On wombling…

Stourbridge Common – Image by Prisoner 5413 on Flickr and shared under a CC BY-NC 2.0 license

“What a great idea. I’m going to do something similar.”

“Do you have OCD or something?”

“You do it for free?!?”

“Thank you”

I get a wide range of comments from people for my “wombling” (as one friend affectionately refers to it). Every day I go for a 30 minute to 1 hour walk as part of ongoing therapy to regain strength in my legs and ankles, and while I started just walking (while listening to various audiobooks of Charles Dickens novels narrated by Martin Jarvis), I soon found myself wanting to do more with my time.

I live in a gorgeous area of Cambridge (not far from Stourbridge Common and near a lovely stretch of the the River Cam), but the area is often covered in litter – including obvious items such as sweet wrappers, alcohol bottles and newspapers, but also more random items such as shoes. I like green spaces, and I like shared spaces, but this litter detracts from them and makes them less pleasurable for everyone.

So on almost every walk I take two plastic bags and a pair of rubber gloves, and spend 15 minutes or so picking up litter (sorting it into recyclable material and rubbish), before disposing of it in one of the many bins around the area. I then continue with my walk and lose myself in the dulcet tones of Martin Jarvis.

The reactions I receive for this litter picking are varied. Some people stare at me like I’m an alien, and others stop to chat – with conversations ranging from the ideas of communal spaces to Charles Dickens and my preference for hearing his books spoken than reading them myself.

I’ve not made much of my wombling before; after all I do this partially to make the space more pleasant for me, but it ties into a broader narrative that I’ve been seeing in the media and on social media.

There have been a number of reports about people who are doing similar on beaches (See this news story, or this hashtag) – something I’m very fond of originally coming from Cornwall.

However, it’s not just the beaches that are shared spaces, rich in wildlife, and contain ecosystems that suffer from litter. Spaces such as greens, parks and woods are also in this category, and it would be great to see people who live in these spaces also helping to tackle the problem of litter.

Be The Change Cambridge – looking forwards

This weekend saw the first conversation cafe organised by ‘Be The Change Cambridge’, a project headed up by Anne Bailey, Anthony Carpen, David Cleevely and Alessandra Caggiano.

The event was very well attended, although billed as being a smaller gathering. Around 50 people choose to spend a Saturday afternoon discussing how we can make Cambridge an even better place to live in – with many attendees representing organisations based in the city.

It was great to see so many organisations brought together in such a fashion, and its not something that happens enough in the city. A number of broad themes emerged from the initial exercise:

  • Community
  • Arts and culture
  • Transport
  • Housing
  • Green spaces
  • Growing up in Cambridge
  • Improving local government (was has evolved from the topic ‘developing a unitary authority’ which I think is much improved and contains fewer assumptions)

We broke out into small groups to discuss these themes and to start identifying issues we’d like to see addressed by the project, before each group presented back to politicians who had joined us specifically for this purposes. It was great to see Vicky Ford (Conservative MEP for the East of England), Julian Huppert (Lib Dem MP for Cambridge) and Lewis Herbert (Labour leader of Cambridge Council) all attending, and all listening to people.

But I’m going to throw down two challenges, as Be The Change moves forwards.

Firstly a challenge to the organisers and other attendees. Can you make sure such events engage a wider number of interested citizens and residents of Cambridge? While it’s an incredible feat to bring together so many of the organisations in the city, the project has the potential to reach beyond that to others. Many of those who were attending the first event already have their own specific campaigns or activities they’d like to see improved in Cambridge, but it would be incredibly valuable to hear more from individuals who don’t already have these ideas, who also use the facilities, live in the space and would be impacted by any ideas created from Be The Change Cambridge. Similarly it would also be good to have better representation from businesses. It might be a question of messaging, focussing on specifically reaching those who aren’t already engaged locally, or perhaps running smaller events in specific locations (conversations in cafes just after the school run?).

My second challenge is to all the politicians who attended. To reach the projects full potential will require a commitment from politicians from all the political parties representing Cambridge. Will Cambridge’s politicians work together on many of the issues raised, and to be willing to not just listen to citizens,but to also take their thoughts on board? And it would be great to hear such commitments from political figures who were present. This isn’t limited to Vicky. Julian and Lewis (although certainly includes them), but also all the parliamentary candidates and councillors who also joined us. The project will likely generate some thought provoking, and indeed challenging, ideas and questions. I don’t know if anyone yet can see what the specific outcomes or requests of the project might be, but having the politicians clearly stating intent to work together will be nothing but beneficial.

With 6 substantive issues and an underlying process theme, it was a productive afternoon. Whether the politicians and other organisations in Cambridge are able to address the challenges that came out of it, and each work to help make Cambridge greater than the sum of its parts on an ongoing basis remains to be seen. But I certainly hope they can.