Circuses in suburbia: How we’re transforming Tolworth
by Katy Oglethorpe
Tell us about Tolworth, and why it was important to work there?
Robin Hutchinson (Community Brain founder): Tolworth is in Southwest London. It’s part of the borough of Kingston-upon-Thames. It’s an area that is scarred by the A3 which runs through the community – people don’t want to cross it. And then there’s another road that crosses [Tolworth] so you end up with four distinct areas.
Tolworth is perceived to be one of the worst parts of the borough. It has one of the highest air pollution problems, not just in Kingston but in the whole of Southwest London, but it’s going to go through more regeneration than almost any other part of the borough. So, it’s got a brilliant melting pot of challenges which if they go wrong will be a chemical experiment that explodes, but if it goes right, all of these things can be turned to advantages.
“It struck us one day that if you describe where you live by the speed you leave it, there’s something weird psychologically going on”
The work we’ve been doing already is introducing local residents to the amazing green spaces. The largest nature reserve in the borough is in Tolworth but 95% of residents were unaware of it. By showing them the places on their doorstep, Tolworth is already changing.
How did the Community Brain first get started?
Robin: We started maybe 11-12 years ago on the simple principle that everyone’s brilliant if they are given the help and support to be brilliant.
At that point we were working in an area called Surbiton in Southwest London and what we found to be fascinating was that when you said to people ‘What do you like about the area?’ they would say: “It’s brilliant, it’s 16 minutes to London and 16 minutes to the countryside.” And it struck us one day that if you describe where you live by the speed you leave it, there’s something weird psychologically going on, and what could we do to try and encourage people to think: ‘You should come to us this weekend – we’re only 16 minutes from London’.
We started putting on wacky events like Surbiton Ski Sunday where people strapped blocks of ice to their feet and skied down the hill down by Surbiton station. We noticed people began to laugh and smile and to invite friends, and of course once you begin to invite somebody to where you live, instinctively you’re taking more pride. It’s like bringing someone to your house: you want to tidy up, you want to look good, you want to cook the best meal. So actually the relationship with that person to the space began to change, which was just amazing.
It’s very easy for people to live dormitory lives. They do their work in the inner city and they ghost walk at home. This is about reconnecting people to where they live and allowing them to feel that they’ve got a right to be an architect of their future and the space in which they live.
“It’s very easy for people to live dormitory lives. They do their work in the inner city and they ghost walk at home.”
Trudie Green (Community Engagement Volunteer): I am one of the residents who used to try and leave where they lived and didn’t have any sense of pride in where they lived. But through some of our events and greening initiatives and storytelling, now absolutely I adore where I live.
Could you give me a whistle-stop tour of sort of things you guys have achieved so far?
Robin: We started with ephemeral events. While lots of people loved that there are some who need physical space so we opened the Museum of Futures in Surbiton, taking over a vacant premises to create a space people could ‘curate their own lives’. It was very much about people having a space where they could bring their ideas, their thoughts, their passions.
We’ve created the Farm of Futures in Tolworth which again is about finding ideas. We’re near Baking Ideas [a community meeting space] by Tolworth station, which again is about where do people take their thoughts? Where can they take something and share it? Where are we going to find the ‘new world’, if you like.
What we’ve got now is this network. It is a social and growing network of people who are making their own contacts to deliver things – to deliver ideas to feel different about [Tolworth]. It’s really making a big change in attitudes. Post-Covid it’s probably going to be the most important thing.
And what we’re finding now is that the institutions want to come and play as well because they see the success, and now we’re getting ‘Aren’t you lucky to work be working in Tolworth!’ And it’s kind of like no – everywhere can feel like that the minute organisations and institutions are prepared to let go, and actually help turn the community soil to allow that growth to begin again.
Trudie: I think there’s a lot of public space that doesn’t actually feel like public space, and a lot of places to play where you live don’t actually feel accessible. What we are trying to do is uncover stories and uncover knowledge of the area.
We’ve found some amazing stories about Tolworth in particular, and people have a sense of pride now in where they live – and have a sense of care for loads of spaces where they live, not just their home. For us that’s some of the joy – it’s just almost reinstating some of those people in their place.
“Post-Brexit, Post-Covid we’ve got to find joy, you’ve got to give people hope. We’ve always talked about playgrounds, making playgrounds. And now we believe we’ve got to make circuses as well – we’ve got to bring animation and colour and life to places.”
At New Local we talk about the idea of ‘community power’. Do you think it’s important a project like this is run and delivered and owned by the community, or would it be the same if a local authority or a private company was running it?
Trudie: I couldn’t agree more that it has to be run by the community, because the community are the ones who are using it and know the stories and know the landscape.
The trouble is sometimes with larger corporations coming to run something for the community is that they are doing it at the community and to the community not with the community. I think the reason why we have been able to be so successful at making something happen is because we are community members and we’re not after this for monetary reason, or any underhand reasons.
