Episode #152 Regenerative by Design: Creating Communities that work with Charlie Fisher of Transition by Design
In a world that feels as if all the certainties are breaking down, how can we build the communities of place and of purpose that will give us the resilience to bridge from the old structures to the new? Exploring deeply practical ways to build community with Charlie Fisher.
Charlie is a co-founder and director of the Co-operative Architecture Practice, Transition by Design. He’s a researcher and urban-instigator working on regenerative land use approaches and more collaborative forms of city-making driven by the belief that to unlock collective imagination for equitable societies we must remove structural barriers that are preventing people from connecting with one another.
His role over the past decade has been to build capacities within land-based organisations, primarily around urban affordable housing and mechanisms for holding land in the commons. He writes about, and runs workshops on, group dynamics, decision-making, housing finance, incorporation approaches, legal structures, stakeholder mapping, business planning, and visioning.
In 2020, he was developing the Oxygen Fund, a £5m revolving equity fund with the Oxfordshire Growth Deal, which led him to explore how regenerative land use can be supported through Distributed Co-operative Organisations (DisCOs🕺) and web3 Regenerative Finance (ReFi) projects.
He is in the core team of regenerative blockchain-based property developer Oasa, a Swiss Association, which bought its first piece of land in 2021 at Traditional Dream Factory in Portugal. In building this ecosystem together, he is the interface between various thematic working ‘circles’ and has led the design of our sociocratic coordination system.
He is an adviser to the Center for Community Land Trust Innovation, and in 2023 he’ll be running a cohort-based course, Unearthing Common Ground, with 50 land trusts globally and 50 regenerative web3 projects to support exchange between traditional land trust projects and web3 practitioners.
In this conversation, we open up the key question of building communities: what does it take to create the connections between people that make communities work? What questions matter and how do we know which things we can leave till later? How do we move from consensus to consent so that things move forward at the speed we need as our material supply chains falter? How can we engage the best in human creativity to build communities that will have the flexibility, heart and coherence to survive? Charlie is deeply embedded in so many of these questions, and finding ways through that work in the real world. With any luck at all, we’ll be moving onto a 2nd conversation when a couple more of our hundred day segments have passed – so if you have questions, let me know.
Charlie’s super site
Transition by Design
Community Land Trust network
Garden City Principles
Nabeel Hamdi: Small change: Intelligent Practice and Practising intelligence
UK government rules on Garden Communities
LILAC in Leeds
Oasa Earth (which incorporates the Traditional Dream Factory in Portugal)
Manda: I was exploring the region’s civics sites on the Web with a view to looking at community. And I came across Charlie Fisher, who had made a four minute video about the Salt Cross project near Oxford. And it seemed to me that Charlie had so many of the answers, or at least the beginnings of the intelligent questions that we can ask that take us beyond our long series of yes buts. Charlie is a founder member and director of Transition by Design, a cooperative architecture practice in Oxford. He’s driven by the belief that to unlock collective imagination for equitable societies, we have to remove structural barriers that are preventing people from connecting one to the other. And his role over the past decades has been to build capacities within land based organisations. He writes about and runs workshops on group dynamics, decision making, housing finance, incorporation approaches, legal structures, stakeholder mapping, business planning, visioning. All of the things that we need to know about and you might know about, but I know nothing and know that I need to know. And so talking to Charlie has opened up the kinds of conversations that feel like they could be an entire podcast all on their own. One episode a week, week after week as we unpick this.
We haven’t got to that yet, but we do have a first episode really beginning to unpick the things that we really need to know, to build the communities that are going to take us forward. We had some interesting sound challenges. Charlie lives near a hospital. There was the occasional ambulance, and then someone decided it was fun to move some chairs in the room upstairs. So Caro, as ever, has done her best with the sound and I hope you’ll forgive us for the rest. With all that in mind, people of the podcast with great delight please do welcome Charlie Fisher of Transition by Design.
So, Charlie, welcome to the Accidental Gods podcast and thank you for taking time out of what feels like a really busy schedule for you. I got to know you through your video about the Salt Cross Project, which is a Garden City or Garden village, I’m never very clear on the difference, and I would like you to tell me. So for the listeners, can you situate us in what Salt Cross is about and how you specifically came to be involved in it. Who you are, why it matters to you, and where you see it going, and where you specifically are involved in it.
Charlie: Thanks a lot for having me on. I’m looking forward to this conversation. So I started as an architect and as I was finishing my architecture training just around ten years ago, I was struck by the fact that what we have in front of us isn’t a technological problem as from an architect’s position. It’s not about how to do the building materials. It’s not about how the construction processes go. It’s about other more systemic things that often can feel a little bit out of your control as an architect. And so as we were setting up an architecture practice, a cooperative architecture practice, which is unusual in the UK, Transition by Design, back in 2011; we were very keen to understand how we integrate ourselves as architects within a city focus that can start to push some of these systemic issues, in a much stronger way than maybe we felt the dependencies are between a client and an architect back then. And we knew, based in Oxford, we knew that the housing crisis at that time, really an attention point for a lot of people, our communities, but also in the media a lot following the 2007 and eight global financial crisis. That people were looking for solutions, but people were really looking to understand what it was that was leading to the position we were in at that point. With Oxford being the least affordable city for housing outside of London boroughs. And if we can solve it in this place, we felt we could roll that out and solve it in many other urban environments, because of that context. And what I went on to do was to look at finance and land instead.
Charlie: So I knew we could build affordable houses. I had just finished a master’s in development and emergency practice, so I was looking at open source housing with a focus on Haiti, and I was looking to re localise my practice, knowing that the best place for me to be was the place that I understand. The people, the environments they were sat within; England was my place to have the most impact and really imbed myself in Oxford. And so I spent ten years getting to know that place. I come from… My mother’s an urban designer. She works with communities up in Leeds. She’s now going on to do work with agro villages, eco Villages, very similar to the kind of work that I do. But it meant I’ve had this conversation point for a long time of how do we make communities more resilient, effective, able to work within contexts of change, because of the neighbourhoods that she was working in. And that provided a huge amount of inspiration to me and continues to. And still situating myself within an urban practice, within an architecture practice with a multidisciplinary team; we’ve got people who are urban designers, researchers, and we’ve still got architects. We’re trying to use the awareness we’ve got that good design should be available for everyone, as a driving force to trying to get to low carbon and convivial cities. Urban is our focus. We do other work outside, but really we’re trying to understand how can we affect change within cities across England, with a focus on Oxford.
