kingdom Communities. It builds a missiology out of the framework of John 10:10.
[8] Asset-Based Community Development: Sustainable development is about discoverables; not deliverables, What Works Scotland website
[9] For a further article co-written by the author arguing that churches can develop abundant community in their places through environmental mission, together with practical examples and theological reflection, see ‘Understanding the Environmental Realm’ in Mission in Marginal Places (Vol.2) ed. Pears M. and Cloke P, (Carlisle: Paternoster, 2016)
[10] McCartney, G., Hearty, W., Taulbut M., Mitchell R., Dryden R., Collins, C., “Regeneration and health: a structured, rapid literature review”, Public Health 148 (2017): 69-87
[11] Polanyi, K., The great transformation (Boston Mass.: Beacon Press, 1957)
[12] Alexander, B.K. The Globalisation of Addiction: a Study in Poverty of the Spirit, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)
[13] The Cockburn Association website
[14] PAS website
[15] Place Standard website

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