Are people under the age of thirty fatally allergic to civic societies? Or, can they be talked into trying a heady brew which contains a soupcon of the environment and a dash of community action?
Six months ago Camden Civic Society was a thinning gene pool and no matter how it was dressed up, its forthcoming 50th anniversary seemed to be more a farewell than a celebration of better things to come. But with a massively popular article in the Kentishtowner, a few well-aimed tweets and a speed dating event for volunteers, half a dozen new and younger members have been co-opted onto the committee, bringing with them some gutsy talk of taking the society into new territory.
It probably helps that we’ve also found a new place to meet, too, in The Pineapple – always a pleasure – on Leverton Street in Kentish Town.Emily Kenway (right) is typical of the new inspiring and forceful intake. She moved to Camden three years ago and says, “I’d never heard of a civic society before. I was disillusioned with politics but wanted to be part of a movement to do something, to make my community better”.
In her twenties, she wants to be able to influence the development of her local area without being part of a political party. Emily works as a campaigner for a pressure group involved in responsible investment and says: “I’ve seen the workings of government too closely to have any illusions about its efficacy. I think we have to do things for ourselves and improve our quality of life”.
This concern about social, environmental and economic issues is typical of the new intake at CCS. For a younger generation, disillusioned with politics, the function of a civic society is more than a commitment to improving the built environment. Civic life is what goes on in the public realm. It’s about our defining our lives as citizens rather than consumers.They see the potential for civic societies to raise awareness on issues such as social equality and environmental protection without being constrained by political bickering. For them, asking questions about affordable housing and HS2 is as important as campaigning for better cycle lanes and maintaining essential bus routes.
In the opinion of Cameron Fitzwilliam-Grey, this approach requires strength in numbers and a clear idea of strategy. Cameron is the Chair of Greater London Volunteering: organising a speed dating volunteer event for CCS, he ended up becoming one of its committee members. Cameron says CCS needs a much larger number of people to be involved so the committee can get the strategy right and have a large pool of people working on specific issues. “We need bums on seats,” is his way of putting it.James Davis is also a new member. Nowadays he occupies a more corporate role in his job as an oil analyst, but he joined four months ago: without a job or a TV, he needed to fill his time as well as giving something back to the community and using skills he’d picked up “in the real world”.
All of these people talked about a need to make the best of the place they live in. They see the built environment as the means of connecting communities – through shops, libraries, roads, streets, cafes, schools and parks. Making the best physical environment encourages social connections which is at the heart of the civic society movement.
Emily Kenway puts it more graphically: she recommends any type of voluntary community work as a way of bringing people together. “People ought to volunteer. It’s good for them and the community. But it’s like a muscle, it needs practice”.
So what are we debating right now? HS2 (the over 70s are more radical than the young’uns on that front), the fire and police stations in danger of imminent closure – and our first pub quiz.
And of course, we’re still the grit in the oyster to Camden’s planning department.