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How can we learn something from every experience with place?

Posted on 4 November 2013

Written by:

Sophia de Sousa

The irony of it. The day after returning from our debate in Edinburgh exploring the relationship between place and health and wellbeing, I found myself with a cast on my foot, having to navigate London on crutches. While tackling patched up pavements, I was reminded of one of the key themes from our conversation in Edinburgh. Simply put, we have the knowledge and technology to make places better accommodate our needs, improve our quality of life and bring us delight, yet so often we choose not to use it.

Why do our places not support healthy, happy people? There is quite often a lack of will, be it political will, the commercial will to invest in quality or our own will as consumers of place to demand more.

Recently, we delivered a collaborative workshop with Silent Cities’ Community Journalists programme in Sheffield through the collaborative research project Scaling up co-design research and practice. Working with a diverse group of people facing isolation and exclusion, we used their newly acquired media skills to explore our emotional and sensory relationship with place, and its ability to influence social inclusion or exclusion. Our expert witness, George Perfect from the Bespoken network, shared his personal experience of how his relationship with place changed following a debilitating stroke that left him in a wheelchair. I realise now, in my limited and only temporary experience of disability, that so much of the access provision for wheelchairs, visual impairments and other mobility issues, creates new obstacles for those on crutches and canes.

Where should that balance lie to support different and often conflicting communities of interest? Much of our current work is exploring that. With that same research project we are helping young people in Elephant and Castle explore their role in placemaking, not merely as consultees but as ambassadors and enablers of a dialogue that engages a diverse representation from their community. I also think of Tidworth Mums, a community-based organisation of predominantly army wives who are actively engaging with their local authority and local garrison to improve the relationship they and their children have with a place that has taken them away the family and social networks most of us take for granted. I am thrilled that The Glass-House participation in the collaborative research project, Unearthing hidden assets through co-design and co-production, means that we are able to work with Tidworth Mums to unlock the potential of playful environments to improve health and wellbeing in Tidworth.

And now as I head off to Japan, to visit communities whose family networks and physical infrastructure were devastated by the tsunami in 2011, I wonder about that balance of what is possible and what is sustainable in terms of reconstruction. Can the Japanese government (both national and local) work collaboratively with both the young and ageing populations of the affected communities to ensure the wellbeing of the people who want to rebuild their towns and villages, while tackling the practicalities of rebuilding the necessary physical infrastructure in a place at high risk of future natural disasters?

I also wonder how we ensure that we learn something from every experience with place and the communities that shape them. Despite the fact that every place and every person within it is different, how do we ensure that there is something that is relevant and useful to extract and share with others?

On this trip I will take what we have learned supporting participatory design and collaborative placemaking in the UK to an entirely different social, economic and environmental context. I will endeavour to bring back stories from Japan that inspire and challenge us to do all that we can to improve the quality of our places in the UK.