Relearning Place: Think Pieces are a series of online blogs which will take one of our event series themes from this year’s WEdesign series, Relearning Place, as a starting point and offers an external voice and provocation on this theme. In our second edition of Relearning Place: Think Pieces, Jenny Dunn explores the idea of redistribution in her piece, prompting a reconsideration of how power and space can be distributed to create a more equitable built environment for us all.
REdistribute (access to and power over our places and our planet)
Building the spatial infrastructure alongside social value metrics is not enough, through a process of collaboration we must (re)build social capital, share power and rediscover agency, to work towards a new social commons rooted in place.
Transformation of the status quo is not an ideal or an option, it is an urgent necessity. The breakdown of community and social connections and the focus on the individual is amplified and becoming more dangerous with the collapse of the welfare state, our universal educational and health systems and climate and ecological systems. Inequality, widening inequity and the cost-of-living crisis has highlighted the need for safe, warm spaces; resilient communities and the importance of exercising our collective power. Placemaking has long aimed to create inclusive, healthy, sustainable neighbourhoods and spaces but without redistributing power and control in the process, how can communities become stewards of their own local assets; how can they have a real say in place and their future?
True co-production of spaces and places can lead to new ways of looking at and doing things, sharing power, including a diverse range of stakeholders and in this process co-create the new system(s) we need. This type of regenerative design or development is rooted in place and in process.
Moving beyond co-design and creating new models
In the (re)creation of place, we need to move beyond co-designing the physical space and programme and towards co-creation of the process and legacy. It’s about not only what happens here, but how it is run, who it is run by, who has access and who makes the decisions.
We need to explore and create operating models that aren’t extractive from communities and take into account building local capacity over time for long term stewardship.
We need to consider meanwhile uses (the short-term use of temporarily empty buildings or spaces) as a way to not only test out uses and activities but also explore and interrogate how spaces function and who holds power. This is especially true when even the tried and tested business plan of affordable workspaces offset by the presence of a commercial café is becoming less financially viable. Can we use this as an opportunity to test new things, being bold in times of uncertainty and crisis, to step up to what’s needed and change the paradigm? Many examples already exist, from mutual aid to collective action and ‘social settlements’ of the 19th century. What can we relearn from these practices?
We need a bigger vision than social value frameworks
Social value frameworks often focus on concrete metrics, the creation of jobs, training, number of attendees, all of which are important. However, metrics, box ticking and quantitative measures can miss the bigger picture of activating agency and the more nuanced challenge of building local social capital. Even health and wellbeing objectives often miss that a person’s level of control and power is directly related to their mental wellbeing (Welzel, 2010).
By taking a step back to think about how the process of designing places and the activities offered in spaces can support active citizenship and shared power, not just now but for future generations to come, can we co-curate a more meaningful response to the challenges we face? By working with the complexities, can we better connect up what’s already going on, amplify the existing work on the ground and build capacity where needed, to be able to share power, ownership and authorship of place?
Rethinking the role of local government in placemaking
I heard somewhere that local authorities need to switch from the role of ‘engineer’ to ‘gardener’, from a rigid and rigorous approach to that of steward, watcher and nurturer. Can councils, institutions and big organisations step back and engage in unlearning, and then share their resources, power and influence to support bottom-up approaches to flourish and grow? In my approach to working collaboratively with communities, I aim to be a resource. To listen, understand what’s needed and use my skills, expertise, and connections to support those with local expertise and knowledge.
Councils can also support the (re)distribution of power by using their authority to play matchmaker, convenor and enabler between communities and those institutions, businesses and larger organisations who have more resources and ‘experience’.
Everything is already there, we just need to look (and listen)
Culture, enterprise and innovation exist within all communities and neighbourhoods. It might not be recognisable to you and it might not look like what you were expecting. How can we create more affordable workspaces for the ‘kitchen table’ businesses, from textiles to cabinet makers? How can we support the grassroots solidarity movements that were built and strengthened during the pandemic? We need to value and celebrate existing modalities.
Marginalised communities know better than anyone how important resilience and social capital is; how can we support them and engage in deep listening so that we might (re)learn how to build a better future together?
About the Author
Jenny Dunn is a multi-disciplinary designer, working collaboratively with communities to create alternative realities where more democratic, ecological and creative ways of working can be practised. She currently works as Principal Regeneration Officer at the London Borough of Camden leading on the Vacant Spaces programme pilot where she is developing a framework for activating underused spaces on estates for social value activities. Jenny develops her own practice and research in social art practice and the commons, is a public practice alumnus and has worked for Penoyre and Prasad, Mace and Groundwork London.
About the WEdesign 2022/23 Series: Relearning Place
Relearning Place is The Glass-House 2022/23 WEdesign series which combines free, interactive events and co-design activities taking place in person in Glasgow, Sheffield, London and Newcastle, with a range of online events and think pieces.
WEdesign is kindly supported by the Ove Arup Foundation.
More information about our upcoming events and details about how you can book can be found here.