Manda: I’d like to interrupt here. We haven’t got to Salt Cross yet and we’re heading there. But there’s a number of things that you said that absolutely are keying into what this podcast is about. Whenever we come to the end of a conversation with somebody and I ask the question or we’ve delineated the problem; we have some idea of whatever the person I’m talking to, what the solution is. How do we implement this? And they always say we need to build communities and we need to build resilient communities. And then my next question is how? And that’s when everything becomes slightly fluffy and everyone says we’ll just need to be kinder to each other, and then it’ll happen. Which isn’t necessarily the way the world is turning out at the moment. And you seem to be working exactly on this problem. And two of the things that I have highlighted so far: you said you started up a cooperative architecture practice, which is not common in the UK, and I’m wondering where is it common and what does that actually mean? What is the difference between a co-operative architecture practice and standard in the UK? Just for interest. And then you mentioned open source housing. What is open source housing and how does it work? Can we just have a quick look at that and then we can tag back in to Salt Cross and how you got to there. Also, at some point I want to talk about agro villages, but let’s do that later.
Charlie: Well we set up Transition by Design as a co-operative because of the organisations that we had already had experience of at that point. So we had people that were in the founding team that had been in the Occupy movement. We had people that were doing various actions for Greenpeace. We were doing quite a lot of work with the charity bioregional at the time. We assembled this organisation from what we thought was most useful at that point in time and continues to be for us. So we weren’t looking at other models of architecture practices and thinking we want to emulate it. We were quite critical of how architecture practice works, and the practices we’d been in to that point already hadn’t felt like the most effective way of creating autonomous, interesting, energetic agents of change within cities. So the co-operative model really stood out for us. It’s not common, mostly because of the way in which the architecture industry is regulated. It’s a very high capital intensive industry with huge amounts of risk and the time on site is an expensive commodity. So if things go wrong, people are looking for blame. And often that I think necessitates a very hierarchical model within the architecture practices as well, or is interpreted as that. And so we are very heavily insured, we are very careful.
Charlie: Lots of things are written down and logged. I think all of this, the way that we’re taught to do the practice of architecture, which is very different to the creative side that we’re also stimulated to begin from, creates structures that are very rigid. And we were pushing back against that when we set up just over ten years ago. We now have developed a number of tools that fit very well with our structure, such as Sociocracy. We try distribute our decision making across all the people that are involved in our practice. And we set up a number of different tools that pair very well with our practice. So we distribute decision making across the team, to try and build autonomy at the very lowest level. Lowest being at the point at which things are needed, where the people who are closest to the issues are bringing forwards and understanding what’s going on, helping everyone else to understand that process and then get to the point of deciding what we’re going to do about it. Whether that be in project form or solution in some way. But we don’t jump to that thing first. We spend a fair bit of time understanding the question.
Charlie: That’s very helpful. That mixes well with with the co-operative mechanism. Anyone who has passed their probation in our organisation becomes a member and this organisation is owned by those people. So the level of ownership is quick to come by and we spend a huge amount of time in those first three months making sure people understand the responsibility they hold as joint owners. That being the most important layer. And then from there we really pay attention to roles in the organisation. That being the second most important, I would say, is people leading through having a participant pace in what we call circles. And I can go into that more as we start talking about structures that we use within other projects we do and within the eco villages and with the community land trust that we work with. And we have transparent and equitable pay systems and we talk about things. So things emerge from this practice, by giving the minimum necessary constraints down to people that are closest to the issues. In our practice, we find that we’re faster, more effective. We try things, we fail and then iterate back in. It’s a very effective model for building architectural practice.
Manda: Have you found people coming to join you because they like the model or the model beginning to spread? Is this taking off within the architecture world, in the UK or elsewhere?
Charlie: It’s definitely not taking off here in the UK. We’re very keen to support others using this mechanism. I don’t actually know where in the world this is a common model for architecture. We’ve met some in the USA and other places, but for now we are very happy with it. We talk about it a lot and what we see is that people are excited to join this team, not really knowing what the day to day practice of being in the team is like. And so when we do recruitment processes, we get an overwhelming number of people coming to try and join this company. Partly because of those fairly funky models that we use, the working practices. And a large part to do with the kind of projects that we’re working on around housing, affordable housing, particularly homelessness, low carbon cities. We’re doing a lot of work at the moment on whole city retrofits, just trying to understand the cost of public bodies trying to entirely retrofit the city. And we have passive house architects who try to look at how very low energy housing can be achievable, mostly within a retrofit. By retrofit, I mean houses being done up, so the walls being heavily insulated, various bits of technology being put in where necessary. And we have a big focus on natural materials. So that goes through all of the kind of work we do. And I think that’s what makes people turn up to this organisation we’ve got and be very excited to start. We had two new people starting a couple of weeks ago and they’re full of energy and it comes back across to us as well. So we love getting new people in and taking them through this three month induction process on how to be owners of our of our organisation.
Manda: How big are you now and how big do you conceive of being?
Charlie: So we were ten a year ago, we’re now five and we were on a trajectory to grow a little bit bigger when we were going for ten. And the pandemic has an effect on companies across this time. And people have gone on to do slightly different things, actually, mostly going to build more expertise in public bodies, which is an interesting factor within this. I can see that through the kind of model we’ve got as a co-operative, and because we’ve got very, very watertight processes and protocols and things that come around us, we’ve got a lot of structure for a very small team. Just embarking at the moment on designing and associates pool. So my experience within distributed autonomous organisations across the last two years, which we’ll also get onto, I can see that distributed teams can work at a much larger scale by having a number of layers of participation. So what we’re keen to do is to grow back up to the 10 to 14 core team size. They’re the people that turn up each each day. The people that sit in our office by the canal in Oxford, or in other cities around around the country. And then we have a complementary associates group who sit within a pool and react to the kind of projects we get.
