Why we built Village In The City for you

The new online Village In The City community is open and ready to welcome you. Here’s what we’re about:

  • We support and empower citizens who want to strengthen their local community, improving their lives and those of the people they want to serve.
  • We do this by sharing know-how, ideas, good practice and are a community of community builders able and willing to help each other as needed.
  • We believe that inclusive local communities lead directly to better, more positive and meaningful connections, and are inspired by the belief that we can radically improve the lives of the people living on our doorsteps.

What You Should Expect From Village In The City

We’re aiming to make your experience here awesome. We want you to get five key things from Village In The City:

  • Meet people who are also engaged in building their neighbourhoods, to connect, support and share together.
  • Get access to exclusive webinars, calls, support forums and courses to help you expand your skills and horizons.
  • Help bring together new arrivals with experienced village-builders and experts to help you get started and make progress wherever you are starting from.
  • Access our developing resources, handbooks, materials and ideas for your to use and apply in your own neighbourhood at your own pace.
  • Have a place to come to share successes, work on challenges and be with others like you – all over the world.

To make this a reality, we’re going to need your help. Every time you contribute a story, experience, or idea, you’re building a knowledge base every member of this community can tap to make better decisions.

Lets go! Come and join us. 

The Future of Work – and a brighter future for your community?

Yesterday saw the publication of The Future Of Work, a key report created by Nationwide (the world’s largest building society, and a key UK employer) along with Ipsos MORI and many other contributors. Nationwide gathered 30 leading UK organisations to understand what the workplace could look like in a post-Covid world, and used these findings to help shape the report. It looks at how the pandemic has impacted different generations and demographics and how people might want to work in future.

The key conclusions about work are, unsurprisingly, that there will be more working from home than before the pandemic. More interestingly, the report is clear that while many people would like to work from home more, they don’t think their employers will be as keen. Many homes are not well-suited to working, and so a rise in suburban ‘hub’ workspaces might be envisaged. Some ‘office’ time will likely still be required, and younger workers will need this more to build their work networks and relationships. There are also wellbeing challenges from too much Zoom time.

The report has an intriguing section, ‘Revenge of the suburbs?’, on the impact of all this on local urban communities. If people are commuting less, they have more time – up to six week per year more time – to do something closer to home. The report talks about the demand for local services like cafes, delis, gyms and hairdressers increasing (and indeed we have been seeing this in the lockdown already).

This is all great potential for Villages In The City.  If there are folk spending more time in their local neighbourhood (rather than rushing off to town to work), then perhaps they are interested to join in and develop those communities? That’s where we come in.

Ex-commuters often have excellent skills garnered at work, in communicating, working with others, creating graphics and publications, running websites and all kinds of things which they can use to create and help the neighbourhood.  The thing is, getting involved in a community isn’t quite the same as leading a team or running a project at work.  The skills are closely related, but you need to deploy them in a slightly different way and with a different outlook.

For example, creating accurate and rapid ‘minutes’ or notes after a meeting is a good skill.  What’s the purpose of these minutes – usually to hold people to account. That is how controlling organisations or institutions work. It’s in the minutes, and if you don’t do it we will shout at you/ridicule you/look disappointedly at you/mark you down. In helping to lead or participate in a community, there are other ways to encourage people both to commit to taking a (maybe small) action, and encourage them along with support, interest, encouragement and applause. What gets done is more to do with what is in people’s hearts than in the minutes.

If you would like to develop community in your own neighbourhood, Village In The City is here to help and support you, whether your interest has been sparked by spending more time at home in lockdown (as was mine) or whether you’re tuned in already to the benefits of having a network of connections in the streets around you.  We are have a growing bank of resources, experts, webinars, support calls, our own online community and online courses (coming soon) – all for people like you.

It’s easy to start to get involved.

  1. Sign up for information at http://villageinthecity.net
  2. Read our Manifesto and Charter (to see how well it resonates with you)
  3. Join our online community (free) and say hello – we’re looking forward to welcoming you.

