Engagement can change people’s lives
We do truly believe that bringing people into the process of design of space changes lives. This is not simply a ‘nice-to-have’ luxury or a ‘touchy-feely’ add-on, it’s an essential ingredient in the process of creating spaces and places for people.
This is the principle reason why We Make Places exists and makes us so passionate about what we are doing. In the year that has passed since we were established, there is a growing list of personal stories that frame this mission. Projects that We Make Places have supported over the past year include The Flyover, two community-led initiatives to re-open and rethink their closed libraries, and a community campaign to re-shape a local park. In this short space of time, people’s collective and individual experiences and stories provide powerful fuel to such life-affirming projects.
Consider the ex-resident of a demolished tenement in the city. In his 50s now, he was one of many who were dispersed by demolition and development. His life since has seen him become socially isolated and struggling with personal well-being issues. Whilst he has relocated, his former neighbourhood has never left his mind or heart. He has chosen to become heavily involved in discussions centred on plans to shape a new public space adjacent to the site of his childhood home. With great memories, stories to tell and a brilliance in creative writing he gifted the project with an extraordinary poem. Fired up with new-found energy, as a writer he also made the decision to embark on a new fiction book inspired by the project. In addition, via social media, he has rounded up other residents of his former community, getting their voices to be heard. Such voices tell of a rich social history and will provide a narrative to the emerging design briefing.
In our conversations with stakeholders, it’s important to us to know the passions, experience and skills that individuals can bring. This invariably involves a cuppa (occasionally biscuits!) and an informal chat. This is an essential part of making people at ease, valuing them as individuals and demystifying the ‘dark art’ of designing for the built environment. In recent discussions with a community group, they were asked to give us some personal back-history, not about the project, but about themselves as individuals. One particular elder told us about his employment history and achievements as an engineer. Seeing him two weeks later, he reflected: ‘I can’t believe how this one simple question made me remember how useful I can be…’ He was already an active community voice in their project, but this allowance of time for conversation beyond any formal agenda sparked a refreshing spark of energy and re-found confidence.
These are only two individual snapshots of a considerable amount of personal stories that are emerging from projects that we are lucky enough to be involved with.
Engagement is not just a means to a design end. It is also a better word than ‘consultation’. Consultation smacks of a process of canvassing for information because the designer or developer has been told they have to, whereby they angle their questions to reinforce the design decisions that are often already made.
For creating successful public space and places that will be sustainable in the long-term, more than anything, we need ‘time’. We need to engage people early on, before irreversible decisions have been made. It doesn’t stop there. People and their communities need (and increasingly want) to be part of a journey, shaping outcomes, be it the forming of a design brief or shaping the regeneration process through briefing, delivery and on-going management. That journey needs to be well-designed, timetabled and evaluated. It is this process more than anything that will ensure long term viability and sustainability of a project. Our evidence clearly demonstrates that allowing otherwise unheard voices to be heard has a major impact upon the mental and physical wellbeing of individuals taking part. This can only have a positive impact on community resilience and sense of place.