This blog is a contribution from a group of students from UCL Bartlett School of Planning, which The Glass-House helped connect to The Junction BID and a consortium of partners, a group we had worked with through their Placemaking and Wayfinding Project. Students who participated in this live action research project exploring community engagement in placemaking have generously agreed to share their findings, and three members of their group have reflected on their project experience.
Earlier this year, the three of us worked as part of a larger group of master’s students at UCL to produce a report focusing on community engagement and public participation in the Clapham Junction area.
We worked on this project in collaboration with The Junction BID (Business Improvement District) and received some assistance from The Glass-House in the form of an interactive workshop which introduced some principles to co-design and community engagement. Our brief encouraged us to build on earlier work done by The Glass-House and the BID to examine how the Clapham Junction area could be improved not just for businesses, but for the wider community. We undertook both desk-based research into the area and its history and primary data collection in the form of interviews, surveys, visitor counts, and a public engagement event on Northcote Road.
Personal reflection from Saskia
I think a strength of our project was the variety of ways in which we tried to capture the different perspectives in the local community. Our street surveys and public event reached quite a lot of people, but these engagements were short. We asked questions such as ‘what do you do when you are in the area?’ and ‘what is your favourite thing about the area?’. The interview process, in which we engaged with community groups in the area, was much more limited in reach, but we had longer and more in-depth conversations.
Through the visitor counts, we gained insight into where people spend time in the area. This was not really public engagement, but it did allow us to add another perspective and learn something about the people that we weren’t able to engage with otherwise. I think the main limitation of our project is that we didn’t really ‘work together’ or collaborate with local people, in that sense it was more of a traditional consultation approach.
Though we didn’t spark new collaborations, we do hope that we gave the local community some kind of voice and that the BID will take this into account in its continuing work.
Personal reflection from Will
On reflection, I would say that the most challenging aspects of this project were also what made it most rewarding. My own academic background is not in planning and I had very little prior experience of collecting primary research data, so I found the task of trying to cajole members of the public into participating in our surveys or our engagement event a somewhat intimidating prospect. However, I was struck by how many strangers I spoke to, who not only agreed to talk to us, but were keen to do so.
The responses we gathered were invariably thoughtful and well-considered, and in some cases challenged our assumptions about the Clapham Junction area. Of course, the importance of local knowledge and inclusionary thinking has been impressed on me throughout the modules of my master’s programme, but it is one thing to read about it and quite another to experience it first-hand. Although I am aware that there were notable limitations on the data we were able to gather, for example in terms of ethnic and socio-economic representation, I finished the module with a renewed appreciation for the public’s desire and capacity to contribute to discussions about public spaces and how we use them.
Personal reflection from Sean
The experience of completing this project brought to light challenges and aspects of public participation which we had not considered, highlighting the complexity of what seems like a self-evident principle. Personally, these aspects came to the fore when we were planning a participatory event. It became clear that it is difficult to know when a singular participation event should end, how to make it accessible, and how to engage people using spaces for different purposes. It also highlighted for me a transactional element through the provision of cakes on the stall, as well as the fact that we were a group of students which may have led people to alter their responses based on what they thought we wanted to know.
Ultimately, I think being students conducting an exercise in participation worked in our favour. While participation could be an emotional and confrontational interaction in which there is a divide between ‘expert’ and ‘public,’ we aimed to treat participants as the experts who we were learning from.
Ultimately, this experience reinforced the view that participation should be an ongoing process rather than a means to an end, and one that should be accompanied by transparency and accountability. Being a group of students with limited prior knowledge of the area, we had the opportunity to explore how people perceived the Junction, devoting lots of people and time towards the goal of understanding what effective participation looks like. While the difficulties of measuring the objectives and successes of participation may hinder it being properly integrated into planning, this project highlighted the inappropriateness of a tick-box approach to participation, and the importance of continually evolving engagement approaches and methods to better capture the views of the community.
Read the full report here.
The Glass-House Team would like to thank the participating students, Dr Yasminah Beebeejun and our friends at The Junction BID for so generously sharing their experience and learning with us.