Village In The City is led by Mark McKergow, a former itinerant author, coach and consultant who is building community in his own neighbourhood in Edinburgh, Scotland.  The Village In The City project is currently supporting neighbourhoods as far apart as the USA, Austria, Belgium and Bulgaria as well as around the UK. You are invited to join us whether you’re an experienced community builder, just wanting to get started, or a professional with ideas to share. 

How to talk to strangers

Talking to strangers is one thing that many people – including myself – have struggled with in the past.  It IS something you can learn to do better and more confidently.  Gillian Sandstrom of the University of Essex has researched this topic extensively and has an excellent resources page on her website (h/t to Eden Project Communities who ran an excellent online seminar with Gillian recently).

Some of the things that can make talking to strangers difficult at first might include:

  • What to talk about/say?
  • What if they don’t like me?
  • What if I get trapped into a long conversation I don’t want?

Fortunately, there are good answers to all these.

What to talk about

In the UK, the weather is the traditional starting point! This is not really a conversation about the weather though – as anthropologist Kate Fox pointed out in her excellent book Watching The English, this is a traditional and culturally acceptable way of asking ‘will you talk to me?’. It’s more interesting to look at what makes the weather such a good starting point:

  • There is ALWAYS weather – so a remark or question always makes sense
  • It’s a common factor for both of us (if we are in the same place) so some kind of agreement can be negotiated quickly (agreement is a great place to start!)
  • A remark about the weather can be answered in all kinds of ways, from no reaction to a grunt/nod to a more fully formed reply. All these give us different clues about how (or indeed whether) to proceed.

Something in common, something we share, is often a good starting point. Are we both over (or under) dressed for the conditions? Are we both in the line for a concert or movie?  Are we shopping at the same store?  Have we read the book the other is clutching? All these offer starting points.

Another way to start a conversation is to offer help or support to someone who seems to be struggling.  Reaching a high shelf, managing a heavy shopping basket, finding the way… if someone seems to be frustrated or unsure, a gentle offer of help may be very welcome. (Of course, if they don’t want help, that’s their privilege.)

How to build a conversation

Don’t try to impress the other person, show off, or act superior. Much better to take these simple approaches:

  • Smile and look interested! Tons of studies from Dale ‘How to win friends and influence people’ Carnegie onwards show that smiling and attentiveness are big factors in making a good first impression.
  • Encourage people to talk about themselves. Most people love to do this and very rarely find a place and willing audience. And whatever is their experience is their experience, it’s not a question of right or wrong. (And avoid jumping in with your own experience too quickly, especially if it’s very dissimilar to theirs.)
  • Ask for stories, not for facts. Facts are all very well but they are at best just ‘there’ or at worst the source of heated debate. Stories, on the other hand, are much more personal and interesting, and offer all kinds of opportunities to expand and develop. So, ‘how long have you lived here?’ is a fact question (but might be the start of something). ‘What do you like about living here’ is much more interesting and personal, and is a great jumping-off point.
  • Look for similarities, not differences (at least to start with). Points of connection, common interests, similar experiences, are all safe points to build a conversation
  • Ask for advice. This is a great way to build further. What’s a good place to buy paint? When are the recycling bins emptied? What’s a good place for a walk? People love to be asked. (And of course, in the moment you shouldn’t disagree or try to top them.  You don’t have to take the advice, but at least listen politely and enthusiastically.)

Ending the conversation

One of the things that stops people starting conversations with strangers is a fear of being trapped into a boring or tiresome exchange that you can’t get out of. Not to worry – there are plenty of ways to politely but firmly draw things to a close (for now at least).

  • Got to be somewhere Next – an end to the pleasant chatty Now (whether you really need to be there Next or not…)
  • Use the past tense: “It was lovely to meet you” signals that things are ending very soon, without any commitment to future encounters. (And of course you can still have future encounters if you like.)
  • “I mustn’t keep you…”. It is always polite to value someone else’s time highly, even if they don’t appear to.
  • Or simply “Well, it’s great to meet you! See you around.” This leaves all options open for the future. In Scotland, I had to adjust to the way everyone says ‘See you later’ when they don’t mean later, they just mean ‘Goodbye’.

(This section is taken from our Village Builder Handbook, version 4.)  The Handbook is available on the resources page of the website.