Charlie: Because one of the one of the difficult things of being a small practice within this UK context and worldwide is that when big projects come through, it’s very difficult to allocate the resources needed to start that project very quickly. And so it’s really an opportunity for bigger practices to keep winning these kinds of projects. And they use casual labour forces. A lot of the junior staff spend huge amounts of their time and weekends. We experienced this in our early stages of our career and it’s a thing we’re not willing to do, but it puts us at a disadvantage. So what we’re trying to think about is how can we create the nimbleness that people who might want to work with us want, while being ethical employers collectively. And we’re trialling across the next couple of months our first associate pools. So I would like by next year to have 50 people in our pool working actively with us on some of these very large scale projects, from master planning to eco villages to large scale consultations within urban areas. That would be my ideal.
Manda: I wish I had a project I could bring to you because it sounds really interesting. And given the way that it feels to me, as if money is breaking down around us and becoming both more scarce and potentially more fragile, it’s going to be really interesting to see, I imagine, if the resilience of that kind of organisation survives better than some of the dominant hierarchies that require a huge amount of capital to keep them moving. That’s probably a whole other conversation. Let’s not go there. Let’s come back briefly to what is open source housing and how does it work? And is it possible in the UK and other places around the world, or is it only in I’m guessing it was Haiti because there was a disaster zone there.
Charlie: Yeah, the context was the Haiti earthquake. And I was looking at how back then, because it had just occurred in the previous year, I think it was around 50 different shelters were being built by organisations all over the world. Starting from the very beginning, very few of them using local materials, local know how, some very makeshift and with not a lot of thought to how they would develop over time. And so coming from a perspective of what’s called core housing, how to deliver a very functional low cost but structurally effective core element that can then be developed upon and built upon as people change and things adjust over time, could be used for something different. I was looking at how more collaboration could come into the design and then delivery of shelter in that case, after a disaster context. And I was working with Nabeel Hamdi, who continued to be a big inspiration for me, who worked on a project called Small Change. His key contribution was this book called Small Change, where we’re looking to create very small interventions and track how those interventions go on to create a huge amount of different externalities after that point. Part of the thesis of Small Change was around practical projects case studies that Nabeel had been involved in, having worked at the Greater London Authority on housing programs and much of his career had been within housing. He was looking within a development context in different places all over the world, these little practical projects, and one of them was, the one that becomes famous through the book is the bus stop.
Charlie: And so he recognised that within this small square, the bus stop was where lots of people gathered and were starting to create informal economies from that point. So people were being sold to at that point, different things starting to accumulate on the edges of it. There was microcredit programs that were happening because people were starting to accumulate there. And so upgrading the bus stop functions and starting to add other things over time was the most effective small intervention, than a large scale planned program for, say, delivering housing or delivering new business financial programs. And an alternative, an antidote to the large, through lots of little smalls. And he then tracked the different things that happened as a result of this upgrading of this little bus stop. And so that became the main thing of his contribution, which we think is a giant contribution in the way that he then changed the kind of work we do. And he’s gone on to write loads of other books. He happens to be living here in Oxford and that’s where I ended up coming across him and working most closely. His house is opposite our office on the other side of the canal, so we often go to the pub with him these days and give him catch ups on how we’re continuing to use the things that he’s taught us over time.
Charlie: And so the open source housing thing is definitely not his term and is a term that I use quietly, because what I was looking to describe was a more collaborative way of doing housing design and construction and look to use the people that are on the ground. People that have the understanding of the people, the place, construction methods, the vernacular of a particular place, but augmented with other brains from around the world, other creative voices. And that process really taught me that I could be sat within the place that I know, in Oxford, while contributing to a project that gets iterated over time. And the route that I chose to study and then work within was the Wiki House Project, Wiki House Foundation. And what that was looking to do is take what I saw as a technology driven approach to changing little bits about design and that design being based on traditional construction methods, carpentry methods, and then adding to them based on the context you were within. And so we had almost like a tech product release programme with Alphas and betas and version 1.2 and three and four, and it was being iterated within the community based on that context. And so when the New Zealand earthquakes happened, the New Zealand Wiki House team pulled into the joint system a better way of doing earthquake resilient joints.
Charlie: And so that branched off a new form of Wiki house and that was a very clear route map to me because it was visualised diagrams very effectively, as to how we could work with each other and build in and keep supplementing it. But the difficult things were how can you build the social architecture that sits around this? Things like warranties. So insurance against fire and making sure that the buildings wouldn’t fall on people. And so we had engineers approving different designs. Those things, those physical aspects, mostly maintain across the world, but with different materials and different environments contexts. There’s some changes that need to come in. Different jurisdictions have different legal routes. And so we were still lacking a number of ways to apply on top of this physical design change, a number of different things that needed to be layered in over time. We just didn’t have the systems to work with at that point that I think we’re starting to get to now, that are answered in some ways through the work I’ve been doing with distributed autonomous organisations in the last couple of years. Seeing that the social design elements, that is decision making, the interaction and vocal discussion parts of this, can also be built in the same way as the wiki house was generated over time at that point as well. So you can layer in and supplement it over a longer period.
Manda: Gosh, we still haven’t got to Salt Cross. But actually let’s branch, because this feels really interesting and this may be me dragging the podcast into my own particular area. Because I’m increasingly aware that we need to start building communities very urgently. And this, the social architecture, the decision making, the interactions, the not getting lost in 20 people sitting down and trying all to accommodate everybody so that you take 20 years and in the end the walls are still magnolia. We haven’t got 20 years. Nobody wants magnolia walls. Talk to me a little bit about the distributed autonomous organisations and the social architecture. If we can make it specific. So either tell me about something that you know or we’ll start inventing my shamanic monastery. I don’t mind which, but let’s just drill down into how does this actually work? Because this is where everybody gets floaty and fluffy and you sound like you’re actually doing it.
