News &

Research as crucial infrastructure for change

Kim Graham

In this blog, Research Coordinator Kim explores how research can be part of the method and the solution for unlocking the commons.

It feels like there’s a groundswell of support building at the moment around the need for change in our highly unbalanced land system. The release of flagship reports such as Land for the Many and Our Future in the Land have both drawn attention to the central importance of land in tackling all sorts of structural problems, from food insecurity and the climate emergency, to social mobility and health inequality. The conversations we’ve been having with people working with land to create social and environmental benefits through our State of the Sector research have also shown that issues of land access, ownership, use, and decision-making – are persistent challenges in their activities, but if these are secured, multifunctional and successful projects can be delivered. However, even for all the currently successful initiatives out there, there are many more which are struggling to navigate complex planning processes, aren’t able to find the right type of land for food-growing, or are facing the instability which comes with not having long-term tenure rights. Also, with so many different types of “common good land use”, from gardening through social prescribing to community energy networks, the sector can feel fragmented, and like it’s not making the most of the values and experiences shared by many of its members.

With all this in mind, we’ve also been doing a fair bit of thinking recently about Shared Assets’ purpose as an organisation, and how we can have the biggest impact on the UK’s land system. I’ve been to a few events which have made me think deeply about the ways in which we and our peers work together and how we can build on this momentum around land as a social justice issue to generate the changes we need to create a more equitable land system. A recurring if sometimes implicit theme has been the need for certain kinds of infrastructural support to bring together the actors working on land for the common good. In a recent blog, our Digital Coordinator Julian spoke about the importance of digital data for the commons, and here I’m going to suggest why research is also an important piece of the infrastructural jigsaw. As Julian said though, it’s not just the outcomes of this work which are important, it’s also the approach and structures we use to do the work, and we need to keep developing these as an organisation to make our work meaningful and transformative.

"It's not just the outcomes of this work which are important, it’s also the approach and structures we use to do the work, and we need to keep developing these as an organisation to make our work meaningful and transformative."

A recent Westminster Food & Nutrition Forum Seminar brought together representatives of the agricultural sector, from organic growers to DEFRA officials, to discuss UK farming productivity and its connections to land use, research, innovation and policy. Several of the speakers noted the importance of getting the latest research and innovation to farmers, whether that was micro-robots, satellite imagery or new crop varieties, but also acknowledged the difficulties of translating research from the private and public sectors into practical advice for farmers. Peer to peer learning, or dissemination to farmers via trusted agricultural extension workers, seemed to be the most successful approaches, but limited by funding and time pressures on farmers. If even the most established farmers are struggling to implement these initiatives in the current climate of uncertainty, what chance do the small community-based growers and land stewards Shared Assets works with have? From my own experience in community growing, and meeting other community gardeners and land activists, so much time is spent fire fighting and doing the vital, everyday, on the ground work to keep projects functioning, that it is incredibly hard to find time to step back and take stock, plan comprehensively, think strategically about ways to expand or deepen impact, never mind source the money for things which might be useful like training or research, despite knowing these are important. 

Raised beds at The Calthorpe Project Community Garden - photo credit David Hawgood

At ‘The New Radical Urbanisms research exchange’ hosted by the University of Liverpool, I heard from scholars and activists about different approaches used internationally to mobilise people living in cities, on issues from rent to water charges. Two key things that struck me were around the adaptation of the ways older models of organisation, such as unions, to stay relevant for today’s workplaces and communities, and the politics of activism – whose work gets recognised, and how research can support (or hinder!) this process. Mick McKeown, Professor of Democratic Mental Health at the University of Central Lancashire, spoke about the much-celebrated Preston Model of community wealth building, and how they are experimenting with having more cooperative elements to unions, not as a vanguard of privatisation, but so that unions can thrive in modern modes of employment. This is particularly important in sectors with dispersed workers (such as the care sector), which have been traditionally un-unionised, but also to deepen democracy by expanding union activities to include the users of these services and their families, so they can have wider community influence in an age where workers often do not live so immediately close to their place of work. Multi-stakeholder coops such as Equal Care in the Calder Valley, are another possible model for this.

Myfanwy Taylor, Research Fellow at the University of Leeds, also spoke at the research exchange, about the struggles of communities in Seven Sisters and Stratford to retain local workspaces and control of broader local development in the face of top-down regeneration. In the coming together of different groups in the community around the threat of displacement, new solidarities were formed and alliances grew, and collectively they were able to demand a stronger role in planning. However, the differences in the status of the efforts of university-based researchers, and those of local people engaging in activism, prompted discussion about whose labour gets recognised as important, often influenced by a web of deep structural inequalities like race, class and gender, and led to the development of this research protocol by JustSpace. The conference ended with a call to researchers to help activists, busy with day-to-day organising, through research, especially when this can open up the possibility of a different future.

Participants at a Shared Assets workshop considering questions to stick on post-its on graphs pinned to a wall

So how does Shared Assets answer this call? We think it’s important to practice what we preach about the commons not only as a goal, but as a method for getting there. As we are beginning to lay out a new research strategy, we want to bring communities and activists in as partners in research, not ‘subjects’. We want to draw on the experience of JustSpace and others such as Toynbee Hall, who are using participatory methodologies to co-create research with communities, and train people directly affected by the issues being researched to carry it out and analyse the findings. 

In this way, we hope our research will upskill people, and benefit from and value their expertise as practitioners to produce compelling results, as opposed to being a burden for small community groups and individuals, and leading to ‘consultation fatigue’ by continually being contacted for survey or interview responses. Perhaps where Shared Assets can add value is in bringing people together, so their collective voice can be more influential. We’re going to launch our thoughts soon, so keep checking the website and get in touch at to share your thoughts!

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