Sometimes, our action research creates wonderful spaces for experimentation, and our Incubating Civic Leadership* project has done just that, sowing the seeds for our urban activation in Ilford town centre on Monday 12 July.
The idea for this event was simple. We wanted to explore what would happen if you put objects into an underused public space and invited people to engage with them. How might this change people’s perceptions of that space, how they interact with it and with other people within it? Would they feel they had the agency to change that space, even if temporarily, and what might that do to help local people feel a greater sense of agency in placemaking within their neighbourhoods?
Working with our local research partners LB Redbridge, the Muslimah Sports Association and for this event, Redbridge Vision, we planned a simple pop-up makerspace outside the Redbridge Central Library in the heart of Ilford. This is a highly trafficked area, with the presence of a bus interchange, a multiplex cinema, the library and the Kenneth More Theatre, with the new Mercato Metropolitano soon to open nearby too. Yet, it is not a place where many people linger and while it benefits from a great deal of footfall, this doesn’t create much of a sense of place.
By injecting a few simple props, we wanted to test what might make people linger and experience the place differently. We were very clear that we did not want this event to feel like a consultation, and while we wanted to create a space for people to express views and ambitions for their neighbourhood, this was not about creating a ‘scheme-based consultation event’. We wanted simply to create a space for connection, to be playful yet provocative, and to talk to people in the local area.
Our first objective was to inject a bit of colour into what is a predominantly paved grey area. We set up a table outside the library with coloured chalks, paint pens and felt-tips, coloured paper and tape, paper labels and small pieces of timber, and invited people to get creative.
We had chairs, which participants were invited to decorate, and encouraged people to temporarily decorate the existing street furniture with coloured tape. We sat on the pavement with our box of chalk and local children and their families who were passing by stopped and got drawing with us.
We also brought in a few small trees and had bedding plants to give away, asking people to leave a message to their neighbourhood in exchange for a plant.
We were struck by the strong focus on kindness, towards not just each other but also the environment and mother nature.
We were also interested to see what a draw the plants were, particularly for the children, who were thrilled to take their plant away with them.
It was an afternoon that filled our team with absolute joy, and it was great to see that people enjoyed the activities. The event was a quick one, setting up from about 1 pm and all packed away by 5 pm, with all traces of the activity washed from the pavements by the evening rainfall. Perhaps our greatest satisfaction came from the library being keen to repeat the activity, and that we were able to hand over a kit of materials to them so that they could do it again with their volunteers and other groups in their networks.
The trees and garden furniture we had bought for the event were donated to a local gardening group, with the hope that next time they might come and share some of the plants they grow and help activate local people in their gardening and growing activities.
The remaining kit found a new home with the Muslimah Sports Association, who will use it to support emerging outreach and sporting activities, securing a positive legacy for all the physical elements of this event.
In this instance, we were able to inject some experience from our research team, along with a small budget for the materials, but it was clear that by mobilising the existing resources and networks already present within the community, there was the potential to do so much more.
Sam Toogood, a Community Organiser at LB Redbridge, who collaborated with us for this event, said of the event:
“it was a really brilliant observation of children fully engaging with play and gifting in an unexpected place. Marking the pavement with chalk might be normal in a school but it was interesting to see their initial hesitance break into glee as they realised they could apply that same creativity to public spaces”.
We hope that this small urban activation has planted some seeds of cross-sector collaboration and playfulness in Ilford, and that this little experiment will inspire others to give it a go. Sometimes a small temporary presence can touch many people’s lives.
*Our Incubating Civic Leadership (ICL) research project explores approaches and processes to help enable active citizenship, supporting community leadership and cross-sector collaboration in placemaking. This knowledge exchange project, funded through Research England’s Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF), is a collaboration between The Open University, The Glass-House Community Led Design and Knowle West Media Centre. We are also working with local partners LB Redbridge and Muslimah Sports Association on a locally based initiative.