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River Commons Sheffield Exhibition

on Sat, 10/06/2012 - 20:51

The River Commons event held over the first weekend of March 2012 was hosted by Shalesmoor, Kelham Island & Neepsend Network (SKINN), in collaboration with the University of Sheffield School of Architecture (SSoA), and Studio Polpo. On Saturday 3rd March I attended the main event and had the fortune to listen to a variety of engaging presentations, demonstrating that the City of Sheffield has a growing group of conscious leaders that they can be proud of. 

Sheffield’s urban development has been such that although the river runs through the cities centre it is not considered central to the city or its residents. Unlike other cities the rivers in Sheffield (but for the affluent South West quadrant of the city) have remained generally unaccessible. This as Simon Ogden of Sheffield City Council and the Five Weirs Walk Trust explained stemmed from its industrial heritage which used the river as a dumping ground for industrial waste. Thankfully for Sheffield there are a number of organisations working for a more engaging urban landscape. 

Dr. Cristina Cerulli, a lecturer at SSOA and director of Studio Polpo - initiator of the River Commons project opened the event explaining that the idea of the project was to initiate things along the river and in so doing open up access to people. It was this idea of initiating creative projects that was the common thread. 

Simon Ogden introduced the work of Five Weirs Walk Trust, who have been fighting and negotiating access to the river Don for the past twenty six years. In his presentation he gave us quite a number of examples into the initiation of past and current projects from the council and their future plans for this stretch of the river. Such plans as the Wicker Action Plan and the Kelham Neepsend Plan demonstrated very different demographical considerations but with the same idea: to open up access to these areas of the river. Simon also highlighted the liberated public access along the river Don via the Five Weirs Walk, which has resulted in a high interest from a diverse set of citizens and highlighted the potential that the other plans have. Here is Simon Ogden's talk

Each intervention, plan and creative project being undertaken gave a great feeling of potential being realised. On the right hand side wall of the venue there was a series of maps from the project ‘unlocking the potential and joining the dots’ undertaken by Urban Design Masters students from the Sheffield School of Architecture. It was actually this project (that includes an embroidered patching map designed as an engagement tool) which drew me into finding out about the River Commons project and meeting Dr. Cerulli at their Hub Westminster workshop a couple of months before this event. Such interventions along the rivers of Sheffield are attractors to further ingenuity and collective creativity. This can help to bring about more open access and free enjoyment to the river with conservation and stewardship of the river being a valued activity. As Katja Porohina and Ivan Rabodzenko os SKINN said in their presentation:

“Working with local community to develop spaces must happen, as these spaces cannot just happen by working with external contractors. Involve people actually living in the flats and houses around that particular area of the river so that these young professionals, students and others can come down and build stuff and get involved. This would give them a bigger ownership of these new spaces and would allow them to appreciate the work that was produced and maintain the existing assets.”

Katja and Ivan outlined how this active citizenship or stewardship of the river commons can be viewed as a fun activity:

It can also be fun and can become a trendy exercise for young people to do, if it is packaged and marketed correctly conservation can be turned into a Saturday or Sunday activity.

Equally important was the potential on display for collaboration between civic, business and council workers - a very important quality in configuring and delivering sustainable urban progress. As Ivan said:

“There needs to be a link between cultural leisure and conservation, there is a high density of businesses, art studios, and residents many of which are young living around the river that could get involved in this way. SKINN wants to create this link between the cultural organisations so all of them can work together to actually make opening up the river a fun process for everyone to do and for people to engage with. This meanwhile testing of spaces is a great answer to making things happen rather than simply waiting for the economic conditions to get better.”

This meanwhile testing of space was very interesting to me especially given Ivan’s indication that such interventions can be done at low or lower cost than traditional maintenance and development initiatives. 

The three presentations below demonstrate a well thought out co-initiation of activities along the river which have required high levels of collaboration, entrepreneurial spirit and citizen engagement. 

  1. CADS which re-purposes ex-industrial buildings for cultural and community programmes and was introduced by Steve Rimmer in his presentation here
  2. Point Blank Theatre Company introduced by Steve Jackson in his presentation here.
  3. The River Stewardship Company and its band of riverlutionaries introduced by Helen Batt in her presentation here.

Nearing the end of the talks my overall sense was that there is a growing community of commoners who are leading the way in Sheffield, self-organising around their natural common resource - and in so doing leading us to discover new sources of value in the city. While the main presentations recorded above are directly concerned with the River Commons in Sheffield I was also invited to present on behalf of the School of Commoning introducing the concept of the Commons and the work of the school. 

My side presentation to the main presentations that day was intended to bring attention to the new commons narrative that is emerging of which the River Commons is participating in. In summary I tried to give a sense of the commons as an alternative source of value that is helping an increasing number to prototype, connect with each other and coalesce around micro and macro scale solutions to the testing economic climate. Many of the qualities that these projects bring such as stewardship, trusteeship, co-governance, co-initiation/production, horizontality, peer to peer dynamics, and commoning relationships were on display in the presentations given.

It is very exciting to discover citizens in cities such as Sheffield who are underway with Commons based projects; and the River Commons is a testing ground that increasingly learns more about the International Commons movement it is a part of. Uniting both is a new common spirit of care that I witnessed throughout the exhibition and was actually summed up at the very beginning of the day by Dr. Cerulli who said in her opening presentation:

“The more we started to understand about the Sheffield Rivers the more we fell in love with them and wanted to do something about it.”

Thank you to SKINN, Studio Polpo, Sheffield School of Architecture, Sheffield City Council and all the participants who made this day possible. 

Are you involved in a similar project as this? Of course the rivers are just one kind of commons that shapes a city and its activities. If you are not yet involved in a project like this then here are some questions for reflection: what commons be they natural, material or cultural attracts your attention within the city enough for you to begin actively shaping their future? What would it take to self-organize around that which you care about with others? How would you mobilise the energies of people across market, civic and state sectors that share your common spirit of care? 

To get you started on your path towards an urban commons or strengthen all of our common projects please connect and engage with the people mentioned in this blog post.

To explore the recent activities along the River Commons you can engage with the project via Twitter @RiverCommons and read the report of this exhibition here.