Making changes through participation

How do you get communities more involved in their local environment? What changes can be made that can really make a difference to surroundings with a limited budget?

This post from Lecturer in Architecture Daniel Mallo explains how a project in Fenham in Newcastle helped the local community realise a different vision for their public space. This post first appeared on the HASS Research Impact blog.


The Pocket Park idea came about almost by accident. Fenham Ward, in the West End of Newcastle, had received some funding for a Sustrans DIY Streets Project to involve local people in improving their area, making streets less car focused and more generally ‘help them redesign their neighbourhoods putting people back at their heart.’ Through an ESRC IAA grant we supported Sustrans’ work by strengthening community aspirations and sparked inspiration into the potential of their local environment.

DIY Streets Fenham

DIY Streets Fenham

To begin with we used various methods to find out how residents felt about their local area. We built a basic scale model encouraging locals to interact with it, helping them imagine what could be possible. Temporary wooden seats were also placed along the street where cars normally parked so residents could see the impact of making these changes in a more physical way.

Later we conducted a focus group using large photographs of the street that could be sketched over, to foster further discussion amongst participants. During these different stages local people identified a need for a place where they could sit and watch the world go by. Many residents also commented that the library, swimming pool and doctors surgery on Fenham Hall Drive formed a community hub but that there was nowhere to wait for their children. Taking these ideas into consideration the project concluded with a pop-up public/play space between the library and pool for four days, which gave members of the public, residents and other stakeholders the opportunity to experience the potential impact of a public space in the area. This temporary space showed, more than a model or image could ever do, the way in which people could change their environment for the better.

All of these experiences strengthened the desire for the community and all the various partners involved – members of the City Council, local residents, Fenham Association of Residents, Fenham Library, Fenham Swimming Pool, Sustrans, Your Homes Newcastle, Newcastle University and Fenham New Model Allotments – to seek funding for what they now call a hub for Fenham Hall Drive. A group of local people, in partnership with Fenham Association of Residents, were successful in being awarded £15,000 from the Department of Communities and Local Government to build a Pocket Park, which opened on Saturday 21 May 2016.

Pocket Park Opening

Pocket Park Opening

After the park had been created, participants in the project formed the Friends of Fenham Pocket Park, a community group that helps promote the use of the space by local residents and visitors of all ages, alongside a chance for people to volunteer, learn new skills and help support the Pocket Park’s maintenance and future development.

Cllr Marion Talbot, a City Council ward member for Fenham who was involved in the project from the beginning, was interviewed about the Pocket Park when it was opened this year. She said that “it has been refreshing the way residents, community groups and organisations have all joined together to make this project happen; and unite with a common goal of providing something extra special for the area and forging invaluable working relationships that could prosper in years to come.”  You can also read Cllr Talbot’s blog post about her experience of working with the University.

From a research point of view the process of collaboration between various groups throughout this project was thought-provoking. It put the different participatory design approaches we use to the test and at the same time helped local people plan a useful space that is beneficial to the whole community. The project only ran for 18 months however it has had a lasting impression on Fenham and its residents: that is the best kind of impact any research can have.


Daniel Mallo is Lecturer in Architecture in the School.

Ancient Cultures of Conceit Reloaded? A comparative look at the rise of metrics in higher education.

This post from our recently appointed Professor of Cities Roger Burrows first appeared on the LSE impact blog as part of a series on the Accelerated Academy.

In it he asks: have academics ever worked in an environment free from ‘measurement’?

