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Summer in the City

I'm just back from facilitating at the URBACT Summer University, a three day long learning and exchange event which brought together over 400 people from cities across Europe who are part of the URBACT cities exchange and learning programme.

#USU2016 was the third edition of their flagship event, but this year it was taken to new heights, with 430 people from 28 countries coming together to test new learning tools, experience innovative practices from Rotterdam, the host city, and to work toegther to build and implement better urban policies. It was an intensive three days (not least due to the 30+ degree temperatures!) and included keynote talks, lab masterclasses and active learning workshops, where particpants put new tools and methods into practice.

But most noticeable was the community of peers and common language that was being created (and that despite the multitude of different languages being spoken!). Events like the Summer University and the activities of URBACT in general are so important in the current social, political and economic climate. The learning experience of the participants was significant in many cases, illustrated by the many people I spoke to over the course of the three days who were upbeat and enthused to go back to their native cities and start applying what they had learnt. But I gradually came to realise that this enthiusiam wasn't just down to the things they had learnt - it was as much down to the people they had met, the new relationships they had made.

What was evident was that the 400 odd people in the building were all sharing a common aim: to do their bit to improve their town or city or region, for the most part by working alongside the people that live there. In realising that there are people across Europe who are also working towards similar aims (sometimes the exact same aim!) they established close affinity and a clear relationship for collaboration on specific topics. Learning from experience. Hearing first hand about what has worked, what hasn't, new ideas, new opportunities, old practices that still work better than anything else. And this all from outside the main programme of activity. This is not to take anything away from the USU2016 programme - it was very well put together. But the beauty of URBACT is that it enables events like the Summer University to be so much more than just the sum of the acitivites.

The people and the relationships enable the learning to go much further, much deeper than if they were taken in isolation - one person in one team, in one town in one country, working on their own. The URBACT community bring together both the spirit and practice of collaboration for postive ends in a way that few other programmes on this scale do.

It is pretty much the only programme to have an increase in budget in the last funding round, and with good reason. Now in it's third cycle, the URBACT III programme dwarfs it's initial incarnation in scale, reach and impact. It's been a long journey of learning and development, and the programme has taken time to reach the shape it has. I've only been involved with URBACT for about three of those years, but even in that time I've seen it's practice, focus and results sharpen. It's latest crop of action planning networks so far seem very strong and with a set of talent working on them who will almost certainly create some great results.

And at the Summer University itself, I realised just how important it is for networks like this to exist and be active. In the light of the Brexit vote, the UK's long term involvement in URBACT is currently uncertain. But it would be a great shame, no, a great loss even, for any city to no longer be a part of such and active and capable network of practitioners and policy makers. For me, URBACT is on the point of truly coming of age and is moving into a new phase in it's life, stepping further out into the world to make even more of a genuine difference than before. And it's the people who make that happen. It was summed up by one person during the Summer University, who came into a room on the first day, surveryed the 50+ highly experienced people gathered within it whom he knew well and said to me, "well, we've talked a lot about capacity buildling... now THIS is capacity."

And he was right. The people gathered there at that time were, as a group, highly capable. And every one committed and motivated to work with hundreds of other, to help them to grow and evolve in their own right, further increasing that capacity for positive change in their towns and cities. There are some tough times lying ahead. There will be bumps in the road. And URBACT is by no means the only answer. But by working together, we can not only survive the times ahead but might even prosper.   

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