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Last week I had one of those crazy coincidences. I had been reading furiously about active citizens and social leadership. Then, like when you buy a car of a particular model – and you start seeing it everywhere, I’m suddenly conscious of active citizenship programs, training and individuals all around me. Then I run into the British Council team who were running their flagship Active Citizens facilitator training here in Samoa. It’s the kind of thing that happens when you live on a small island. I eagerly attended.

The British Council Active Citizens facilitator training model, which focuses on strengthening social leadership at the grassroots level, is one I’ve long admired. And there were some key lessons from the session that we need to start embedding into urban leadership.

One of the key take away for me, was that we can’t talk about place leadership without first understanding individual and community leadership.

...we can’t talk about place leadership without first understanding individual and community leadership.

I wonder how much of the millions of dollars spent on place branding each year is spent on active listening, community capacity development and local storytelling? I suspect not much. We instead define ‘new’ places by their physical geography, their historical context, and their projected future identity - which usually planned by external experts, not local leaders.

We don’t have to look far to see the failures of this approach: generic buildings which lack soul, empty public spaces, places undergoing rapid change which, internationally or not, exclude or displace large sections of the community through gentrification, commercialisation of public space, increased security and surveillance.

In this context, placemaking (by its true definition of a collaborative process of urban co-creation that strengthens local leadership and results in stronger communities as well as inclusive places) has achieved and continues to achieve good outcomes.

But even as someone who calls themselves a placemaker, the active citizens approach has shown me that we need to go one step deeper is we are to create places that are socially sustainable in the long term. We need to understand individual motivations - me and you - as well as what we can achieve together.

Cities need strong social leadership now more than ever. Social leadership starts with individuals who are self aware of their strengths, weaknesses, vulnerabilities and identity. This foundation is a pre-requisite for collaborating together. It’s a foundation for strong communities. This is what ultimately defines great places.

For too long our urban leadership focuses on getting the best technical outcomes, the best sustainability outcomes, the most efficient infrastructure outcomes. But these decisions are largely made behind closed doors and communicated to the public only through masterplans and drawings.

We have the opportunity to use city-shaping processes to also build and amplify local leadership. This is not a new concept. The Asset Based Community Development approach, for example, that has been around for decades. Its importance has however grown. As more and more people live in cities, the shocks and stresses that cities face – from heat waves to diabetes – are amplified. We need stronger networks of local leaders to withstand and recover from these shocks and stresses. It’s a challenges that governments and urban managers can’t solve alone.

The good news is, we’re starting to see a great global experiment emerge. Individuals, and organisations who are working to build social leadership from the ground up through small, nimble, networked neighbourhood improvement projects. It is here where I believe that the success of future of urbanism lies, but that is the subject for another post.

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