Charlie: I had the same concern when I was embarking on how to do community land trusts in this way, how to advise community Trusts. Community Land trusts are open and democratic organisations for putting land into trust, taking it away from the speculative market forever. And so its addition to the housing question was clear to me quite quickly and something that I wanted to spend a lot of time on. 2012, 2013 it was no longer the technical thing, it wasn’t Wiki house that was the thing that I was interested in. I knew it could be done. But getting into how do communities organise themselves? How does planning interact with the way that cities are made over time? How does ownership work? How does finance for development work? All these things became very relevant and so coordinating people was a key skill that was needed with being able to manipulate these very difficult to control and hold systems that sit around us. Because a lot of these things aren’t within our control. But what we can control is the way in which we discuss things, decide on things. We can understand within housing construction, the decisions that need to be made at certain points in the future. Those things are definitely going to come and can be prepared for. And if they’re not prepared for having seen them go in different directions that were not very optimal. So I started working with Oxfordshire Community Land Trust in 2013 and they’d come out of the oldest community land trust in the UK. Stansfield Community Trust.
Charlie: So Stansfield set up in 1983. It has now got multiple decades worth of experience operating at just a tiny village, 1500 homes with a very formal, traditional charitable model, but with a very radical premise from a Quaker background. To now having done three housing schemes, taken over the local shop and turned it into a co-working space, the post office. They’ve done stuff in that area through this asset based approach, to now with a number of properties that they sit that have been left to them in wills, generating something between 80 and 100 thousand pounds a year, as a small village, tiny little village. They, through having this opportunity, were not only investing in their local area, but were setting up other trusts. So they help set up this umbrella trust for Oxfordshire with its first project in the west of Oxford. And that was my first practical interaction with how to coordinate at a local scale, a place that I understood and turning up month on month to try and make a housing project assemble. A co-operative, very low carbon passive house, housing projects. Which we knew that there were a number of different decisions to be made along that route, not only by us, but by the people that were going to live in those homes eventually. And I think the main thing that taught me is we can leave a number of gaps open all the way for conversations that will come later, that are in a different context, that you don’t understand what the solution might be. You might not be the best person to come to them.
Charlie: So things like the setting up of the housing co-operative, it was maybe going to be three or four years until we get to that point. We weren’t the ones that were going to have to be running it and a whole number of things might have changed. So across my career I’ve seen huge changes in the way in which governmental attitudes to low carbon cities have been funded. How we do energy generation through grant programmes, through the feed in tariff and other things, how that’s completely changed over this decade. That we haven’t got a strong approach to doing low carbon infrastructure or infrastructure projects in general. That they used to, 50 or 60 years ago within the post-war consensus period, for maintaining, despite political party, lasting change through large scale funding programmes. You need 15 to 20 years for a funding programme to really settle out. And we don’t do that. We chop and change and shift. Because things will change over time. You don’t need to solve everything now and I think that’s the case with a lot of projects, product delivered projects, that you end up trying to think of every single thing that you’re going to come across. And actually the terrain we’re moving on is shifting, I would say shifting faster than ever before, on a number of different things that we won’t be able to control either. And so leaving these holes, these empty pockets for some people to fill later on down the line, seems to me to be an essential way of doing housing projects.
Charlie: And that’s where I’ve learned that accommodating a good social architecture, this wraparound function for people to be able to talk, to understand what is the objective and subjective elements that are happening within any one time; to trade and compare those through effective discussion methods and then come to a point where they can agree that this is the thing that we’re faced with at this particular time. It may change later and this is the decision we want to make that’s good enough for this particular point in time and that everyone feels is safe enough to try at this point. And that got wrapped up into the way I’d done an architecture practice. So we took the same approach. It got wrapped up into the way that we do housing design and with clients and the way that we teach this to community land trusts. So I’ve ended up training in sociocracy, training our entire team in sociology each year as a social design set of tools. So practices that we’ve got, that you can pick and choose from, that become useful at different points, different reasons. And that becomes the important point for dealing with uncertainty, to be able to move forwards and be nimble even as a small team within very large, expensive processes. Because we have the adaptability, going forward. And I think that applies both from my practice and the kind of projects we’re doing, through to the way in which I think we should have a more active discussion and decision making function in wider societies.
Manda: Lots of places we could branch here. I feel there’s a big gap in the podcast in that I haven’t had somebody come and talk to us about Sociocracy yet. I don’t really want to turn this into the Sociocracy podcast, but I don’t fully understand and therefore I’m guessing most of the listeners don’t fully understand what it is and how it works. Can you give us a real edited highlight of… Maybe even using a specific example of how this helps people to find that nimble resilience. And particularly it seems… So this is again, this is something that I find we’re coming up against. People think we have to have all the answers if we’re going to set up my shamanic monastery idea, Eco village, agro village, whatever we call it, we have to know how it’s going to work all the way down the line, who’s going to be there, what are the roles, and we can’t. And so we end up in a morass of unknowing. What I’m hearing from you is you’ve got a social technology that can identify the things that we need to know now and give us the courage to let go of the things that we can’t know yet. Is that fair?
Charlie: Yeah, I think that works quite nicely as a definition. Sociocracy is often bandied around as a helpful term. In the same way as I had a reticence to say Open source as it applies to housing, is the source of this really open? Who gets to change it? How they change it. The same is within wraparound terms like sociocracy, but it’s been a helpful one for me in trying to contrast it with where we started, out of the Occupy movement, where consensus was a big part of that; was shifting to a point of giving people the consent to do things. So instead of trying to get general agreement for an issue, we’re asking for objections as gifts, as something that can help this process. And we’re giving as much of the autonomy as possible down to the people that are closest to it. So I’ve already explained it within the architecture practice we’re in. This is the tools that we use without giving them fancy technical names. Of understanding what is the thing that’s happening at that point and what would be the unintended consequence of not meeting those sets of needs. And asking the wider room and making sure that you’ve asked everybody in this. So objections are invited from everybody. An important layer of this is that you’re participating artfully, in that if you’ve got no objection, if you’re not close to it, it doesn’t affect you. Pull yourself back. You don’t need to say anything. And that’s different to a lot of rooms that we’re used to, especially within political rooms where everybody has their say, everyone gets involved. And sometimes the conversation can get quite confusing and go in a direction that’s not really related to the original observed issue that’s going on.
