Public engagement is a very current issue, which has been discussed from a number of perspectives in the last few years, particularly in the context of multicultural communities,1 changes in urban governance,2 and the application and development of the concept of participation and co-creation.3 A number of interrelated global challenges, such as population growth, urbanisation, and immigration, promote further social segregation and alienation in urban areas, which consequently highlight the urgent need to bring different communities together through meaningful interactions.
Increasing meaningful interaction is one of the UK national targets linked to community cohesion. This initiative refers to positive interactions that go beyond a superficial level and that should be sustained on a long-term basis. In essence, meaningful interaction is about ‘making it easier for people to do all the things they would do naturally, but feel unable to – whether that’s about the design of public space, supporting volunteering and clubs, or supporting people who bring others together.’4
Looking at the governmental tiers, growing cultural diversity brings new challenges to the practice of urban planning and public service provision, particularly in communicating values and meanings across multiple cultures, and developing places and processes that are capable of hearing and including everyone’s voices. ‘Public engagement’, ‘participation’, and ‘collaboration’ are common terms that refer to opening up decision making and organisational processes, in which users, citizens, and communities actively participate, rather than just accept what has been decided without their input. The main challenge for participation can be summarised by the following quotation from Cullingworth et al.: ‘Participation cannot be effective unless it is organised, but this, of course, is one of the fundamental difficulties.’5
Within this context, Mapping Nottingham’s Identity reflects on the role that creative practices (art, design, and architecture) can play in enabling meaningful interaction at community level, thus becoming a tool for social cohesion. To facilitate participation and discussion with the public, we have used a set of participatory art and design techniques to explore belonging, community motivations, emotional topographies, and everyday lifestyles. Projects that engage in careful and practical exploration of these neighbourhood resources are essential if we are better to understand how they affect community planning, preservation, and development, as well as how they can lead to positive community outcomes.6
Furthermore, we also aim to pinpoint the social relevance of academic research and education within community-based projects. Since Mapping Nottingham’s Identity was organised as a volunteering project that involved students, researchers, practitioners, and the wider public, it is our aim to bring academic attention to the benefits of research projects based on current social and cultural issues, research questions that come directly from the communities involved.
This paper will first look at literature on place-making, identifying reasons behind community involvement, such as heritage, the importance of subjective perspective, identity, and place attachment. It will then explore the concept of co-creation, focusing on its limitations and challenges, in order to analyse and evaluate how Mapping Nottingham’s Identity worked to overcome them. Finally, it will explain how ‘A participatory methods’ toolkit’ was created and how it will further evolve over the next few years.
Public engagement and place-making (top ↑)
The idea of ‘place’ has long been central to planning, design, geography, and environmental and community psychology literature. Place and place-making are catalysts for interdisciplinary debate, but the focus of this research is one specific aspect of it – the concern that people are being left out of the design and place-making process.
This research understands place as an ‘articulated moment … in networks of social relations and understandings’,7 constructed from both the outside (globally) and the inside (locally). Rather than being strictly defined by boundaries, a place is a process; its specificity does not result from an internalised history – it is a site of multiple identities and histories; its uniqueness is defined by its interactions.8 Following this concept, we explored places in Nottingham through the subjective perceptions of people who live and work in the area, and through their social networks and interactions (have a look at methods 1, 2, and 5 in ‘A participatory methods’ toolkit’). Avoiding the ‘creation myth’ – an effort by governments and cultural elites to solely see and present places and their identities as deeply rooted in national history9 – Mapping Nottingham’s Identity employed a bottom-up approach to heritage, which aligns with the recently published five principles of networked heritage, which include ‘start with people’, ‘heritage is what you choose to make it’, and ‘open up and lead the change’.10
Rautenberg identified two categories of heritage: by designation and by appropriation. Heritage by designation relates to cultural sites that received an honorific label by the experts, and it follows a top-down strategy without contribution from the general public. On the contrary, heritage by appropriation obtains its status through use rather than through deliberate consideration, which allows citizens to play a much greater role in its establishment. In this research we were particularly interested in heritage by appropriation, not only by exploring what would qualify as cultural heritage in people’s everyday lives, but also by explaining why it is so.11 Our main focus revolves around people, getting to understand their needs and motivations by following the existing channels of communication. It was important to acknowledge that ‘heritage is what people choose to make it’. Recent research on the clear connection between well-being, heritage, and leisure activities also justifies this bottom-up approach.12 Moreover, there is evidence that a feeling of ownership is an important element in the conservation of heritage and general care for one’s own built environment. ‘Heritage 2020: Strategic Priorities for England’s Historic Environment 2015–2020’ argues that ‘everyone in England is entitled to define, engage with, and make decisions about the historic environment and how it is cared for’.13 This relates to concepts of place attachment, sense of place, and identity, to which we will now turn.
