When people are asked to consider the future of their place, most often it is through a consultation exercise to inform local services or local development. Consultation practice is guided by the principles of setting clear parameters and managing expectations.
Working with our Strategic Partner, the Open University, we were keen to explore what would happen if we asked people to dream, to forget their reality for a day, and to try to articulate their own utopian vision for their place. Dreaming Utopias, an open day at Bow Church in Bow, East London on Saturday 30 April, was a space for people to do just that.
The notion of utopia is an intriguing one. The Oxford English Dictionary defines utopia as an imagined place or state of things in which everything is perfect.
What is so valuable about this kind of dreaming space is that it moves us from the parameters of what we know is possible, to what we think should be. It takes us into the territory of examining our values, our relationships and interactions, the qualities of the places and spaces around us. A utopian vision is ambitious, and not afraid to think beyond policies, budgets and the other constraints that too often become the drivers for change, rather than the vehicles for it.
And the people of Bow dreamed on that Saturday. One hundred and forty people engaged with this conversation and contributed their ideas for a Utopian Bow.
We asked participants to add their own words or to craft objects to contribute to our collective thinking about the qualities or ingredients of a utopia. Most striking was the spectrum of ages, ethnicities and social groups who took part, and yet the consistency of so many of the words and concepts people put forward. Also striking was how many of those words were linked to how we behave and interact with each other: love, peace, kindness, generosity, respect, solidarity and the dream of a world without racism or guns.
There was also a clear sense of our connection with our physical environment. People dreamt of both active and quiet places and spaces, places to play, to interact and to collaborate. People dreamt of a utopia that respects nature, while providing us with the things that we need for everyday life.
Dreaming Utopia was not a day to inform a particular projects or services, but I strongly believe that the themes that emerged at Dreaming Utopias should be present in our minds whenever we take action to transform our places. We must be ambitious and dare to dream about the ideal. For designers and placemakers, it sets the challenge of creating places that not only meet a functional brief, but that both respond to and inform our values and human interactions. Only then, can we take steps towards making the ideal places possible.
Dreaming Utopias is part of the Prototyping Utopias project, led by The Glass-House and the Open University, with partners Bow Arts, Bow Church, Bromley by Bow Centre and Poplar HARCA. The project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council as part of their 2016 Connected Communities Festival, inspired by the 500th anniversary of the publication of Thomas More’s ‘Utopia’. A second workshop on 21 May 2016 focused on prototyping some of the utopian dreams that emerged. Our project will be one of a number taking part in a major public exhibition, the Utopia Fair at Somerset House in central London, between 24th and 26th June 2016.