Charlie: So what this is looking to do is to create those patterns within everyday practice from small 1 to 1 conversations, even through to team meetings, which we call circles. Because we’re really trying to represent the way in which an issue goes around in a circle, in rounds we call them. And that thing of efficacy at this local level is how can people who are closest to it do the thing that’s needed? And even if everybody disagrees, we have agreed that there’s this point, of you’ve heard us, if you’ve heard us and you understand what we’ve said and we’ve got clarity over the driver; and we agree the driver, the thing that is the situation that’s happening, the need that’s there, that’s what we call a driver. If that’s all agreed. And you still decide to take this forward because you’re closest to it and everyone feels this is safe enough, you can just keep going. Everyone could disagree and that’s absolutely fine. And then by having an attitude to prototyping and failing in a very positive way, in three months time, we’ll review and look at it and see whether or not the money that we put through, the idea that you were chasing, actually was working. And by offering that openness between people, they understand that giving that gift to somebody else to do, that freedom to move, is something that they’ll come back around to give to other people within the team. And what you’ve got is a very strongly flowing set of information flows, that I think is a good way of doing very complex design.
Manda: I’m imagining this being applied to national governance, even. If we had a concept, the emotional resilience and emotional intelligence amongst our members of Parliament, that objections were gifts and that we’re moving towards the person who’s closest to something. Actually having everyone’s consent to do it, and then we check it and come back. That would be amazing. I’m wondering, though, when it comes to really big projects at national level, or even something like Salt Cross, I’ve been looking through its history. This is a decades long project. There must come a point where you have to have an agreed vision, even if you end up not getting there. You know, I find when I’m writing a novel, I have the light at the end of the tunnel, and I have never, in nearly 20 novels ever actually got to the light that was at the end of the tunnel when I started. But it was guiding me forward to the place that I ended up, which was the right place that I needed to be. And I’m imagining and this may be wrong, please tell me if it is, that with big, big projects that take a long time, you have to have a kind of a guiding vision and then that you can evolve that through time. Has that been the case either with Salt Cross or with the other projects that you’re involved in?
Charlie: Yeah, some of the tools that we’ve developed over this time, they start within building a common vision for a place. So we work a lot with co-housing groups. So often more than two households up to 30 or 40 households, and gathering everyone together at the very early stages, despite the challenge that they’ve come to us with; whether they just want an architectural design or they want to help setting up a legal structure; which is much more my skill set now after ten years, this sort of organisational design people stuff, legal set up finance and then folding that forwards into our architecture team. So even if they come to us with a different brief, we sit with them and design a brief over a day, which looks to create a very visual, articulated vision for what their place will look like in 2050. Working backwards, if that’s the appropriate narrative that we’re going for. Or what is a day in the life of the place in which they’re doing, we’ve developed a number of tools for that. It’s this guiding vision that then sets the next steps from that point on. Having that very clearly articulated between a group of people, makes everything so much easier from that point on. And an understanding that that vision will change. But that gives you a starting point. And because it’s visual, people can seem to understand it much more effectively than something that’s sat embedded within a PDF halfway down.
Charlie: And often that’s the way that local authorities national government lead on visions. So we are a visual practice and I think that’s important. And so for Salt Cross, they do have guiding visions led by the developer, Grosvenor, and who are representing a land pool trust. So they’re representing seven or so different landowners, some of them Oxford colleges, some of them public bodies like the County Council. A range of farmers. On top of this land has been petrol stations and farms. There’s a there’s a circus site there at the moment as a storage facility. It’s a whole group of different people but Grosvenor is leading this and they’ve led the vision from the point of view of this is what we can see would work, across three clustered neighbourhoods in this small village just to the northwest of Oxford. With its relations between 20 minutes by car and the creation of a new business park. This has been led from the point of gathering people’s understanding at a local level of what should be there, with what was a very large amount of opposition due to the climate emergency that was observed at that time. The local level people were worried about how their village would be doubled over the next ten years, from 5000 people in the existing very old village with a very active population, through to over the next ten years, another 5000 people being added.
Charlie: And what does that mean for local schools, health surgeries, other road infrastructure? How much busier is the very large scale, the large a-road that runs through the centre of these two sides? What will that mean for bridges and disconnection and how will the political systems work? So many questions at this point. And what Grosvenor have done so far is put forwards a visual masterplan of this neighbourhood, navigate it into a business park and three clustered neighbourhoods altogether in this triangular piece of land which currently doesn’t really have anything on it. Mostly greenfields. That allows for a starting point, but it needs to be so much more detailed. There’s so many more layers to get to at this point. And the way that we do development in this country is definitely what I describe as a war of attrition. I’m sure I’ve picked that up from somewhere else over time, where the big sites that people want to get hold of, the developers want to get hold of are the greenfield ones next to roads like this one. It’s very easy to gain access onto the site. It doesn’t take much work. It’s not much contamination on site, very flat often, it’s already being farmed. These are the ideal sites, so they’re the ones that are most in demand.
Manda: So in practical terms, with bricks and mortar, how has that very nimble, very flexible, what sounds to me quite resilient set of principles applied on the ground, with something like the Salt Cross project, which has been going as far as I can tell, for several decades. And you’ve come into it presumably partway through. Tell us a little bit about what Salt Cross is, how it works and who’s running it and what are their principles and how they interact with your resilient sociocratic principles.
Charlie: Very gladly. So you’re right in saying that this has been going for a long time. It was originally allocated as a site in the Garden Communities program, I think 2014. But the ownership on the site goes much, much further back and the connection to this existing village. So the village is called Eynsham and it’s just north west of Oxford. It takes about 20 minutes to get in by car. It’s an old village, very old village and it’s about 5000 people, already very active and engaged within their communities. People that have a lot of connection to Oxford as a city, being so close. And so when this site was allocated jointly between Grosvenor and the local public body by Stockton District Council, as a garden community, and we can talk about that in a moment, the principles. That led to a period of questioning whether or not this was the right site. This is a very large amount of change for this place. They were proposing doubling the size of their village over ten years, leading to a question of how our various bits of local infrastructure are actually going to work, from road systems to schools to doctors to bridges over the motorway that runs through the two sides of this village. And how will you politically make sure that these two parts of the old and the new knit together over time. Real concern within the local village. And a big part of the concern which came through Green TEA, which is a transition group essentially, proposing that we’re within a climate emergency.
