Let’s talk about play

July 1, 2018

I have thought about play a lot over the years. I’ve designed a couple of playgrounds and some external spaces for Special Education Needs schools with a remit for playable structures, but having become a parent in the last few years, I have started to think about play from a new perspective (getting wedged in a slide for toddlers was certainly a different if uncomfortable perspective!).

I now realise how strongly access to play is linked to a parents idea of perceived risk, and I have surprised myself on occasion by being nervous of my daughter exploring things I would have previously, and probably still would, advocate for.

On play projects we have done in the past, we have always put children and young people at the heart of them, and whilst we’ve worked with parents, there was always a pull between what the children wanted and what parents saw as priorities. For example, some parents might want to stick with play equipment they know; swings, slides and a climbing frame, and children often do want some of that, but they also often want a taste of wilderness and wildness; water, long grass, logs and boulders to clamber on, abstract undefined things to build worlds around, wobbly things that they are likely to fall off the first time they try.

I think a big shift comes in realising how much our children absorb and reflect our reaction to places, to play and to risk, and therefore whether or not they have permission to go and explore, play and, most probably, acquire a few bruises. All of this means that, in the future I will be thinking about these dual audiences for play spaces and understanding how symbiotic their relationship is. But I also want to start a bigger conversation about play; what we value in play for our children and what our children value in play. What we think the barriers to good play provision are and who is doing ground-breaking work around play.

make:good has always been about creating moments of joy, and to me, finding those moments in the everyday is something we could really learn from kids. Children can create those moments effortlessly, seeing an ocean or a climbing frame or an adventure in a post-Blitz bombsite or a carefully curated gallery. The idea that play provision is x, or must have y, is something that children show us is nonsense everyday. They push boundaries with their brave, unconstrained, (sometimes over-)excited little brains – the best we can do is give them the spaces to do it.

So here are some of my favourite boundary-pushing play practitioners – I would love to hear about yours, so please point me in the direction of your favourite people doing great stuff in the world of play!

Pop up adventure play

This wonderful movement want to support children’s play in all its forms and have lots of resources online for encouraging people to set up their own temporary adventure play experiences using an array of everyday objects. They also run courses at different levels for people who really want to leap into play advocacy.

Playground Ideas

For the shear joy of making playgrounds out of everything and anything in the most unlikely of places and sharing work that just makes you smile these folk are on my go to list. Always inspires me to get up and go another day.

Playing out CIC

This amazing parent led initiative is all about putting in place regular temporary road closures and giving children the opportunity to play in the streets outside their homes.

Looking forward to hearing about your favourites.

Edible Places

May 1, 2018

I would never say that we are food growing experts but we have been getting very hands on with getting residents on a few of our projects into growing their own produce. I have been blown away at how powerful it is an activity; from just getting people interested in joining to the delight of planting something and seeing it grow into something you can eat, harvesting it and then eating it. Courgette cake, chutneys, homemade tomato ketchup, passata which formed the base for bruschetta were all highlights but I also wanted to take step back and think about the power of edible places in contexts where people are not predisposed to food growing. These projects might be a smaller version of the Incredible Edible movement (which I love by the way) but we also approached this much more stealthily or maybe quietly saying let’s spend time together and just be outside together and while we are there let’s talk about food and where it comes from, what we love about it and build a new relationship with it. We even created a recipe book with a group of residents because there was so much conversation about ideas for meals.

There are a many ways of approaching the debate around the power of food growing: exploring food provenance because so many people have lost a connection with where food comes from and how it is grown; permaculture principles with a focus on the impact of growing on our ecosystem and using as little resource as possible without ; and the benefits of organic food and the benefits of people getting outside and gardening to name but a few. Interestingly food provenance now pops up on the Food Preparation and Nutrition GCSE but is still something that so many people, particularly those living in cities are not aware of.
Often on our projects the first two are a tangential benefit, no less valuable, but tangential because sometimes approaching these things with a direct argument makes people feel like you are placing a value judgement on them. Organic food can make people think it is expensive and there is a level of privilege attached to being able to think beyond the immediate of future of urgent bills to pay, food for the family and the rush of getting a household to all the places they need to be that we don’t like to acknowledge.

However, an activity, an opportunity to meet people, social and take a pause from the rush and bustle is something that does appeal, particularly if people happen across these activities because they appear along routes that people always take and therefore spark curiosity. People of all ages, all experiences and all backgrounds have really got involved, some because they already grow food and want to share expertise, others because they are just intrigued by what is going on, but the joy of eating has been a big puller together of people. Us humans have a complicated relationship with food and how we use it to fuel, comfort and reward ourselves but most people from anywhere in the world have an understanding of the power of a celebratory meal and bringing people to eat so using food growing as a step along this journey has proved very valuable.

Another nice segue from food provenance is that it opens the floodgates to a diverse dialogue of topics and personal stories, even if people involved in the garden don’t eat the food grown themselves. Food growing has sparked conversations on; ‘We used to grow that at home’, ‘I remember the first time I tried that’, or ‘I have a great recipe for using that’. We found that regardless of whether they like the food or not, everyone has an opinion on it!

We did a project last year focused on health and our first engagement taught me a really important lesson in how vulnerable people feel when messages appear to be telling them off and instilling guilt about what they are eating or what they are feeding their children. The same is true of exercise, or promoting getting outside more which makes people feel defensive of what they are or aren’t doing. All this made me think that if you focus on activities that people want to do and build an audience then all the other benefits, ideas, learning and sharing can happen without you pushing the learning, health and ecological messages.

It looks like Edible Cities have got some great events coming up to fuel our interest in growing and pick up some new ideas but I think for now we will still be keeping our approach one of stealth.

