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The Air We Share: my experience as a facilitator with Johanna Gewolker

Posted on 10 December 2020

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On Thursday 26th November, I took part in and facilitated The Glass-House’s ‘The Air We Share’ sustainable places co-design workshop as part of the WEdesign event series. I was offered this opportunity through my studies in City Planning at UCL. 

The event was an invaluable opportunity for my fellow students and myself to form a bridge between the participation and inclusion theories we learn about at university and real-world practice. It was interesting to see how engagement activities are being shaped by the current social distancing context and how this can bring advantages as well as challenges.

I felt privileged to learn from people from so many different professional backgrounds in the same room (albeit a virtual one). The workshop had a dual function in terms of engagement. We asked participants to take part in an interactive design session, and the session itself was centred around developing innovative outside-the-box participation activities. 

The event was introduced by Sophia de Sousa, Chief Executive of The Glass-House. After this Tom Parks, Senior Air Quality Officer at LB of Camden outlined the aims of the new Air Quality Action Plan. The plan builds on previous achievements to set out cross-sector strategies for cracking down further on air pollution and in particular on NO2 emissions. Alongside my fellow students and Dr Lucy Natarajan from UCL, I presented our reflections on the engagement opportunities leveraged by the council in the formulation of the plan. We felt that Camden Council had successfully engaged with different types of actors from different sectors and stakeholders from a diverse range of backgrounds. However, we believe it was also important for the plan makers to seek out the experiences and opinions of young people and those clinically vulnerable to air pollution, as these groups could be considered key beneficiaries of the plan. 

During the co-design activity, Caitlin Smith and I guided the participants in our breakout room through the exercise, which was carried out on Miro, an interactive online whiteboard. The focus of our group was coming up with engagement activities that would inform or respond to policy on place and sustainability. The first step was to choose a target audience and to identify what issues this demographic group should address during their activity. After raising a variety of ideas from targeting delivery and Uber drivers to councillors themselves, the group decided to focus on a family focussed engagement activity surrounding clean air policy. Participants felt that an online mapping exercise at the scale of a residential district or street could be a useful way to gain a deep understanding of the drivers behind resident travel behaviours. This activity could be carried out on- or off-line, making it suitable for social distancing. Participants noted that the activity could be useful for creating and strengthening connections between neighbours in the context of the pandemic. They also thought that engaging with children in schools as part of the process could be a useful way of influencing adult behaviour indirectly. Following our discussion, I presented the plan developed by our group to the rest of the workshop participants. 

I found the experience of acting as a facilitator both refreshing and challenging. As students we are often put on the spot in class by our professors, asked to offer our opinions on how to solve some of the big problems and conflicts in planning. It was refreshing to be on the reverse side of this experience, absorbing the different ideas being proposed by people with years of professional experience in the built environment, government and public health fields and to consider how they interlinked.

My ability to carry out this role and learn from the experience was enhanced thanks to the extensive support provided to us by The Glass-House team. Sophia de Sousa, Deborah Ajia, Grace Crannis and intern Jake Stephenson ran a separate training workshop for us to build our confidence and learn the basics of facilitation beforehand. For us as students, this event offered an engagement as well as a learning opportunity; this reflects The Glass-House ethos of empowering people with the skills and agency required to allow them to contribute to design processes.

Johanna Gewolker is a postgraduate student studying City Planning at UCL Bartlett School of Planning.