Charlie: The West Oxford District Council had announced that a couple of years in. And what does it mean to do a greenfield site, a what was mostly monoculture and a petrol station and some other hardstandings and some farms and places where people live; but mostly green fields with and also with a beautiful wildlife reserve on top as well. So there’s a number of things there, but mostly this this monoculture. How does turning that into housing and a giant car park with a park and ride into Oxford, accord with those aspirations for creating a very low carbon district? Having declared that this thing that we’re embarking on is an emergency. I’ve already talked to the emergency of talking about a housing crisis, This perpetual feeling of being in crisis. And what that leads to is seemingly inaction a lot of the time. But in this case, needing to create something that was fit for a future that is seemingly fairly uncertain at this point. We’re not quite sure where it’s going to go, but science is pointing towards it going somewhere particularly tricky. And how does a scheme that’s built over ten years react to that change? Now, an important factor in this is one of the landowners is an Oxford College. I work very actively with Oxford colleges in different projects. We know that their understanding of time is different to other institutions, when they’ve been there for hundreds of years in some cases, the overall institution almost 1000 years. You’ve got Grosvenor there.
Charlie: Grosvenor is the ‘gros veneur’,the fat hunter,came across as William the conquerors uncle. So the lineage there is almost 1000 years worth of time spent owning and stewarding land, in some cases. This particular piece is not owned by Grosvenor, but having them there as being a landed institution within our country, that earnt them money from Mayfair and Pimlico and dredging those swamps in London and making huge amounts of money from investments that came through essentially gifts, hundreds of years ago. With various bits of business nous and reaction to time and change over the period, but making their money on property. How an organisation that has that thousand year history can rapidly change over the period of the next ten years. How will they react? How will a lot of our institutions react from pension funds to public bodies to some of these old and still very active institutions, such as large scale estates in this country? How will they respond to change? Do they have the tools to do it? And that’s something that I’m looking to bring to this project is how we can make sure that people who live there, people that work there, can adapt the place in which they live over time, regardless of which trajectory we take at this point, to come up with continually the most effective, of the most human, most planet focussed (however the focus is at that point) decisions as can be made. And for me that’s openness, resilience and good information flows.
Manda: Yeah, this is, this is solid gold. So there’s you, who sound like you really get that we’re in a multipolar climate, ecological, cultural, sociological emergency that is systemic. And Grosvenor, who I may be projecting all of my telegraph reading men in suits stuff onto them, for which I apologise in advance. But let’s assume they’re a placeholder for telegraph reading old white men in suits who, as far as I can tell, just want to turn Britain into Singapore on Thames still. And completely don’t get that there is any kind of systemic crisis happening. First of all, how long do you think we have while material flows are still a thing, for instance? That’s become quite a big thing on YouTube and in the podcasts I’m listening to, is the realisation that material flows are beginning to break down and are not going to last much longer. And something like building houses requires that you can get concrete and steel and last year there was, I gather, quite an issue with plumbers getting the white sealant stuff. Partly because of Brexit causing catastrophes in bringing things in and out. But a global material supply chain beginning to break down, at the same time as we have a climate and ecological emergency which is shifting our weather patterns in ways that we don’t understand. But for instance, water is, I believe, going to become a really central issue. So how long do you think we have while we have enough stability to continue to build something like Salt Cross or even a more perhaps flexible eco village? Maybe Salt Cross is very flexible, but something that’s more like a dozen houses. And what’s Grosvener’s attitude to time on that? And how are you meshing those two? And is it possible within this project or are you having to go out into other projects to find the resilience and flexibility and nimble status that you need?
Charlie: Let’s start by saying that Grosvenor are unusual as a developer in this country. So we’ve got a category of developers often called volume house builders because of the amount of homes they build. The real focus on units, the numbers and not so much the quality in most cases. Getting as many homes as possible built, and that’s pushed as well by national government of putting housing targets, huge amounts of numbers and not really illustrating the characteristic. Something that’s a bit different about the Garden Communities program, as a small pot of money that’s looking to create homes with different characteristics around them; more green and a lot more local voice is the intention. But Grosvenor are, by being estate managers over a very long period, different to this other breed of developer. In that they are very focussed on long term stewardship. They are owners. Their principal role is that estate management function. The developer function is a very recent one. And so I would say that my interaction with them so far has been that they really care about these issues and they’re trying to get to grips with them. This is why Salt Cross is a particular opportunity for a lot of these ideas, is because of who Grosvenor are, because of the resources they’ve got within their capacity for long term management stewardship, effective management stewardship. So I see them as a real opportunity rather than getting in the way of this, through their long legacy. But it’s a context that I think is worth talking to.
Charlie: And through working in an architecture practice we’ve got projects on site at the moment, whether that be small scale conversion of people’s houses, through to larger sort of rural co-housing, community, land trust projects, 30 to 40 homes. We’re very aware of these supply chain flows that you’re talking about. Timber has been an increasing cost to us and the amount of times we’ve had to go back to the drawing board on a number of projects over the last few years as prices escalate, has has been a real challenge. But something that I think our team has been quite good at approaching just because of the skills we’ve built within them. We’ve as well as the social stuff, we’ve trained our architects in development finance. And so people understand the implications of design choices, which is fairly unusual. It’s one of the things we keep upgrading in terms of our skill set. And so when changes happen, we’re aware of them. And I mentioned earlier this focus on natural materials. So some of my hope for the coming decades is that some of the re-use resources that we’ve got will get stronger and stronger, with better communication around what materials are where and where’s that flowing. That we will get more effective use of natural materials and as a resource to be maintained there and be careful about, but that we can use materials that can be regrown, engineered in different ways that make more breathable environments, that sequester carbon. There’s a whole array of huge benefits that these materials do, that plasticky things don’t. Things that let off noxious gases over time, that we stay well away from.