A few years ago I wrote a paper for the Sociological Review – ‘Living with the H-index? Metric Assemblages in the Contemporary Academy’ – which made, I think, six points:

  • The emergence of a particular ‘structure of feeling’ amongst academics in the last few years has been closely associated with the ‘autonomisation’ of metric assemblages from auditing processes in the academy.
  • Whereas once metrics were simply part of auditing process and, as such, functioned to ensure accountability they have, in more recent times, taken on another role, and now function as part of a process of, what has been called ‘quantified control’.
  • In essence academic metric assemblages are at the cusp of being transformed from a set of measures able to mimic market processes to ones that are able to enact market processes.
  • In the neoliberal university world of student fees and ever-greater competition for student numbers and research grant income, these metrics function as a form of measure able to translate different forms of value.
  • Academic value is, essentially, becoming monetised, and as this happens academic values are becoming transformed.
  • This is the source of our discomfort. However, it is not just that we might have some political objections to these value transformations. The root of the issue if that we are fully implicated in their enactment.

The paper seemed to strike a chord. Copies were distributed well beyond the domain of my discipline and well beyond the shores of the UK. I received many emails from academics I have never met telling me how useful they had found the analysis; some even seemed to find it cathartic. Ironically, it quickly became one of my most highly cited papers. I was asked to speak to the analysis at a number of events and was even flown across to Australia to do a mini-lecture tour on the topic. You can hear me talking at one such event at the University of Sydney here (audio mp3).

However, one major objection to my analysis keeps coming up. Surely I am romanticising the world we have supposedly lost? Was it ever really the case that UK-based academics worked within an environment that was largely beyond ‘measure’? I have worked in the academy for more than 30 years now and can certainly recall such a time. Even when the first stirrings of the audit culture appeared the demands were pretty ‘light touch’. Those colleagues already gearing up for the next REF in 2021 and all the organisational paraphernalia that entails might find the requirements for the first such exercise in 1986 – what was then called the Research Selectivity Exercise (RSE) – enlightening?

Each subject area had to submit a ‘research profile’ of no more than 3 pages of A4 showing: indices of any financial support of staff; staff and research student numbers; any measures of research performance deemed significant; a statement of current and likely future research priorities; and the titles of no more than 5 books or articles produced since 1980 considered to be typical of the best research produced. Now just to be clear that is 5 books or articles FOR THE WHOLE DEPARTMENT! The ‘results’ published on the 27th May 1986, to very little interest or, indeed, understanding, classified the evidence presented in these 3 pages as: ‘outstanding’; ‘better than average’; ‘about average’; or ‘below average.

Of course one can point to any number of studies of the academy that demonstrate just what a different world it all was. As De Angelis and Harvie in their utterly superb 2009 paper, “Cognitive Capitalism” and the Rat-Race: How Capital Measures Immaterial Labour in British Universities published in Historical Materialism, observe, academic accounts of the life-world of the post-war University, as contained within studies such as Halsey’s Decline of Donnish Dominion and even Slaughter and Leslie’s Academic Capitalism, all concur that:

‘measure in any systematic form, with accompanying material consequences…[is]… new. Measure, as we would now recognise it, simply did not exist in the post-war university’.

Confirmation of this could come from any number of different sources but perhaps the most affecting is that contained within campus fiction. We are fortunate to have a wonderful book-length sociological analysis of this genre. Ian Carter’s Ancient Cultures of Conceit, published in 1990, examines the post-war campus novel up to 1988. The fictional life-worlds of the academy that it sets out to analyse are ones that many readers will not only recognise but also, perhaps, feel a guilty nostalgia for? The academic world described in The History Man (Bradbury, 1975) or Coming From Behind (Jacobson, 1983) will be familiar to many older readers. The impact of Thatcherism is brilliantly dissected not only by David Lodge in Small World (Lodge, 1984) and Nice Work (Lodge, 1988), but also in the volumes by sociologist-cum-novelist Frank Parkin such as Krippendorf’s Tribe (1985) and, especially, The Mind and Body Shop (1987).

