Undercover Economist

July 31, 2010 12:38 am

Here’s the (street) party line – you shouldn’t always plan

Some problems can be solved from the bottom up, and much more effectively

Provoked, perhaps, by my recent column mentioning that we didn’t know enough of our neighbours, my wife decided to try to organise a street party under the auspices of The Big Lunch. This is an attempt by the Eden Project (best known for gigantic greenhouses in Cornwall) to encourage people to … well, to organise street parties.

She may have been more inspired, of course, when she interviewed Tim Smit of the Eden Project itself. “Britain isn’t broken, it’s just a bit bruised around the edges,” he told her. Smit reckons that people simply need an excuse to overcome their shyness.

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I generally prefer to wallow in my shyness rather than overcome it, but even I thought this was a good idea. What really struck me was the simple practicality of my wife’s approach. She arranged for the road to be closed, posted notes through letter boxes with her phone number, and told everyone to turn up and bring food and drink to share if they wanted to.

Sure enough, on the day, half-a-dozen strangers emerged from their houses, set up the barriers kindly provided by Hackney Council, and started tying up bunting and putting out chairs. A BMW pulled up at the end of the street. The driver opened the windows and cranked up the stereo before going to set up a barbecue. A gazebo was swiftly erected. A pot of chilli emerged from a nearby house, accompanied by an ice bucket full of beers. The party truly kicked off when the local church emptied out on to the street after a two-hour service, and one of the stalwarts fired up another barbecue. Three hours later, I really did know my neighbours. Everyone is firmly agreed that we’ll do it again next year.

Next year, of course, everything may be a bit grander. We might have a little committee and perhaps organise live music or games. But the truth is that our big lunch didn’t take a whole lot of organising. My wife’s insight was that the thing didn’t have to be planned like a military campaign – or worse, a wedding. When you have a party right outside everyone’s front door, the number of seats, bottles and helping hands expands to fit the situation.

We don’t naturally think this way about getting things done. We expect them to be organised from the top down: first, Tim Smit would convene a committee to decide on the optimal location for a series of street parties; then local managers such as my wife would be appointed to estimate attendance, order supplies and supervise the menu. This would be superfluous at best, and perhaps disastrous.

Head office is not always surplus to requirements: I wouldn’t want to wage a war without a logistics team. But some problems can be solved from the bottom up, and much more effectively. This is most obviously because local people have the best knowledge of the local situation. It’s also because a decentralised approach moves forward unevenly, step by step, in a way that is sometimes hard for a more hierarchical planner to accept. The next street over didn’t have a street party, and that might seem unfair. Not to worry: they saw what we were doing and perhaps they’ll have one next year.

Markets provide bottom-up solutions: nobody is in charge of the supply of bread to London, but the bread gets there somehow. But some market enthusiasts assume that a full-blown market with prices and products and limited-liability companies is the only bottom-up approach. It isn’t, as The Big Lunch showed recently across the country, and as my wife demonstrated on a sunny little street in Hackney – a street whose residents are a little easier in each others’ company now.

Tim Harford’s latest book is ‘Dear Undercover Economist’ (Little, Brown)

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