Charlie: And I think there’s an urgency here to understand both what we can build with the current globalised supply flows, that we’re an active participant in. Timbers coming from Northern Europe and a whole array of other things that we’re interacting with already. Global finance. Everything here is fragile, because of the interrelations that we’ve developed at these larger scales. So there’s an urgency to try and engage and interact with those systems, as well as promoting and creating local systems that can more effectively reuse and create new supply systems at this local level. And they’re already there. They’re just not particularly well used at this point. We’ve got an example we use quite a lot, which is oxfordshire wood recycling. So there’s a big warehouse full of reclaimed timber that gets used on projects. An approach to using old buildings where masonry and other materials are used very effectively. Architects have roots to this and have been developed over a long time, but it can be more expensive at this point but will become more necessary over time, in order to adapt to the vision that you’re illustrating here. Where some of these supply chains completely break down and things become enforced at a local level to ease these supply issues.
Charlie: So for Grosvenor and Salt Cross, I believe my thesis would sit with yours, which is we’re going to see a large scale change in the way that housing is delivered, that this project can be actively changed from now to 2032. And what we need is to be able to make these decisions quickly and effectively as we move through this changing time. That none of us know quite what the end point is going to be here. But it’s a very relevant prompt to be asking and for me, it goes back to that openness thing. How can we make sure that every part of a project of this scale is open for discussion, all the time? I might lead into my PhD a little bit here just for a moment. So my PhD thesis was looking at how citizen led housing groups across the UK, in English cities for English cities, were looking to change a status quo issue; mostly around low carbon, but also around choice within housing or more affordability. How these groups that were looking to go up against it and weren’t seeing it being done by others, became market ized and suffered from the same things that they have that they were going up against. Because they were part of these wider systems. Now, that sounds quite cynical. That wasn’t the starting point, that’s an emergent part of the work. But looking at this, you realise that we’re very much wrapped up into a whole set of flows that assemble within a project. And what I was looking at was inspiration from other places, places that had managed to do these affordable housing projects, being a key part of the way in which people envisioned creating something new in their places.
Charlie: But the interesting point of this is that as they pick these up and try and put them down; say they pick up a model from Bristol and try and put it down and Leeds, things change about that. The people involved, the money involved, the land, the planning systems, all of these assemble into creating something that in the reassembling it makes something completely new. It just happens. There’s no avoiding it. That’s what occurs. And I think that’s what’s going to be interesting as we delve into how our cities are interconnected in this country. Is how the local people manage to reassemble new models of living, that respect the places that they’re in. It’s already happening, but having more focus on the ways in which this is happening is something that I think is very worthwhile. Because things like capitalism isn’t a force that’s on the outside acting in on these projects. It’s a fundamental part and will continue to be so. An example of this that I looked at in the work was a project in Cambridge, where they set up in the early eighties, I think it was. But by the nineties the government grant that they’d been given, which was sorry, the government loan they’d been given, got sold off to NatWest halfway through. And so that changed the nature of their project. They were doing affordable housing. That then locked them into a longer period; they’ve got a 60 year fixed mortgage of a very high interest rate that they can’t pull out of, because of the exit fees. These things don’t just get built and then they’re there, they’re fixed. This stuff changes over time as well. So as much as you can do to lock in a different way of operating, and it does, the way in which things are assembled, all that finance, all the land, the bricks as well. The people that were involved. Come together at a moment in time to create a snapshot, which is this house on this piece of land. But it doesn’t stay that way, when you look at all the different bits that go into it. It can shift over time. It will shift. And I really want to emphasise that things do shift. And within something like construction projects, we sort of think that once we’ve got to the finish line of someone moves into the house or opens the office for the first time, or the kids start for the first year in their school, that these things have a fixity that doesn’t change for a long time. 50 years or 100 years. Actually they change very rapidly and a better understanding of how that works, so that we incorporate it into the early stage visioning and the way in which we do design and development, is an important part of making, firstly regenerative communities, but then sustaining them over the longer term.
Manda: Right. And it opens so many doors. Simply thinking about the Cambridge one. You would need..We would need different governance so that there wasn’t a government that thought it was okay to take a loan and give it to NatWest or sell it to NatWest, I guess. And then you would need a bank that didn’t think it was appropriate to charge eyewatering amounts of interest on what had previously been a loan. And then you would need also presumably to have, at a much more local level, the then decision making of how to break free of what are the constraints of a predatory capitalist system. This would take us onto fields that the podcast goes onto. Which is how can we peacefully, completely change the system? But we haven’t got time for that. I’m still slightly curious as to.. I ask this of many guests: at a gut level, how long do you think we’ve got of semi stability and and do you have a sense of that?
Charlie: I was at an event earlier this year in May in Berlin called ten times 100. And it was a fascinating opportunity to explore some of the maybe arbitrary deadlines that we’ve got on some of these things. I say deadlines. I mean, just like points in time at which we’ve got to finish coordinating, have coordinated by. And the one that ten times 100 was looking to do was taking the IPCC’s report in April of this year; was saying that we need to have got to peak emissions by 2025. And not only the domestic, but also what’s offset as well. Understanding how these things, as we’ve already discussed, are sent away from our shores, sent away from our guilt and not collected as data. How do we reach peak emissions? So there’s a lot more complexity to that question, to that answer. But what this ten times 100 workshop was looking to do, was saying from that April point, we’ve got a thousand days to coordinate to get to this point in time of hitting the end of 24, moving into 2025. And that a useful metric would be to split that up into ten chunks of 100 days. And what are you going to use these 100 days for? After ten years of engaging with the existing structures of how to do affordable housing, I was getting increasingly frustrated by gatekeeper authorities. And so where in the original set up for our co-operative came from a point of wanting less dependency with the clients we were working with, to be reliant on developers or others that we maybe don’t agree with their original briefs. And all these other things, wanting to be more involved much earlier on.
