Dream location

Exeter’s a pretty good place to live. There’s plenty of green space, views of rolling Devon hills from most parts of the city, easy access to the coast and Dartmoor, vibrant grass roots movements, happening arts & ents, and reasonable public transport. But then there’s the traffic (symptomatic of an over-heating economy), pressure on housing and land, unaffordability (as the ratio of housing costs to salary is among the highest in the country), homelessness, poverty, and across-the-board unsustainability.

“Somewhere between the rainbow and the Internet a place that is important to you is struggling to maintain its integrity”, writes Sue Clifford in an essay about “Places, People and Parish Maps” for Common Ground.

Places are of our manufacture. We and nature conspire, actively or unconsciously, to shift and balance, to accelerate or slow down, to experiment or reiterate… But how responsible do we feel for the place and for the changes?

We don’t have to accept that the downsides of a place are the way things need to be, or that the upsides don’t need nourishing and protecting. We don’t have to accept that we will always be ‘done to’, especially by local government. They are after all our elected representatives. Sue Clifford describes a “moment of moving from passive acceptance (‘it’s such a shame, but what can you do….?’) to active engagement (‘it could be so much better, what can we do?’)”. It is possible to help shape the place we live.

We have our votes – all 39 seats on the City Council are up for grabs in the local elections on 5 May, and you have until 18 April to register – and we have our voices.

For example, you can actually talk to your local councillors and council officers (and your MP and MEPs for that matter). They are not omniscient dark lords, who know everything about everything and have chosen to reject what is right (ie your idea). They are human beings, who may not have heard yet of the latest idea regarding traffic or local food, however common sense it might seem. It’s up to you to tell them, and they may well be quite enthusiastic. I’ve had one of these conversations face-to-face, and a few on Twitter.

There is also Exeter City Futures, a company set up by a consortium of public and private partners to tackle the big issues facing Exeter. They’ll have a stand in the break-out areas at TEDxExeter. They’re thinking and possibly even dreaming: “What is the future of Exeter? What are the challenges that we face? What do we want our city to be like in ten years’ time?” And they want to hear from as many people in Exeter as possible. You can have your say by completing a survey on the website, and join in the conversation by attending the public debates.

I’ve had a go at this in the past. Back in 2013, I wrote down my dream for the redevelopment of Exeter’s Bus Station. It included “a mix of local retail, local business, charities and social entrepreneurs, artists’ studios and housing” and “deliberately quirky architecture and winding streets that lead onward in a voyage of discovery; [o]pening out into truly public space”. Many others have added their voices to the mix. It wasn’t wasted effort, even though the latest plans are for a white elephant (in my view, for a number of reasons) swimming pool. Things are dragging on, and all is not yet lost.

But we can accomplish much more by just getting on with it ourselves, at the (sometimes literal) grass roots, shaping our own place.

The Transition Movement has been dreaming and visioning low carbon resilient futures for a number of years now, and in Exeter has spun off quite a few realities such as Real Food and Exeter Community Energy. Local currency Exeter Pound launched in September last year. It will also have a stand at TEDxExeter.

Then there are the initiatives down the road from me.

A friend of mine started Ludwell Life, caring for the wonderful green space that is Ludwell Valley Park. As well as getting stuck in to the Council’s Masterplan process, she’s got involved in strengthening links between community groups and organisations such as Devon Wildlife Trust, to do simple things like litter picking and clearing up the stream, or walk and observe nature and learn about the place.

Some of those community-minded people in Wonford are also looking at how best to use the buildings at Wonford Playing Fields. They’re thinking about a community café that could be a meeting place; host diet, nutrition and cookery courses; provide training and employment for young people.

In the next ward over, there’s Park Life Heavitree and Heavitree Squilometre. The Park Life people aim to be community glue, running events in Heavitree Pleasure Ground, helping people out with meals and mobility, and working on improving local facilities. JoJo of the Squilometre believes that given any one square kilometre of landscape, we can grow stories from the very ground beneath our feet​.

I’m barely scratching the surface. There are many many more groups of people making all sorts of differences that add up to significant realities. So I’ll just note that JoJo has a dream too, in her case for Heavitree Fore Street, in which traffic fumes are replaced by the scent of freshly-baked bread, and community connections and creativity are prioritised over the need to always be somewhere else. She is more hopeful than I tend to be. In her words, which echo Sue Clifford’s about a place that is struggling to maintain its integrity:

“We all feel it don’t we? That something is missing from the heart of our place? Maybe there is something that we could do about it.”

Indeed. Let’s dream local and make local realities.