It is important to note that ‘place is not merely a container in which identity is re-established, embedded, and evolves’, but that identity is formed and defined in relation to place.14 In this sense, place-making and meaningful interactions (especially in multicultural communities) are directly connected, as place becomes an opportunity for cross-cultural learning, individual agency, collective action, negotiation of personal points of view and different ways of doing things. Place attachment – people’s emotional relationship to places – can contribute to the social sustainability of a neighbourhood and more effective planning efforts since it is a source of community power and collective action. Economic, political, and social factors are usually at the core of neighbourhood revitalisation and development, but understanding particular preferences, perceptions, and emotional connections to a place can play a critical role in processes of community social cohesion, organised participation, and community development.15 People’s everyday lives and the lived experiences through which they come to know places better, endow places with value and meaning. Place attachment grows through daily interactions with neighbours and environment, local celebrations, place personalisation and repair, and feelings towards home and neighbourhood. Therefore, people’s bonds with places have a great impact on their engagement with such places: ‘those who are more attached to their neighborhoods are more likely to invest their time and money into the neighborhood’.16 By asking people to draw a map of ‘their’ Carrington, we investigated those places that were important to them personally (see method 2). Also, by connecting our activities in Sneinton to a local festival organised annually by the community, we had the opportunity to directly experience and participate in the creation of local meanings and values.
To summarise – place attachment, place identity, and sense of community are essential parts of the connection between people and environment (space) that directly influences and determines the development of community in all its physical, social, political, and economic aspects: ‘affective bonds to places can help inspire action because people are motivated to seek, stay in, protect, and improve places that are meaningful to them’.17 Mapping Nottingham’s Identity focused on developing a framework through which a people–environment connection could be explored, improved, and sustained. More specifically, ‘A participatory methods’ toolkit’ is a set of communication tools demonstrating the potential role that creative practices can have in bridging the gap between socio-political context (institutional perspective) and social and political conditions in which places really matter for people. This should lead further to meaningful ways of improving places and communities in which we live.
The importance of involving people in the production, decoration, and maintenance of their environment is twofold: on the one hand, ‘an individual, in creating a place, is involved by definition in the appropriation and personalization of a physical space through thought and action’,18 and, on the other, ‘both sense of community and place attachment manifest themselves behaviorally in participation’.19 This will be further elaborated upon in the following section.
Co-creation: challenges and limitations (top ↑)
Participatory design is user-centred and user-generated information sharing and negotiation;20 it involves people who have a stake in the design outcome from the very beginning of the design process: ‘where we once primarily saw designers using making to give shape to the future, today we can see designers and non-designers working together, using making as a way to make sense of the future.’21
Co-creation is a more specific term that refers to ‘active involvement of end-users in various stages of the production process’.22 In Mapping Nottingham’s Identity, participants were an essential part of the whole process; they were involved in construction and sharing the development of project aims, values, and methods (have a look at the ‘Why would I get involved in this?’ section). In the context of co-creation, the act of making is not seen as reproducing or performing but as facilitating a dialogue, as a construction and negotiation (transformation) of meanings.23 By doing so, participants become able to ‘re-engage with wider structures and processes of inequality to affect change ... ; it can also involve and alter spaces of empowerment and action, when it contributes to policy, social or personal transformation.’24 Co-creation enables researchers, designers, and artists ‘[to build] a more equal partnership with communities and practitioners; working in a dynamic relationship to understand issues, create knowledge and then implement findings for transformational social change’.25 However, the wider deployment of ethics, politics, and careful consideration of participatory design and co-creation limitations is crucial to ensure that research progresses through dialogue and co-ownership rather than simply ‘attractive methodological moments’.26
A significant limitation of participatory research is its validity and reliability, especially in questioning whether it produces common-sense instead of scientific knowledge, stand-alone descriptions and storytelling. Therefore, it is important to indicate that we had these limitations in mind before starting the fieldwork process. A coherent theoretical framework, as well as research precedents in this field, has informed the research process. Apart from all limitations related to validity and reliability of data gathered, the research faced the risk of a lack of meaningful inclusion of communities and danger of ‘objectification’ of participants in the process. This was avoided, for example, by inviting a panel of external experts to evaluate the process (members of the Creative Centre for Fluid Territories, a group of international artists and activists that works in the field of participatory art, July 2016). Recent studies show that researchers find the ‘pressure to demonstrate the social impact of their work’27 to be a meaningful and essential feature of their work. This research project was originally conceived as an attempt to bridge the gap between academia and educational structures, on the one hand, and communities and ‘real issues’, on the other; as a result, our dissemination plan includes not only contributions to academic journals but also presentations at local events and on our website alongside a presence in other blogs, to reach a broader audience.