Charlie: I was beginning to get frustrated at some of the conversations I was having, where we were trying to implement these changes, but that people, the processes that sit between a vision or an intention or a brief or a public policy document or a local plan, for example. The intentions for doing something about a climate emergency as a statement by a political body. There was difficulties in rolling these projects out after that point, whether that be from a financial or a legal perspective. We were just getting ground down into these meetings and trying to get through to a point of projects, or moving towards twice a year budget points and trying to get local officers who had no real investment in these projects, like personal investment into these projects, were not moving through to action and things were being left behind because they’ve got different priorities. The government is giving them different priorities. Someone really exceptional has got to stand forwards and say, I’m going to use my time in this job to do this and I’m going to fight back against all of the different bureaucracies that are going on around us. Which is where an appreciation of creative bureaucracy, I think, is something that we need to get more onto. So what’s interesting about the link between those thoughts and this ten times 100 workshop is that Indy and Caroline who ran it, are involved in what they call creation of a boring revolution.
Charlie: So where everything else seems to be like, how do you create lifestyles that people can really get into? Or the sustainability when it comes to yoga and Instagram and exciting dances and pulling people’s attention. Actually a recognition that people need to just get a little bit more on the ground with some of the boring processes of conversation and discussion and enjoy those bits as just as much as they do the exciting attention pulling stuff. And so the focus on bureaucracy, when we did that ten times 100, it was in I think it was called Berlin Bureaucracy Week or something. They had a conference. They had just spoken about, they’d just come out of lots of conversations about bureaucratic processes and they were talking to us about this process, of using your ten units of 100 days. Just got me thinking, what am I going to do with each one? I keep it in a Google calendar now, is what do what am I going to do with the next set of 100? I’ve just spent the last two working on a project called Traditional Dream Factory in Portugal, which will be the first eco village in Europe to create its own digital currency in the creation of it. And I’ll be doing that in the next couple as well, the next couple of cycles. But what do I want to do across next year in these chunks of 100? And how can we influence people that have no day to day awareness of this happening, through absolutely no fault of their own. Life is noisy and busy and there’s a number of things sat on our shoulders that can make it difficult to have attention for this kind of stuff.
Charlie: But it’s vital that more people are pulled into this area, in order to gain the support needed. Because it’s quite a difficult thing to come to terms with, is the science around how this planet is going to change and how that’s going to change our lives at the local level. How I work towards affecting more people through the conversations that we have, that aren’t the people that are already sold on these ideas. The people we talk to in co-housing projects, in land trusts, and in working towards new mechanisms for affordable housing and homelessness, peace. These people do know what’s going on. And within cities, that still remains my focus. How can we have more conversations with people that haven’t come into this? And a lot of our work around consultation in existing neighbourhoods, you meet a whole array of people and there’s a there’s an opportunity there through real world projects, with local businesses or local housing projects or just giving people a voice on the way that their places are made. We meet a huge array of different people and so it’s how do we want to bring all of these people, this cross-section of society we’ve got, and we meet all the time, through these same processes that I know are going to be useful. My central thesis for a couple of years now has been how do we operate these new villages? With Salt Cross being included, with the Portugal project as well that I’m doing at the moment, a village project. Treating them as lifeboats.
Charlie: Professor Paul Chatterton in Leeds was the one that pushed this onto me. He did a project in 2014 called Lilac. It was an affordable scheme; low impact living, affordable community: LILAC. And in this project, he has talked in the past about how can we create more of these schemes? There’s 20 homes there. How can you get more of them to get people into these lifeboats for the coming challenges? And he’s professor of city and climate change work, an incredible academic, involved in the sector that we’re in. So going from this point of saying how do we get as many people that are already invested into these lifeboats? How big a lifeboat can we build here? The need is going to be enormous and very specific. There’s going to be a specific type of need here in the UK. I’m still in that framing, but this requirement for the next few cycles of this ten times 100 is going to be how to bring a general populace along, in that challenge. And actually just watched Titanic a couple of weeks ago, which is probably not going to give me the best set of answers to this or the best hope for our ability to do this. I’m going to have a good shot at it. And there’s a lot of people around, around the world that are also doing amazing work to try and do this.
Manda: That. The how do we reach the people for whom this is not even on their radar? Is, I think the key. There has to be a threshold. I don’t think XR has got the the number right, because what we’re talking about is total systemic change, not just to slightly increasing the franchise. But getting a threshold of people for whom this is their priority. Not small boats across the channel or the length of the queues at Dover or any of the stuff that is piled onto us by the traditional media. Getting that to be the thing that they wake up and think about. And then the ripple effect of that, because it does seem to me, just listening to you, listening to what you’re doing, listening to the numbers of people you’re connecting; human creativity is astonishing. And one of the huge variables about which we know nothing, is what could happen if everybody brought their creativity to this? We need to finish. We have gone away every time. Charlie, this has been the most fascinating conversation. It feels as if finally we’re getting to grips with the actual whole of what it is that we need to do. So I am enormously grateful. It feels like we’ve taken the lid off all kinds of things, that we could really discuss in much more detail. If you have got the time to come back, we will definitely book again. But in the meantime, I wish you the best of luck with the PhD, because that’s always an exciting thing to be doing and creates its own deadlines. And with everything else that you’re doing. We will put links in the show notes for everything that you are connected with in the hope that the people who are listening, who do get it, thank you listeners. Will follow up and begin to run with some of this stuff. Thank you.
Charlie: Thank you very much for the discussion.
Manda: And that’s it for another week. Enormous thanks to Charlie for all that he is and does. This has felt like one of those conversations that really opens doors. And I sincerely hope it has done the same for you. I put links in the show notes to all of the things that we touched on so that you can go and explore what’s possible because however you live, wherever you live, building community now seems to me absolutely key to us becoming resilient. To finding that nimble ability to cope with the volatile and uncertain nature of the world that we’re living in. There is still time, but there isn’t time if we carry on doing the other stuff that our world is throwing at us. And it takes a lot of personal resilience even to acknowledge that. And finding the groups around you of people who feel the same. People who see the world, at least through similar eyes, is part of what we’re aiming for. So if any of the links can help you do that, please do follow them up.
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