Learning by walking

Over the last few weeks, the five organisers working in Southwark (Nicholas, Zara, Ahmed, Kathleen and me) have been walking, talking and observing. We’ve each hosted a visit to our home neighbourhood and spent two to four hours walking the streets together. It’s given us time to talk with each other, share experience and insights and broaden our idea of Southwark.

Root Groups

The experience has reminded me of another time and place. Early in my career, I worked for an Anglican organisation that engaged volunteer young Christians to live in community, work in inner city parishes and offer their time to engage with the neighbourhood. Each year, we took the new members of Root Groups to Plaistow in East London and gave them two weeks residential preparation and training. One early element of that training was a walkabout. We sent them out for an hour or so in groups of three or four to experience this new area. We briefed them to look carefully at what they saw and to ask themselves questions about the neighbourhood and its people.

An East End Funeral on my StreetIt was soon clear when they returned that they had been confronted with much that was familiar, some puzzles and a few shocks. Their middle-class backgrounds had not for example prepared them to visit the local cemetery. There they found extravagant displays of flowers, monumental statues, ornate horse-drawn glass hearses and careful tending of graves decades old. Each year, the walkabout gave us plenty to debrief about the sort of people they saw on the streets, the different forms of housing, the business life of the high street and the varied shape of people’s lives. We were able to explode some myths, challenge some assumptions and help the participants understand the iner city more deeply.

IMG_0992Expanding our idea of Southwark

In the same way, walking the streets of our four very different areas of Southwark has stretched our concept of the borough. We walked round Elephant & Castle and Walworth including trips through both the Heygate and Aylesbury Estates. We walked the centre of Peckham, Rye Lane and Peckham High Street. We walked the three phases of the Brandon Estate and on through Kennington to Camberwell Green. We walked Rotherhithe, Surrey Docks and Canada Water. In each area, we saw wildly different forms of housing, people from various backgrounds and income levels, shops that are thriving and those that are struggling.

Reflecting on the experience, all five of us commented on how little we now realise we know of our own borough. We had all been introduced to aspects of ‘our patch’ that had not featured before. Regeneration and new build was happening everywhere but it always contrasted with the drab surroundings that most people live in. No longer is there a single dominant industry – still less one employer – in any of these areas. Some areas were apparently blighted by developer dreams whilst others were flourishing whilst the JCBs were working.

Aboriginal ArtWalkabout

But of course walkabout is a firstnation Australian term which describes the habit of those peoples of wandering for a short period in the bush as an interlude to ordinary life. It developed a shamanic connotation and became part of the rite of passage for young men who would spend time in the bush tracing the ways of their ceremonial ancestors. They would imitate their heroic deeds and return renewed by their contact with the ‘songlines’.

Greenland Dock in twilightI look forward to opportunities of taking groups of Southwark citizens out on their own streets and giving them opportunity to talk together about their experience of the area, today, yesterday and tomorrow. There is nothing to compare with the real life encounter between meaningful places and the people who are invested in them and have made them as they are. New ideas, creative insights and spontaneous connections arise from looking again at your own neighbourhood in light of changing circumstances. Sharing your knowledge about the area allows others to learn (as from an elder) but also compares one set of insights with another (as peers). Out of the different narratives of the street may come deeper insights into the human dimension of local development, what we care passionately to preserve and how we can realise our dream just a little.

Seeing in 3D

As community organisers, we are all five actively listening to individuals in our neighbourhoods but perhaps we also need to be actively observing our neighbourhoods. In Southwark, some communities have been utterly destroyed by a cavalier attitude to space and local concerns; now there’s more effort to create valued public space. Community organising is about an authentic grassroots movement for change and empowerment. Such people power is deeply related to a specific place and we forget the power of belonging to a locality at our peril.


John Kretzmann and John McKnight (1998) Building Communities from the Inside Out: A Path toward Finding and Mobilizing a Community’s Assets

Lynsey Hanley (2008) Estates: An Intimate History Granta

James DeFilippis, Robert Fisher and Eric Shragge (2010) Contesting Community: The Limits and Potential of Local Organizing Rutgers University Press

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2 Responses to Learning by walking

  1. Andy Gregg says:

    Really enjoyed this piece Mark. Also Lynsey Hanley’s book is excellent – but I will look up your other two resources as well. Say hello to Ahmed!

  2. Thanks Mark, your description reminds me very much of my own early days as an international volunteer in rural development projects with ICA in India, living in the village and walking long distances!

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