Setting up and running a neighbourhood Whatsapp group

What’s a good way to stay in touch with your neighbours?  A Whatsapp group is one way to start. This App runs on smartphones, and shares text and photo messages with everyone in the group., (Many people also use it for communicating with other individuals too.) Lots of street Whatsapp groups have started in the pandemic, and it’s now possible to share some specific learning and ideas about what makes them work well, stay positive and play a useful role in the lives of your neighbours.

My thanks to Sam Moon of Fine City Neighbours, a group set up in Norwich in England’s eastern counties, to help build neighbourly mutual support.  They have produced some excellent step-by-step guides for starting and sustaining neighbour Whatsapp groups, and I am delighted that he’s allowing me to share them with you.  Click on the links to access the free material.

How to set up a neighbourhood group using Whatsapp

An excellent template letter to invite people to join the neighbourhood Whatsapp group 

Top tips for moderating a Whatsapp group (this also applies to Facebook groups and similar) 

How to download and use Whatsapp on your desktop computer as well as your phone (from Whatsapp themselves)

My own top tips would be that the way you invite people, and the way you help to nudge and moderate the conversation, make a big difference to the way that the group sustains and supports the members, rather than either becoming a nuisance or sliding into disuse.  It may well be ok if nothing is said for weeks – as long as when something IS said, people are thinking Aha! rather than OMG…

(Acknowledgements to Sam Moon and Fine City Neighbours once again for creating and sharing this material.  If you know about other useful stuff for village-builders that’s out there, please get in touch!)

Plant a Gratitude Tree in Your Village

This week we have a guest blog from Randy Bretz, one of our village-builders from the Rousseau neighbourhood of Lincoln, Nebraska, right in the centre of the USA.  Randy started to connect with people in his street during the pandemic of 2020, and is always on the lookout for simple yet warm ways to help his neighbours connect.  

At first, they fluttered in the wind by themselves, the two notes of gratitude. From a distance they almost looked like autumn leaves. Then, perhaps acting out of curiosity or even some sense of obligation, people began to jot their thoughts down on the tags provided and hang them on the tree. During the late summer of 2020, as we tired of the quarantine and began to venture from our homes, our neighborhood hosted a Gratitude Tree and it helped us all focus on what we were thankful for instead of being angry, afraid or annoyed by our fear of the COVID virus. 

Our Gratitude Tree was near the intersection of two sidewalks and had limbs low enough that we could tie some twine so people could easily attach their tags. We grabbed a graphic from the Web and produced a yard sign which we put in front of the tree. And, on a nearby fence, we provided a plastic mailbox with more tags and markers. The lid of the mailbox had a brief note that said: “What are you thankful for? Inside you’ll find some tags and pens. Share what you’re thankful for and hang it on the tree.” 

We ordered some waterproof tags and provided some Sharpie pens, put them in the mailbox, closed the lid and waited. For about a week, the two notes that I placed in the tree fluttered alone. But then a couple more were added, then a few more, and after about two weeks, we had nearly 50 notes. Some were simple comments like “My brother,” or “Great neighbors.” Others were a bit more involved such as “School and learning and food and trees and family, and I like cats,” or “The sun, trees and the breeze and a cozy house to snuggle down w/ my little bambinos and hot wife.” (Never did find out who wrote that, but we have a pretty good idea)

As more and more tags fluttered in the breeze, you could almost feel a general attitude improvement in the neighborhood. The gratitude shown provide a general positive mood as people would drive or walk by. We plan to do it again and encourage you to give it a try in your village. It’ simple, it’s easy and it’s uplifting. Put a Gratitude Tree in your neighborhood, watch the notes begin to appear, then pull them down, make a list of the notes and share them with your neighbors. You’ll be glad you did. 

Randy Bretz, Rousseau Neighborhood, Lincoln, Nebraska, United States

February, 2021



Do we need “Village in the City” in villages?

This is another guest blog from Richard Lucas, a member of the Village in The City advisory board, entrepreneur, networker and connector.  He has been wondering about quite how essential is the ‘city’ part of our mission…

Imagine you live in a village – an actual village, in the country. You are community minded, want to connect, but the activities and events around which the village convenes are all interest specific. There are no “all village events” where you can meet anyone and everyone. The clubs and communities are for specific interests and social groups: perhaps a book club, the church, sport and yoga clubs and a cooking group, but not much for everyone.