Although published almost a decade after the Carter volume, the world of campus fiction caught up with the beginnings of metricisation with the publication of Overheads by Ann Oakley (1999) – another sociologist-cum-novelist. Much of this book is concerned with the tussle that the main protagonist, Professor Lydia Malinder, has with colleagues over the introduction of a new mechanism for workload allocation; the development of Teaching and Research Units (TRUs) as a crude attempt to reduce all aspects of the academic labour process to a common metric. Compared to the lived reality of the huge assemblage of various technologies of measurement to which we are now subject, the fictional battle over TRUs now appears somewhat inconsequential. However, it does provide a rough date from which concerns with the power of metrics are deemed significant enough to warrant comment in the sphere of fiction.

The metricisation of the UK academy is not a topic that has been sustained in more recent campus fiction. If one wants fictional insight to such matters one now has to turn to social media. The simply excellent Department of Omnishambles blog-  – is well worth a visit as are the ramblings of the (now retired it seems) @academicmale on Twitter. There are others as well that provide humour and not a little insight in to the current conditions of academic labour.


This post is based on the author’s contribution presented at Power, Acceleration and Metrics in Academic Life (2 – 4 December 2015, Prague) which was supported by Strategy AV21 – The Czech Academy of Sciences. Videocasts of the conference can be found on the Sociological Review.

Note: This article gives the views of the author and not the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape or Newcastle University.

MEP-Scientist Pairing Scheme

The MEP-Scientist Pairing Scheme aims at enhancing mutual understanding and establishing a long-term, intensive cooperation between Members of the European Parliamant and researchers.

Dr Carlos Calderon

Dr Carlos Calderon

Dr Carlos Calderon, Senior Lecturer in Architecture, reflects here on his experience of the scheme to date.

“I am writing this note after my “Brussels week” and I can now say that this has been a very worthwhile experience. Without a doubt I would encourage anyone to do it.

Although my hopes of being successful in the selection process were pretty low, I did apply. To my surprise, out of 326 applicants I was one of the 30 scientists selected to work with an MEP and was paired with Merja Kyllönen from Finland, a former Finish minister.

The idea of the scheme is that a scientist (me in this case) will shadow the work of an MEP over the course of a week in Brussels. As part of this I would learn how to successfully interact with the policy-making process, while the MEP gains awareness of scientific practices as well as a better understanding of the scientist’s point of view.

My initial expectations were low as I was sceptical about whether the shadowing would be for show or a true reflection of the MEP working day. My experience has been the latter. Merja sent information to help me understand the working mechanism of the Parliament, particularly how the committees work and how policy departments interact with committees and MEPs. Whilst this was useful background information, for me, the real value of the scheme is in the one to one interaction with the MEP and his/her team

In my view, Merja is fantastic. Above all, she is a great person with strong ethical values and with a great team to support her: Piia, Tina, and Helena. I am very grateful that she allowed me to share in her daily routine. During my shadowing, I witnessed how she interacted with lobbyists, industries, political groups and internal EP mechanisms. At EU level, policy-making manifests itself as either Regulations: directly applicable; Directives: binding on results; Decisions: binding on those to whom addressed; and Recommendations, opinions: declaratory instruments.

Regardless of the legislative instrument that comes out of the policy-making process, it is clear that there is a myriad of pressures and that skilful politicians will constructively engage with all groups whilst being true to his or her values. How do we, as scientists, engage with this process in the EP? Indeed, I do now have a better idea how to do it at a practical level. But, I have been pleasantly surprised by the EP willingness to engage with the scientific community so if this is relevant to your work, just get in touch with the EP and its members.

I work in the area of Urban Energy, a nascent field of scientific enquiry that sits across urban planning, energy, and ICT. The aim is to provide vital support for evidence-based policy approaches to sustainable urban energy infrastructure transitions in Cities. For my research, the interface between science and public policy is important. Whilst I do have a good working knowledge at a local level, my understanding of that interface at European Union (EU) level was pretty limited. So I was intrigued by the innovative nature of this scheme and the possibility of working closely with a politician.”

Dr Calderon is Degree Programme Director for the MSc and MRes in Urban Energy.