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A Magazine for Sheffield

Why defining Sheffield's neighbourhoods could be the first step towards transformative change in the city

A new project to map out hundreds of communities from Fulwood to Fir Vale could mark the start of a radical devolution of power from the Town Hall to the streets.

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Residents of Darnall took part in a neighbourhood mapping workshop.

Tom French.

“You can't do anything about inequality unless you know what the inequalities are. And you can't do anything about changing the city collectively unless the city's parts are in some way made transparent.”

Dr Simon Duffy, a researcher and activist whose work with Citizen Network focuses on democracy and active citizenship, is describing his hopes for a new project that could transform the way people in Sheffield relate to their neighbourhood and make positive change in their communities.

Since the start of the year, he’s worked with more than 500 citizens across the city to create a unique map of Sheffield that could in the near future be used as a jumping-off point to start tackling some of the city’s most urgent problems.

Tentatively titled ‘Defining Our Neighbourhoods’, the work is being coordinated by Duffy alongside Tom French of Data for Action (as well as Sheffield Data for Good) – both long-time residents of the city. It’s being funded by the NHS, who want to see whether it could offer a radical new lens through which to view public health.

Using crowdsourced knowledge and local insight, the project hopes to define the hundreds of unique neighbourhoods that exist across Sheffield for the first time: how many there are, what they’re called, and where the boundaries fall.

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Participants were invited to draw their neighbourhood on a map of Sheffield.

Tom French.

French and Duffy started by asking people across the city to draw their neighbourhood on a map – either digitally or using good old-fashioned pen and paper. They then fed the information into a piece of software from Finland called Maptionaire, which for the first time has allowed them to create a cohesive picture of Sheffield’s many communities.

“We’ve been on this strange journey, asking people to draw their own neighbourhoods – making a mess, basically – digitally, and in an analog sense,” says French, about the series of in-person workshops they ran to capture input from people less likely to engage online.

“It’s been quite insightful how strong people’s opinions are – less about names and more about boundaries. The next stage is to stress test that.”

For the next phase of the project, the pair have opened up the first draft of their map to the whole city for comment, criticism and correction. It names 147 distinct neighbourhoods in Sheffield, ranging from Sothall in the east to Ringinglow on the edge of the Peak District.

“It has value partially because it’s been a citizen-led initiative,” says Duffy. “It isn’t the council ‘doing something to you’. At the moment we’re focusing on the legitimacy of the boundaries themselves, and people’s ability to come back on them.”

But why is it important to map the city’s neighbourhoods anyway, and how can it help us tackle the urgent, complex and systemic problems that we face across Sheffield, such as poor health, poverty and inequality?

What is a neighbourhood, anyway?

“Broadly speaking, it feels like a lot of things have become more and more centralised over the decades,” says Duffy, whose work for three decades has explored how care and welfare could work at a neighbourhood level. “And even when things are local, they're not really local at all.”

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Tom French said it was "quite insightful how strong people’s opinions are".

The UK is one of the most centralised democracies in the world. Not only is power still hoarded in Westminster by politicians of all parties, but even when you make it beyond the M25 you find that local government itself is too big, too unwieldy, and is itself centralised.

Britain is unusual in Europe for the size of its local authorities. As a single democratic entity, Sheffield City Council serves a staggering 556,500 people (it could be worse: Birmingham City Council answers to more than a million people, and is the largest local authority in Europe).

In Duffy’s view, this is simply far too big of a space to have real democracy – where citizens feel a sense of agency in the decision-making process and are involved in discussions that affect their lives and their local areas.

“Democracy only functions if the spaces that people can take power within are small enough to be meaningful – to build relationships, to be creative, to take responsibility,” he says. “This is a critical aspect of us being citizens and of us tackling many of the problems we face.”

Our city isn’t unique in this sense. “Sheffield is just a subset of a bigger democratic deficit issue,” he continues. “We’re crap at treating each other as citizens, and we’re crap at distributing power.”

French and Duffy reckon that the ideal size for a neighbourhood space where real democracy is possible is around 4,000 people. This is enough to form a recognisable and diverse community, but not so many that residents feel inhibited from taking action locally, or from having agency within the democratic process.

Crucially, the 147 neighbourhoods they’ve come up with are different to the 28 council ‘wards’, which have roughly equal populations for electoral purposes, but which often bear little relation to what residents consider their neighbourhood to be.

Other cities are arguably ahead of the curve on this, and are recognising how an understanding of real neighbourhoods based on people’s actual day-to-day experience of the places in which they live can open the door to more thoughtful and effective interventions in areas like public health and social care.

“We’re in conversations with Doncaster,” says Duffy. “They have 88 neighbourhoods. They know what those neighbourhoods are, they know what the boundaries are. They have known that for years and they organise public health around that. That’s where Sheffield should be.”

Parks, Post Offices and public services

Once you work out where the city’s neighbourhoods are and the boundaries that define them, you can start to dig into what assets they already have, what they need, and what barriers residents might face when accessing public services.