Finally, one of the most important aspects of Mapping Nottingham’s Identity was to enable the sustainability of the processes that started within the communities as a result of this project. First, efforts were made to anchor the initiatives in the existing community organisations to ensure that relevant actors inside and outside the project could follow up these initiatives. In both communities (Carrington and Sneinton) we have collaborated closely with local community organisations: the final workshop on Carrington resulted in defining a common vision for community action in the neighbourhood that continued to transform and live in the meetings of the Residents’ and Tenants’ Association. In Sneinton, the project produced a community resource in the form of pallet wood furniture that can be used for a variety of purposes. When the project finished, the furniture units were stored in the local market and made available through a social network group to anyone who wanted to borrow them. Furthermore, a DIY guide with the instructions for making the furniture is available on the project website, and has already been used by another local project – ‘Women with Tools’ – which produced more furniture units. Apart from maintaining strong links with local organisations, it was vital to identify and engage other key stakeholders, in order to create visibility, accessibility, transparency, and interactivity throughout, opening the process and its outcomes to the critique of the general public (this was done through the final public exhibition); promoting knowledge exchange; supporting network activities among all participants; and making outcomes available and replicable for further uses. Achieving the sustainability of the project is the most significant element within participatory design research. Iversen and Dindler28 mention four important forms of project sustainability: maintaining, scaling, replicating, and evolving, and Mapping Nottingham’s Identity is committed to supporting all of them.
Creative practices: a toolkit (top ↑)
Finally, the following section will explain the reasoning behind making ‘A participatory methods’ toolkit’ and reflect on the role of creative practices in public engagement and place-making. This detailed overview and description of methods and results aims at avoiding the generalisation of terms that are usually employed in the explanation of co-creation and participatory methodologies. ‘A participatory methods’ toolkit’ has been primarily designed to investigate ways to engage with the public: it aims to create awareness of the importance of co-creation within architectural practice, and investigates the role of art, design, and other creative disciplines in place-making. As explained by Sanders and Stappers:
Generative toolkits describe a participatory design language that can be used by non-designers (i.e. future users) in the front end of design so that they can imagine and express their own ideas about how they want to live, work and play in the future … [generative toolkits] are used to follow a more deliberate and steered process of facilitation, participation, reflection, delving for deeper layers in the past, making understanding explicit, discussing these, and bridging visions, ideas and concepts [scenarios] for the future.29
These toolkits are used to provide non-designers with the means to participate in a co-design process. Therefore, they have to be designed with the intention of understanding, accessibility, and easy operation. Some of the methods presented in ‘A participatory methods’ toolkit’ are oriented to explore the past (e.g., memory hat), the present (e.g., museum of the present), the near future (public experiment), and a more distant future (workshops). Besides enabling people to participate in a co-design process, they serve to understand people’s experiences in the context of their lives, and to produce ideas, insights, and concepts that may then be designed and developed.30
One of the most important aspects of toolkits is their materiality. Text is perceived as a ‘primary medium of academic research and contains within it power, privilege, exclusivity and exclusion (for outsiders to the academy) and inclusion for those within it’.31 As a result, we tested a variety of approaches, such as material methods, a very popular approach to material culture in the last few years,32 in order to open up a dialogue and co-create new material culture and local heritage with the local participants. The Museum of Carrington explored how a number of daily and, in principle, unimportant objects, by being acknowledged and exhibited in a glass vitrine, suddenly became objects that represented Carrington’s current identity: as Latour argues, socialness is actually made of this kind of ‘stuff’.33 The selection of these objects, and the explanation that accompanied them in the exhibition, was formulated during a conversation between the owner and the researcher, demonstrating how ‘language can also play a productive role in defining and recasting material culture’.34
Similarly, the co-design of the community furniture for Sneinton has followed a similar approach: the community defined what was needed, the community chose the design that seemed more appropriate, and, even though these tables and chairs are simple ordinary objects, they have become the repositories of new experiences, memories, and material culture since they were produced and delivered to Sneinton. This furniture has been used as part of the Christmas market, a Christmas production at a Sneinton school, and even the exhibition Sneinton Pride of Place, March 2017, by the Caravan Gallery.35 The co-design of this furniture was essential in promoting new meanings and memories for a community that has certain cohesive issues as a result of the diversity of its inhabitants. Therefore, ‘A participatory methods’ toolkit’ can also be seen as ‘a set of tools for exploring the multidimensionality of social worlds’.36
