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Glass-House Chats: How Can We Relearn Our Places?

Posted on 20 February 2023

Written by:

Elly Mead

This month’s Chat, How Can We Relearn Our Places, was a special edition that formed part of this year’s WEdesign series, Relearning Place. WEdesign is The Glass-House’s annual event series, which sees us collaborate with tutors and students from universities across the UK to create collaborative public-facing events which bring together local community members, practitioners and professionals with students and academics. 

How Can We Relearn Our Places sought to explore some of the provocations emerging from the event series to date. Through this Chat, we wanted to explore how the constant dynamic of change in each of our lives, alongside shifts in social, political, environmental and economic spheres, can influence how we think differently about the places around us. We were joined by a diverse group of placemakers, including students, academics and professionals from across sectors.

Key Themes

We started this Chat by asking participants what does relearning actually mean, or look like, to each of them in practice? We explored how before we can relearn something, do we need to first unlearn previous ideas, methods of placemaking or notions about places (and people)? We spoke of the enormity of the challenges currently facing our modern society, but that by focusing on the path that has led us here, we can start to understand what is possible and what isn’t to improve the future of our places. We touched on the innate political nature of place, and that through relearning what places are, and our relationships with them both as individuals and communities, can we begin to give people more agency to change them for the better?

Relearning Our Relationship with Places and Land

The crucial starting point of our conversation about how we can relearn our places is rooted in the need to examine our current relationships with the places around us to understand what we need to unlearn to help us move towards an aspirational future place. We’re seeing this theme of unlearning our relationships with place and the ownership of land explored a lot in other spaces this year such as the London Festival of Architecture and European Architecture Students Assembly, who are both exploring the commons through programmes of events this summer. We are seeing more and more people starting to examine long-held ideas of land ownership and therefore our ability, rights and access to land, place and how this translates to our ability to create physical change in our built environments. Our modern idea of land ownership in the UK only began less than 400 years ago, but the inequalities established when British land was parcelled up continue to perpetuate down into modern access and ownership over our places. 

We discussed the need for a collective, societal relearning of our power and ability to change the built environment, to re-establish citizens’ understanding that they have not just the ability to change places, but also the right, both through formal design journeys based around projects and as well as through everyday activities. Our hope from this was that by relearning our relationship with place in this way, people would begin to take more agency, ownership and responsibility for the health of that place.

Spaces for Relearning

When exploring how we kick start the conversations that could lead to a collective relearning of place, we questioned how accessible conversations are about our local places – where are these conversations happening, and how can we all be part of them? We spoke about the great work of the Urban Rooms Network, an example of an initiative which opens the doors to local people being part of conversations about place. Urban Rooms are physical spaces for local communities to gather to have conversations about the present and future of their places.

 One of our participants raised a question of access, highlighting that these rooms are often located in towns or cities (like London, Sheffield or Manchester) that already benefit from high numbers of people and businesses, therefore existing dialogue and activities based around place are often already established. They questioned, how can we cascade out the idea of Urban Rooms into more rural locations, particularly in areas with more transient populations such as Garrison Towns in Scotland. We spoke of how these place-based conversations are innately political. Often in rural areas they may be already happening in different spaces, such as within Parish Councils, but not given a formal ‘placemaking’ label. 

We also touched on another aspect of access to place-based conversations, exploring how scheme or site-based engagement often means that people are only invited into discussions about their local places when changes are proposed and that these discussions are then bounded by set site parameters. Pulling on the idea of Urban Rooms, we explored the notion that perhaps one antidote to the frustration people can feel about only being engaged on project-based conversations was perhaps relearning our idea of citizenship to include continual and reciprocal dialogue. This, of course, is a two way street, if we as people are relearning our relationship with power and place, our governance systems must also be re-evaluated and restructured to better integrate a continual engagement from its citizens.

Scales of Relearning

When talking about ideas surrounding relearning place, we acknowledged that the enormity of the ways of life, relationships and practices that we would need to relearn in order to face the challenges our current global (such as the anthropocene) and local populations are facing can feel insurmountable. 

How can we look forward with positivity when it can feel like we have already stepped so far off track? One participant pointed towards the Three Horizons model from Bill Sharpe, which is a practical framework for thinking about the future in a hopeful light. He sets out three ‘horizons’; the first is our current global situation that many of us are trying to sustain (as the current is often all we know or can see), the second explores disrupting ‘business as usual’ to bring us closer to an aspirational future, and the final horizon is where this change has happened, potentially regeneratively. This is just a brief synopsis of a more nuanced idea, please follow the link to find out more about the Three Horizons model if interested.  

We also discussed the need to acknowledge scales of relearning. Whilst the multitudes of crises we are facing (climate, housing, environmental etc.) can make us want to throw everything but the kitchen sink towards finding solutions, there is a need to reconsider scales and timing. By prioritising the needs of our communities and planet, we can create speeds of work and scales of intervention that relate proportionally to the size and scale of the issues we are looking at. As one our Chat participants beautifully phrased it:“There is a need for the deeper, slower work further upstream which doesn’t have immediate outcomes and benefits, but needs to happen to stop those urgent crises emerging later.”

Wrapping Up

This was a Chat space full of interesting and provocative ideas, and the takeaway document this month has really just captured a glimpse of our discussion. Relearning as an idea is inherently rooted in education as a facet of learning, and as always The Glass-House team came out of this space with new ideas of how we can embed life-long learning through not only our work as a charity, but also within our personal experiences and practice.

We’re looking forward to taking some of these ideas forward into our in-person events as part of this year’s #WEdesign series, Relearning Place, in collaboration with built environment tutors and students from universities across the UK. If any of the points from this month’s Chat have resonated with you, you can explore the whole Relearning Place series here.