Perhaps there are many villages like this, in the UK and further afield.

When I volunteered to help Mark with Village in the City the idea of helping bringing “village like” communities to cities seemed most needed, and it still does.

We are wondering whether there are villages that could benefit from our approach and inclusive values as well. Maybe there are villages where community life could be strengthened, through regular community gatherings, newcomers clubs, or projects that could bring people together.

Our name, “Village in the City” might sound as if it is not “for” villages. If anyone who lives in a village wants to see if there is a demand for inclusive, regular “open to all” community activities and projects, we are more than happy to welcome you into the VITC family.

We won’t change our name – but if hundreds or thousands, (or hundreds of thousands!!) villages sign up then we might need a separate website called “strengthening village communities” or something like that.

For now, we are just saying, villagers in villages are welcome. Sign up to join us by putting your village On The Map, either as a start-up or (with three people involved) a full project.

March call now available for booking: Safe Strong Cohesive Communities with Dilia Swart, Protection Approaches

Our March 2021 call is now online and booking. Dilia Swart from Protection Approaches in London is joining us on Wednesday 17 March 2021 at 4pm UK time to discuss her work in using community development to address identity-based violence, whether that be motivated by ethnicity, gender, sexuality, religion or political affiliation. More details and registration are now available for this free call at https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/safe-strong-cohesive-communities-with-dilia-swart-protection-approaches-tickets-141118103045.

Indoor meeting places: Restaurants with common dining tables

We’re delighted to have a guest blog from Richard Lucas, our roving ambassador and Advisory Board member who has been a TEDx organisers for many years. Richard is very interested in creating informal spaces for interaction, and helped introduce us to Jenny Bimpson and the Chatty Cafe Scheme. Jenny was our guest in call #7, and you can see the recording here. In this post Richard explores the concept of common dining tables in restaurants.  

What’s the idea?

The idea is to have a table in restaurants/eateries that are designated as being the table at which one sits if you want to eat with other people you don’t necessarily know.

It would be good thing –  in line with mission of Village in the City –  as such tables would have the potential to build community,  and increase social interactions. Eating together is a fundamental activity, a sign of friendship, trust and hospitality in every culture I know of. Eating alone is a wasted opportunity.

This idea of common dining tables in restaurants is inspired by the Chatty Café Scheme set up by Alexandra Hoskyn, as described in her TEDxKazimierzWomen talk and on their website.  At a chatty café a table is designated the “Chatter and Natter table”. If you sit at this table you are signalling that you are happy to talk to strangers. Signing up on the website means that a café can be found by people who want to use it.

This simple idea has spread far and wide, and the reason is obvious. Normally people feel a bit awkward and have a fear of rejection if they approach a stranger for conversation. The table removes that friction people feel in approaching strangers, by giving “prior consent” in both directions.  Thanks to the way that Alex and Jenny run it and support the cafes  – it really works.

What about Common dining tables?  The idea of having a common dining table in a restaurant is very similar, and is not new. A London club “The Garrick” has one, In Nebraska in the USA, there are tables in some restaurants and if you hunt you can find them, but…. There are challenges.

What is different?

A meal needs a start and stop time to much greater extent than a café does.  A restaurant owner doesn’t want a large table with only some people eating. A meal doesn’t need a host but benefits from one, to welcome people as they arrive to, to maintain the right culture  and standards, keep things moving a long, make sure that things work smoothly.

My concept is to test the concept by talking to the most suitable eateries in your locality.  If they are open to the idea (and they should be, as they should make money) suggest that there is a regular community meal, with a simple signup process. Make it clear that to your local VITC group this can be a regular item in the calendar if it is popular enough. The first Monday of the month for example, and then if it is popular extend to other days.

There would be guidelines for hosts, making sure that the dinner is welcoming for people who don’t know anyone, having a seating plan to make sure that people sit with people they don’t know, having name badges. Depending on the locality and the management this could become more regular.

