Confrontation vs dialogue: consensus in the community

I sit on the committee of a park ‘Friends of’ membership group in my community in Cardiff/Caerdydd. The minutes of the previous meeting (that I could not attend) include the following:

“[our group] will continue to paint over graffiti on the walls of this site [changing rooms] when required to do so and the metal doors will be treated by the council anti -graffiti team directly”

The changing rooms are a rather dreary, unattractive building at the northern end of the park. They partly-conceal, when looking northwards, an attractive, naturally regenerated grass meadow. In keeping with its unspoiled nature there is little lighting at this end of the park; wherein lies the attractiveness of the site to the ‘vandals’.

The removal of graffiti every year, particularly in the summer, is a frequent chore carried out by our group in tandem with the local council. It is a waste of precious volunteer time and energy and diverts resources away from more important matters.

Cue a light bulb moment! I replied in email to the group and membership:

“re graffiti on the changing rooms; might there be scope for a graffiti mural to be permanently designed on the changing rooms, something that involves and engages with young people (assuming they are doing the graffiti)? I recognise that at the end of the park they are located would require something sympathetic  but this is surely not beyond the realms of possibility. I’ve worked with several graffiti artists and youth groups over the years and the fruits of their labour and imagination are very seldom tainted by vandalism; there are sites along the Taff Trail, not far from [the] Park, where this is also the experience. It could be the means for entering into a compact, of sorts, with the perpetrators over graffiti at that end of the park”

I like to think that even in a hurriedly composed email my commitment to community development values and principles shine through! I concede that a graffiti mural is not the most radical idea and has been employed numerous times over but it is, as I can testify in several years community development experience in the south wales valleys, an effective tool for communicating with young people, harnessing and channeling their creativity, pluralising the input to the design of local space and improving environmental quality. It also has a financial return to the public purse with an initial outlay of about £4-5,000 saving two to three times as much in reactive maintenance and cleansing. It propagates civic participation by young people who wish their artistic expression and hard work to remain untarnished and therefore they provide additional natural surveillance and policing for the area. As you can see I am a fan of graffiti murals, but I am not blind to the fact that other people may not concur.

I ought to have reached for my tin hat as I pressed click…

I am afraid that the prospects of letting graffiti be painted on the changing rooms and therefore encouraging this type of anti social behaviour to the area around the north of the park, will be met with strenuous opposition from local residents.

A very small sample poll taken today came out 100% against such a plan, with many people more than willing to form an action committee in order to fight it.

Our own; as well as other, NHWAs [Neighbourhood Watch Associations] are firmly against the plan and will object by all possible means, including petitions, protests made to to Council, Assembly, and Parliamentary Members.

Please keep us abreast of this proposal.

Thank you for help in bringing this to our attention.

Well that told me!

If this is how simple ideas from concerned residents are met by groups then is it any wonder people can be reluctant to dip their toe into community activism and participation? A culture of confrontation rather than dialogue does not bode well, as I counter-responded, in advance of the collaboration that community groups will need to undertake the tasks that statutory services previously undertook for us. For instance, our local council is planning to reduce the number of wildlife specialists working across the city from four to two. For a park, such as ours, with its grassland nature, coppices and riverside location this brings with it huge concern as to what the burden will (not might) be for our group when we have fewer experts to call on and less of their time when we can.

In a subsequent email exchanged between us the gentleman referred to how mild his response was compared with others. He concedes that though we may do so with different perspectives, we both want to  improve our community and tackle its ills. Indeed we do, and people are welcome to their strength of opinion. But it is not enough to aspire for consensus over some far-away or notional vision, if little effort is made to establish it over the means of attaining it. 

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