The methodology used to explore issues of identity and sense of belonging with children aligns with other studies that have employed ‘creative methods ... as constructivist tools to assist participants to describe and analyse their experiences and give meaning to them’.37 Our workshops share commonalities with initiatives such as ‘Educational Turn of the Art’, where school children are encouraged to reflect on their space and the consequences of their actions, encouraging and valuing their ideas and outcomes.38 Children were encouraged to talk about their identities using a number of prompts, including family, stories, fun places, and hobbies. In the first session, children were divided into smaller groups (five groups of eighteen pupils each), with two adults facilitating the discussion around those topics, supporting the creation of a mind map. Some children took ownership of the writing, while others preferred to draw or simply participate in the discussion. Ultimately, this exercise followed a constructivist and mosaic approach, validated and used in other cases before.39 The intention of this exercise was to gather not a complete guide of what is available for kids in Nottingham but what these children perceived as the places they knew and were able to visit. As a result, the mind maps generated by the pupils at the three schools brought about new knowledge, co-constructed by them all. Clark refers to this practice as meaning-making, a participatory method ‘designed to provide the opportunity for participants to step back and to construct a narrative about their own experiences’.40 All data generated through the workshops with the three primary schools has been articulated into a ‘cultural survival kit’ for children new to Nottingham, using three formats, a map, a leaflet, and a website for broader access.41
Mapping is at the core of this project, not only as part of its name but mostly as a research method to engage with the public, to explore the potential of understanding the city and its connections, and to promote an awareness of our built environment. This mapping approach is connected with concepts borrowed from phenomenology, such as Merleau-Ponty’s understanding of architecture as sensations rather than stimuli, underlying the relevance of subjective personal and emotional experiences, rather than objective, neutral, and identical experiences as can be created by a conventional map.42 Moreover, this research method also provides an opportunity to uncover how people and material objects are entangled, since they are not ‘inert and unchanging phenomenons, but points in a continuum’.43 We have been able to use this method in other contexts to reflect on the reliability of the mapping as a method to encourage an emotional response to participants’ localities.
When we asked people in Carrington to draw a map of their neighbourhoods, we encouraged them to include only what they thought was meaningful to them, instead of asking for as much detail as possible. As a result, each of the forty-seven maps collated during this exercise introduced a very personal understanding of Carrington, and the final composition highlights this. Many of the maps included ‘my house’, ‘my home’, or places that are meaningful to the participants, such as the allotments, the pirate park, or the school. It was also quite common to include certain boundaries (such as main roads delimiting the neighbourhood), paths (streets within Carrington), and landmarks (the Gladstone, the church). Kevin Lynch44 introduced this methodology of drawing subjective maps of place, to understand the legibility of cities. In Mapping Nottingham’s Identity, we wanted to discover not only how a particular neighbourhood works as an urban system but also how it is perceived by people who are living and working in the area. The comparison of these subjective maps with heritage assets raised a dialogue about a citizen’s role not only as an object in place-making but also as someone who can perceive, understand, and create and should actively participate in urban governance. Also, this visual interpretation of interviews with the public has enabled a constructive communication with city authorities – maps, which, as concrete documents, are able to trigger new strategic discussions.
The public engagement sessions with Sneinton community groups were based on visual/artefact elicitation,45 involving drawings, models and prototypes to stimulate the discussion with the audience, and their feedback. As a result, these methods allowed us not only to identify the most appropriate of the five proposed designs but also to gather comments on how to improve the chosen one to suit the needs of the community (see method 13). Prototypes are often used in research through design46 – they stimulate focused discussion in a group, to ‘confront the world, because the theory is not hidden in abstraction’ and have a potential to ‘change the world, because in interventions it allows people to experience a situation that did not exist before’.47 We have used them collectively (designers and co-designers – the public) to explore and test ideas, express opinions, and reach a consensus that everyone will benefit from.
Conclusion: a reflection on Mapping Nottingham’s Identity (top ↑)
As part of our professional practice (in architecture, education, and community engagement) we have realised the need to develop audience engagement ‘in and through’ exhibitions, activating all actors, rather than assuming that the audience and the built environment are simply passive receivers and holders of identity and meaning. This is not necessarily a new idea, since there are many initiatives that have tried to engage audience and artefacts in meaningful ways, as we have explored here. However, this project responds to our locality, where we want to put into practice existing models, theories, and methods in order to create new experiences and connections with our existing built environment, supporting, likewise, stronger societal participation and, ultimately, a sense of belonging and pride.
As explained above, this is just the first phase of a long-term project that, given its organic agenda, will keep responding to local collaborations with existing community associations, as well as the City Council (i.e., Nottingham Heritage Partnership) and members of the public. The sustainability of the project and its impact will be monitored throughout, in order to analyse and improve the methods, perspective, and engagement of Mapping Nottingham’s Identity. The experience so far has taught us the challenges and limitations of the aforementioned methods, and especially the importance of establishing respectful and open-to-dialogue collaborations with key stakeholders. Community organisers, school teachers and head teachers, and members of the City Council as well as the general public have been fundamental (sine qua non) to run this project and sustain it into the future. It is our aim to keep working together towards a common goal: a broader approach to community engagement by promoting the use of creative practices in the appreciation (and/or creation) of tangible and intangible heritage.
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