An obvious challenge is not to exclude people whose finances are not up to bringing their family along, but maybe there could be some kind of buffet/reception deal which brings the cost down? Or in summer organise picnics as an alternative to meals.  This idea cannot address every problem.

What next? 

If this works then I would create a website, and, like with the Chatty Cafe scheme, a modest charge to provide support and hosting so that the restaurant owner didn’t have to worry about making it all work smoothly and those showing up know what to expect. There would be plenty of details to iron out (should there be a set menu against individual choices, how to handle “no shows”, keeping things simple to organise, a code of conduct. How to get the balance right between serving locals and tourists.

If anyone reading things wants to do a pilot, I’m more than happy to have a chat about helping with a test event to see how it goes.  Contact me at richardlucas #at* richardlucas.com, through VITC, and find me on Linkedin and Facebook.


‘The office is over’… brings opportunities for village-building and place-making

In its key list of articles about what’s coming in 2021, Fast Company says that ‘The office as we know it is over… and that’s a good thing‘.  The piece says that alongside workplaces becoming more equitable and companies becoming more resilient and productive, we can also hope to be seeing cities and towns becoming more liveable as a result.  We think they’re right.

Part of the result of a move to ‘remote-first’ working, where work from home becomes a default and trips to the office are an occasional treat/imposition (depending on how you look at it) is that people will be spending more time, and giving more attention to, their neighbourhood.  It won’t just be a place to sleep and catch the train any more, it will be the place where people spend their time and money to build a better life.

We are already seeing this move happening, albeit with some reluctance, in the pandemic lockdowns of course.  What happens when the office-workers of yesterday don’t have to spend an hour or two on the train or in the car?  They have more time to enjoy and enhance their lives where they live.  And because it’s the place where they now work, rest and play then it’s well worth getting involved to start making some small yet potentially significant things happen on your block or in your neighbourhood.

Village In The City is here to support people who want to make their lives and their communities better, want to do it in a way which draws on what we know already and helps them to share the journey with other like-minded folk around the world.  Get started by putting your neighbourhood on the map and joining our international community of ordinary people doing quite ordinary things – to make an extraordinary difference to themselves, their families and their neighbours.

Watch Mark McKergow’s TEDx talk about Village In The City

Village In The City found Mark McKergow gave a TEDx talk at the end of 2020 for TEDx Kazmierz in Krakow, Poland at the invitation of Richard Lucas.  It’s now online and you can watch it here!  Mark talks about how he came to start the project as a response to the COVID pandemic, how things began in his own street in Edinburgh, Scotland, why his particular know-how and experience of leadership, coaching and community build are relevant, the creation of the Manifesto, and how things have already spread to Europe and North America.  10 minutes packed with insight, innovation and inspiration.  Watch it now.

Building Back for the Future – six ways that Village In The City can help

The Carnegie UK Trust are always at the forefront of creative thinking about the future of society and improving wellbeing. Their recent report Building Back for the Better (2020) is admirably clear in outlining six propositions, all based on the Trust’s decades of research, about how ‘Building Back Better’ can not just be a catchy slogan for the post-pandemic world but can actually be delivered in the medium term. These six propositions are:

  1. National wellbeing can be the goal
  2. The relationship between citizens and state can be reset
  3. The future can be local (as well as global)
  4. Our relationship with work can be remodelled
  5. We can build a new level of financial resilience
  6. Technology can be for all.

I think that an initiative like Village In The City can help with all of these rather lofty-sounding goals. Indeed, making these things live and breathe at a micro-local level is key to their meaning much at all.  My career in solution-focused consulting and coaching has been all about helping people turn their hopes (I’d like to feel better…) into small and meaningful signs and steps in their everyday lives. Let’s see how a similar strategy might be useful in connecting micro-local community development with these six propositions.

  1. National wellbeing can be the goal

This shift in attention from merely financial goals (Gross Domestic Product etc) to a more overall focus on wellbeing is already being championed by the Wellbeing Economy Alliance, of which Village In The City is proud to be a member.  We envisage a future where the economy serves society – rather than the other way around.  The Reith Lecture by former Governor of the Bank of England Mark Carney is very good on this point, as is the recent Carnegie report on Gross Domestic Wellbeing. So much vital work in a healthy society is not primarily economic – community building, neighbourhood relations, helping others, building resilience all happen primarily through people rather than money.  Creating a healthy society comes first through people acting together, and for each other.  Yes, money can help – but if people stop caring or participating if they are not paid, then that’s not really very sustainable.