Not that there necessarily is that motivation from these other authorities, but [our approach] is more open and more free and organic for people to bring what they want the table rather than say ‘We’re going to plonk this here and you’re going to love it.’
Robin: Who genuinely wants to get involved in something where it has already been prescribed what you have to do? The joy for us – we refer to it as a baton – is that actually anybody could pick it up and run with it and they’ll change it, and they’ll do something different, but the brilliant thing is that will be better because of doing that.
There was a great council officer who we worked with who used to say ‘What do you want me to do – do you want me to know about this, do you want me to know about this and do something, or do you want us to just get out the way?’ That was actually brilliant because you could say to her ‘Could you get out the way?’ and she would say ‘Right – my job now is to keep the council off your back’, because actually they can strangle with kindness.
Quite often their kindness is exactly the thing you don’t need at that moment because they’ll bring in an attitude and ambience, that sort of ‘DNA of grey’, that just doesn’t work. We want vibrancy – which means someone can walk through the door and say: ‘Do you know what I’ve always wanted to do?’ and we’ll say ‘No’, and they’ll go ‘I’ve always wanted to do this’, and we’ll say: ‘Come on then, let’s do it!’
“Never come in a fanfare, don’t come promising anything. Just come with curiosity and let the people around you explain their stories, because out of that you’ll find something remarkable.”
Trudie: I think the fantastic thing is a lot of the amazing projects and amazing events and various things we’ve been involved in may have initially come from an idea from us but they really have travelled with an idea from communities.
We might think ‘Why don’t we do this?’ and someone will tell us a story or tell us something about the area and we’ll go ‘Bloody hell, we never know about that! And that’s even better than what we were thinking of doing.’
We don’t come in with very strict red tape and structured processes and for some of people that’s a bit scary at the beginning, and people are fearful of not having any sort of parameters, but actually from that comes this amazing vibrancy that Robin described.
Robin: William Blake: “Do you wake each morning with your fingers on fire for the tasks that lie ahead”.
If we’re lucky in life we’ve got roles, we’ve got jobs we’ve got things that make us find joy. Post-Brexit, Post-Covid we’ve got to find joy, you’ve got to give people hope. We’ve always talked about playgrounds, making playgrounds. And now we believe we’ve got to make circuses as well – we’ve got to bring animation and colour and life to places.
Covid has done some remarkable things, putting aside the horror of it all. For many it has made their relationship with where they live stronger, it has made them explore, they’ve got a new value on green space and public space (the badly named public space), they’ve got new interest in heritage.
We can’t lose that – it would be such a shame if we stepped backwards. So what do we do with all of that new relationship and growth and attitude that actually builds better? We’re talking here about a world that’s built on four pillars: more local, more mutual, more equitable and more sustainable.
We now look at all of our work through those four pillars:
- Is it celebrating where the place is?
- Is it mutual: is it actually together that you are doing it?
- Is it equitable, because dear God if Covid shone a light it showed inequality
- Is it sustainable? Because I have a horrible vision that we’ve been in a boat with a hole in one end and a fire and the other another desperately putting it out. And I’m afraid that we’re going to step off the Covid-Brexit boat to find sun-burnt lands. So sustainability is absolutely key in killing of our thinking.
Thinking ahead to 10 years’ time, if you visited Tolworth at that point what would you hope to find?
Trudie: I think my hope, having lived here for 12 years, is that more of the community is coming out and sort of reclaiming it – really, really having that sense of pride and that relationship, and carrying on work that we’ve started with community members.
We don’t want to have any project in our hands long enough to think that we own it, we want to be able to pass it on.
I think really we would love to be working in a number of different communities, helping different places reconnect with their story and discover their distinctiveness and their uniqueness, and I think really much like our projects travel and move on, I think we’d like to travel and move on and spread this kind of joy elsewhere.
“We were convinced there were stories here and people here who would make a difference, and just by allowing that to happen, it’s changing.”
Robin: I don’t think we’ll be here expect coming back for parties. I think what we’d love to find is that the community that’s already here has mixed without effort with the new community that comes here, and that everybody has the opportunity to have a really good and healthy life here. And maybe people are coming to come to Tolworth to say ‘What happened? What was it here that made all these things come about?’
If you can get enough people thinking in a similar way change will happen. It’s getting that first bit going when people come together to dream. Then you can support their dreams and make some of them reality. Never come in a fanfare, don’t come promising anything. Just come with curiosity and let the people around you explain their stories, because out of that you’ll find something remarkable.
Three years ago when we started in Tolworth the reputation was poor; The Evening Standard described as the ‘scrag end of the Royal Borough of Kingston-upon-Thames’. We were convinced there were stories here and people here who would make a difference, and just by allowing that to happen, it’s changing.
This was originally posted on the New Local blog on 29th July 2021.
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