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Triggering conversations about place: workshop at Paragon

Posted on 18 May 2016

Written by:

Sophia de Sousa

Place is all around us. We interact with it both consciously and not. Our senses and emotions fire messages to our brain and as they reach it, they can make our heart sink or sing.

This was the starting point for a workshop introducing placemaking to a group of residents working with Paragon,  an affordable housing provider. These residents are all actively involved in panels or working groups coordinated by Paragon including the Resident Council, Resident Scrutiny and Inspection teams, Local Area Forums (for Weybridge & Cobham and Richmond), Green Group and local residents’ associations. All are in regular conversation with Paragon about the places they manage, but for some of them, this was their first conversation about place and placemaking.

One of the ways that we help people to start thinking about the places around them is to explore their emotional and sensory reactions to photos of particular places (some familiar, some well-loved, some dilapidated). We then ask them to think about places that they see and move through every day.

By identifying places that evoke strong reactions, both positive and negative, we are able to explore what about those places triggers a reaction.

Quite consistently, management and maintenance issues informed places that had made these participants’ hearts sink. A lack of care and upkeep for a place led to a variety of knock-on effects, the most obvious of which were places that were not used or felt unsafe. Participants also identified poor design, often practical and utilitarian but not beautiful, or simply design that seemed inappropriate to that context, as a main culprit for their sinking hearts.

The singing hearts, showed an appreciation for what they felt were beautiful and well-considered places, both designed and natural. Some spoke of the importance of views and vistas. We celebrated both active and quiet places, and their real or perceived sense of community and of safety.

When we considered the qualities and ingredients of a great place, the group consistently placed people at the heart of a place and made reference to the importance of relationships – how people interact with a place and with each other in that place.

So how can placemaking help us draw all of this together holistically, and what can those of us acting as formal advisors and custodians of places do to make our hearts sing, not sink? What role do all of us play in the success of places? If we are not formally accountable or responsible for a place, do we have the right, the agency, to take active steps towards changing and improving a place?

We returned to a simple definition of placemaking:

A series of locally driven actions that shape a place, with the aim of improving the quality of that place and what it offers to the people who live, work and play there. Placemaking can involve permanent or temporary changes to a place and how it is used.

The workshop was just the beginning of a conversation about what those local actions, big or small, could be and what role Paragon, the residents active on the various working groups and local people could play. Whether in an official capacity or not, we all have a role to play in improving the quality of the places and spaces around us.

What would your local action be?