  1. The relationship between citizens and state can be reset

The Carnegie report talks about moving towards an Enabling State, where the state acts to enable and facilitate the actions of citizens rather then either prohibiting them or trying (and failing) to do it for them.  This also requires efforts to level up social capital; the amount of enabling may need to be greater in some areas than others, with focused seeding of opportunities and skill-building.  It also involves making sure that people know they have permission to act.  (We could argue that they already have it, but sometimes it’s easier if things are clearly understood.) The report also talks about supporting people to participate fully (not the same as participating for them) and building in radical kindness. Our core commitment to inclusivity points in this direction, and we will be exploring the notion of radical kindness and its predecessor radical acceptance in the near future.

  1. The future can be local (as well as global)

The UK is the most centralised state in the G7 and one of the most centralised in Europe, says the report.  The heart has been ripped out of local government here since the Thatcher years of the 1980s, and even though UK devolution has made a dent in this policy at a high level, the extent to which local communities can raise finance and make their own decisions is very limited.  This must change.  However, at Village In The City we are less concerned with local government and more focused on redressing the global/local balance.  50 years ago we could telephone people internationally (at great expense).  20 years ago the likes of Skype were appearing, offering jerky video and unreliable connections.  Now in the Zoom era we can talk to and see just about anyone on the planet at a moment’s notice.  That’s amazing. And, it means that it is even more important that we also talk to the people who live within a couple of hundred metres of us.  We share the same piece of ground, and that gives us something important in common, irrespective of differences in age, politics, outlook, background and so on. The future is both global AND micro-local!

  1. Our relationship with work can be remodelled

The pandemic has seen the most dramatic reshaping of expectations about work since the industrial revolution.  Rather than slogging in to office workplaces reflecting factories, many people have tasted working from home for the first time.  This has some drawbacks; not every home is well suited to work, it can feel like ‘sleeping at work’, and creative interactions can be more challenging.  However, working from home, or perhaps from a local shared workspace, has huge advantages in terms of connections with family and local community. While the city centre coffee shops are struggling, those on suburban high street have never been busier.  It seems most likely that greater flexibility about working away from the office will become the norm.  In terms of local communities, that makes for some good people with time and effort to spend on their localities, and new opportunities for more widespread provision of entertainment, connection and activity as part of a commitment to a ‘15-minute city’.

  1. We can build a new level of financial resilience

There are moves afoot to explore things like universal basic income and other ways to help people not fall off the bottom of the financial security ladder.  Village In The City quietly supports these initiatives. However, we are more focused on helping to build very local resilience by putting people in touch with each other in ways that enable sharing of resources and skills. Perhaps you don’t need to spend money on a ladder if you can borrow one from along the street? Perhaps you can offer some skills or effort in exchange for time from others (timebanking). Financial resilience is part of a wider societal support.

  1. Technology can be for all.

Digital inclusion is as important as social inclusion – online provision of services is a key way in which regional and national infrastructure can be delivered to all, as well as shopping and entertainment.  Technology can also play a part in facilitating local connection and community, as witnessed by local websites, Facebook groups and so on.  This requires developments in both broadband services, the availability of devices to access it, and also improved online security – helping people engage digitally is a matter of them trusting the systems as well as simply being able to access them.

At Village In The City we are championing bottom-up initiatives, often simple but effective, carried out by community members.  In his book Rekindling Democracy, Cormac Russell talks about the importance of this kind of work, where the local community is in the driving seat and professionals come in from time to time, when invited, to help with specific elements.  Anyone can be a village-builder, whether your local community is well-established or as yet invisible.  Come and join us to play a part in building back better.

Cormac Russell is joining Mark McKergow for the next Village In The City call, Wednesday 9th December 2020, at 4pm UK time. Join us free and hear more about how bottom-up community development is the way forward. 

Village In The City is a post-COVID initiative to help you build micro-local communications and communities where YOU live.

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