French says factors like busy main roads can create ‘hard’ barriers at the perimeter of neighbourhoods that might not be immediately obvious to service designers looking at a map on a desk.

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In Simon Duffy's view, "democracy only functions if the spaces that people can take power within are small enough to be meaningful".

He points to a conversation he’s had with residents of Lowedges in the south of the city, who said that technically they weren’t very far at all from a GP surgery in Jordanthorpe, but that the dual carriageway between the neighbourhoods meant they had to catch two buses to see a doctor.

Mapping neighbourhoods based on peoples’ actual lived experience, rather than drawing lines on a map, can start to unravel some of these problems and create a more nuanced understanding of the city that more closely mirrors residents’ lived experience.

“I grew up in Sheffield, I’m Sheffield born,” says French. “I have this vision of myself being totally objective, I suppose. But I found this process really hard because I grew up in these places and I’m going, “I know where that is!” It’s all part of why this work is important.”

French, who set up Sheffield Data for Good in 2017 to create a community of data experts willing to use their skills to help solve social problems in the city, says that organisations doing good work across Sheffield are already starting to see the transformative potential of the work.

“My job is around using data and insight for social purpose,” he says. “It's been fascinating how many people have come to us proactively, whether that's from the cultural strategy side, health, or whatever, and are like, ‘Alright, I get this. This is a useful framing for what I do.’”

“We can use the neighbourhood framework to keep pushing on different issues, either independently as citizens or in partnership with different civil society initiatives,” says Duffy, about the next steps for the project. “It’s a tool for doing work and engaging people. It allows you to bring information into neighbourhoods but also to dig information up, to make it visible.”

He points to the widely-touted claim that Sheffield is England’s greenest city – but says that his and French’s work over the past few months has revealed how unequally distributed the city’s greenery actually is.

“When you drill down to the data, one of the things that I didn't realise is how many neighbourhoods in this city have got no green space at all,” he says. “That's something that only becomes transparent if you're prepared to look at the reality of the city itself.

“If there are profound injustices that you can’t make visible, you can’t do anything about it.”

Duffy believes that the resistance to this type of work in the past has come from a place of what he calls ‘paternalistic egalitarianism’ – the idea that ‘we can’t distribute power to citizens because only the middle-class will benefit from that.’

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An excerpt from the prototype neighbourhood map.

“I think that’s profoundly wrong, just empirically,” he says. “If you ask yourself who’s doing interesting things across this city, it’s not distributed by class. If you want to find out who’s doing interesting things in health and wellbeing, you go to Darnall and Manor, you don’t go to Fulwood.”

There goes the neighbourhood

The work on the map so far has provoked passionate responses from Sheffield residents, who have on occasion offered sharply contrasting views about where one neighbourhood ends and another begins – or even which city they’re in.

“I know there's a group of people we're going to alienate when we release this map,” says French, cautiously. “That’s partly because this work was funded to be about Sheffield, so we had to define a boundary of Sheffield, which tends to be the city council boundary.”

“There were many neighbourhoods people were talking about around the edges that I know fall under Rotherham Council. Somehow we need to include that narrative in what we're talking about – we recognise these places exist, and those people have said explicitly that they have a Sheffield identity. There's something careful we have to do about that.”

Duffy says that another challenge has been engaging with people who might not have the time, capacity or headspace to take part in an exercise like this, but whose perspectives and input is vital to the success of the project.

“There’s been places where we’ve had really low engagement and places where we’ve had really high engagement,” he says. “For places where we’ve had really low engagement we need to start developing strategies around how we capture those peoples’ interest as well.”

An important principle so far has been an insistence on clear boundaries and defined areas, even though these boundaries might be less strictly defined for the people who live there (you might even think of the neighbourhood you jog through as being different to the neighbourhood in which you go to the shops).

“Neighbourhoods are a bit fuzzy at the edge,” says Duffy. “Of course there’s going to be an inevitable fuzziness to it.

“People were making distinctions within neighbourhoods, and of course that’s real, but there should be some political dimension to this. The fuzziness doesn’t help us clarify responsibility, doesn’t help us clarify resource rights or decision-making rights. It might be nice as a social description, but we’re not trying to just do a social description.”

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A neighbourhood mapping session back in January.

Tom French.

Both Duffy and French see the project as being a first step towards a greater goal of devolving decision-making powers – including over budgets – down from the Town Hall and out into communities across the city. But the only way to do this is to sense into what people want and what services they need in the first place.

“What is the minimum viable set of stuff that you want at a neighbourhood level?” says French, of the kind of questions they hope to be asking as the project develops. “What kind of services, what kind of things, and what kind of decision-making?”

For Duffy, this mirrors a lot of the questions that he is already hearing people asking across the city: ‘Why do we not have a Post Office anymore?’ ‘Why are there no local shops?’

“There's all of these dimensions where a neighbourhood turns out to be a very good human size where you can get a lot of stuff done. But for various reasons – late stage capitalism, bureaucratic inertia, cuts – we've gone the other way.

“It's about reversing a story about how things should be organised.”

Additional reporting by Philippa Willitts.

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