Civic associations and urban community: local history, place-making and activism in twentieth-century Britain

Lead Research Organisation: University of Glasgow
Department Name: School of Social & Political Sciences


From their origins in the late nineteenth century, civic associations have grown to be a popular and influential feature in many of Britain's towns and cities. They have provided a focus for community and for activism among local urban populations, connecting residents with local professional and policy debates, and establishing the potential for community engagement in urban management policy. Over the course of the twentieth century civic associations have developed a broad-based concern for the urban landscape that incorporates conservation and heritage, planning and development, local history and place identity. They have worked through a wide range of methods, collaborating with schools, businesses and local authorities, publishing information and guides, campaigning, fundraising and intervening directly through the purchase of buildings or land in order to protect local amenities. As such, they are significant, but largely unexplored contributors to place-making in Britain over a sustained period of time.

This study contains three core elements. The first is a review of existing literature that will draw on urban and social history, planning, conservation and heritage studies, and the social sciences. Through this review process we intend to identify existing areas of both empirical and conceptual relevance. The literature review will lead to an academic article that situates our research within a definitive synthesis of current thinking and suggesting ways forward for future research. The second element of this study is an exploration of surviving archival material relating to the history of civic activism in Britain. This exploratory part of the research will break new ground in its assessment of documentary evidence held in both public and private archives. We will produce a guide to this material, an archives assessment document and finding aid, that will be a key reference for future research and of interest and value to those currently active civic and amenity societies. This document will be disseminated through the civic movement and made available through dedicated webpages hosted by Newcastle University. The final element of the project will be a second journal article. This will examine some of the conceptual questions raised for our understandings of community by the project focus on history, place-making and activism. In particular, this article will seek to develop a stronger theoretical basis for our understanding of the importance of distinctive place and historical identity for community group formation. In so doing, it will address questions of contemporary importance relating to increased capacity for local well-being and participation.

Planned Impact

In addition to the academic impact of the study, we expect there will be impacts in two key areas.

The first relates to the current civic movement, which has, unlike similar voluntary movements such as the National Trust, currently no clear sense of historical trajectory. We expect the archives assessment and finding aid document in particular to be of significant interest and value among those currently involved in civic and amenity groups. The impact here, therefore, relates to the central vision of the Connected Communities Programme, contributing to the increased mobilization of local community potential through enhanced participation and confidence. We have had strong expressions of interest from the civic movement, and include two letters of support with this proposal to demonstrate this. Impact will be facilitated, therefore, by already established relationships, but the project will also build capacity, enhancing engagement between the academic researchers and the third sector beneficiaries. We envisage dissemination of our project outputs directly through the key national Trusts, which will distribute findings through their networks to the local level. This process of direct dissemination will be key to the value of our archives assessment work, and the broader value of the project will be underwritten by articles aimed specifically at communicating our findings to local groups and published through civic trust circulations, newsletters and websites.

Secondly, we would argue that contemporary policy debates surrounding the Localism Bill, most particularly planning reform that will lead to increased community participation through neighbourhood planning forums, and current political emphasis on the Big Society suggests the broader social value of this study. We suggest that increased understanding of the historical experience of civic activism and its role in supporting local community engagement has a direct bearing for contemporary knowledge and practice. To support this impact we propose hosting a record of our project and providing access to the archives assessment document. As a minimum we will do this through Newcastle University webpages but as part of the project we will explore with the civic trusts and academic resources, such as the Archives Hub, other possibilities for depositing this work to ensure maximum dissemination and accessibility. This will ensure an externally accessible permanent point of reference that will be for the wider academic community and for interested professionals engaged in community action, heritage management and neighbourhood planning.
Description Our findings shed light both the current voluntary sector and on its history. From the historical perspective, we have made significant advances in knowledge about the extent of surviving archival material related to the twentieth century amenity movement. We have also demonstrated the continuities linking historical activity to the current third sector. In particular, our focus on the third sector has suggested important revisions of the traditional history of planning/conservation.
Exploitation Route there is considerable scope for further research in this field. This could be to make use of the under-studied archival collections, alternatively it could be to further examine the relationships between voluntary bodies and local authorities to understand more about the way participative local politics works in the UK.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Education,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description The History of the Civic Movement 
Organisation Civic Voice
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution I utilised research conducted during the AHRC project and engaged in further follow up work to produce a public history book for the charity based on original archival research.
Collaborator Contribution Civic Voice was primarily the funder.
Impact Hewitt, L E. (2014) A Brief History of the Civic Movement, with introduction by Griff Rhys-Jones, Canterbury: Civic Voice, ISBN: 978-0-9559997-6-5.
Start Year 2013
Description Understanding place and participation in twentieth century Britain 
Organisation Newcastle University
Department School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution The collaboration between Professor Pendlebury and myself, which began through the AHRC award, has continued and is currently ongoing. I continue to contribute original research and as a co-author to our joint publications.
Collaborator Contribution The collaboration between Professor Pendlebury and myself, which began through the AHRC award, has continued and is currently ongoing. John continues to contribute original research and as a co-author to our joint publications.
Impact 'Topophilia and professionalization in interwar England: attitudes to heritage and development in Birmingham and Norwich' - journal article, internally reviewed and die for submission this spring.
Start Year 2012
Description Archival assessment 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Third sector organisations
Results and Impact We worked with national voluntary groups to contact local members across the country. The goal of the contact was to assess the level of archival resources remaining in the custody of local civic associations. Our technical report was the formal result of this activity, however it also generated significant dialogue.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013