And if one is ever in doubt of the power of small things Pam Warhurst from Incredible Edible Todmorden is worth the 14 minutes it takes to listen to this Ted Talk, the huge breadth of benefits are nothing but inspiring.

Open House Workshop at Here East

September 27, 2017

We had an awesome day running a creative workshop at Here East as part of Open House London on September 16th. ‘Build:East’ was an exploration of shape, pattern, and function in the built environment. Set against the backdrop of the Olympic Park, more than 50 participants (young and old) helped us build and decorate our cityscape from the ground up!

We designed shapes and struts that were laser-cut from plywood. These allowed for easy construction and assembly, enabling people to make a variety of structures at different heights and scales.

Participants then had a choice of decorative materials which were compiled in the Here East colour palette, and were asked to design and decorate a space that they would like to see in their city. This is where people’s imaginations ran wild!

Our personal favourites include: The disco/ cinema/ swimming pool complex, The Zebra House (complete with zebra lift because ‘zebras can’t use stairs’), The Zoo with ‘a prison on top for naughty people’, the ice cream shop/ jail, and ‘the statue of liberty/ amazon delivery’ and a (not to scale) model of The Shard.

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What would you build in your dream city?
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A History of Participatory Design

September 22, 2017

True participatory design and planning may be the norm for us at m:g, but it is not necessarily common practice around the UK. Nevertheless, the system has come a long way over the last century, and these days, a Statement of Community Involvement is at least a key part of any planning application. Whether that involvement is meaningful or not is another story! But as the culture hopefully shifts to more comprehensive, inclusive participation in change, we look back on the history of co-designing places in the UK over the last 100 years.

1910s

In the early 20th century, at a time when urban planning had more to do with the top-down “utopian” visions of Ebenezer Howard than the feedback of citizens, the pioneering town planner Patrick Geddes in his 1915 book “Cities in evolution” broke with tradition by advocating planning that considers the needs and ideas of local people – but it would be a long time until these proposals trickled down into the planning system.

1930s

In the 1930s, the field of public opinion formalised as an academic and professional discipline: public opinion polls became more common as companies and governments began to understand the value of listening to people. This was built upon in a remarkable way in the early 1940s, when planners in London began to think about post-war reconstruction following the impact of bomb-wrought destruction. At this unique point of reshaping the urban landscape, government planners decided to use the need for reconstruction as a way to engage the public and grow the role and appreciation of town planning as a tool for recovery and improving lives.

Social mapping, public exhibitions, social surveys and public opinion polls were used to better understand the needs and desires of the people they planned for, specifically the task of designing better housing for the working classes, and the public were consulted about planning ideas and policies. The importance of the social survey was emphasised by Patrick Abercrombie, Britain’s most influential planner at the time.

The UK Government’s Ministry of Information hired “Mass Observation”, a group of social science researchers who drew up surveys for the public about people’s hopes for post-war life as well as their needs and wants for housing. Questions on the mass surveys included: “Do you know what town planning is? What do you think should be done about post-war housing?”

1940s

Mass Observation weren’t the only group engaging people in planning their future neighbourhoods. In 1942 the Women’s Advisory Housing Committee (WHAC) conducted an extensive survey of working class women about their housing needs and preferences, including questions such as: “Do you think it is necessary to be near schools/bus routes/big shops/station?”; “Have you any views on the way London should be rebuilt after the war?”; “Would you like an open air market/a community centre/a recreation ground in your housing estate?”

In 1943-4 the Stepney Reconstruction Group in London surveyed neighbours about their housing and infrastructure needs, noting that “the more the views of the people are expressed, the more likelihood of their getting the kind of neighbourhood they want.” This is an idea that drives much of the public engagement we see in Britain today.

But while the 1940s seemed to be a period of progress in empowering people to engage in the planning process, civic influence remained restricted by legal and professional structures that prioritised technical experts. What’s more, after years of multiple social surveys, consultation fatigue set in among the British public, especially as people did not clearly see their feedback actioned. And so participatory techniques faded into disuse.

1960s

But by the 1960s, the general public had grown critical of modernist planners’ lack of attention to democratic principles and the unilateral planning decisions made by government. Amid rent strikes and slum clearance protests across the UK, the call for public participation in planning was renewed.

Meanwhile, the US and France also spoke out against the undemocratic approach of planners. In France, insincere planning consultation practices were criticised: one poster read “I participate, you participate … they profit.” This increasing awareness of the difference between lip-service consultation and meaningful engagement was articulated by political writer and US Housing department employee Sherry Arnstein with her “ladder of participation” from 1969.

Back in Britain, the government responded to mounting anger by organising the Skeffington Committee to restructure their planning process to accommodate public consultation and engagement. The consequent Planning Act of 1969 attempted to increase consultation requirements of local planning agencies.

1970s

In 1971, RTPI President Jim Amos called for the profession to provide planning aid. “It would do much to make the planning process more democratic and more sensitive to its effects if a free planning advice service could be made available to those in need,” he said. Two years later, Planning Aid services began, facilitated by the TCPA, with partial funding from the government. This involved – and still does to this day – free, independent, professional planning advice to communities to equip them with the knowledge and skills necessary to engage in the planning process.

2000s

Fast forward to the turn of the millennium and 2004, when the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act established the requirement for Statements of Community Involvement to be produced by local authorities, explaining to the public how they will be involved in the preparation of local development documents.

SCIs are meant to ensure that consultation with the public begins at the earliest stages of development so that communities are given the fullest opportunity to participate in plan making. But, as we’ve seen, these SCIs can end up being one-pagers which describe a grand total of two afternoon-long exhibitions informing the public of plans but not meaningfully engaging them. What’s more, the 2008 Planning Act set out that SCIs do not have to undergo independent examination.

Luckily, in 2009, make:good launched to practice positive participation!

2010s

At the start of this decade, in 2010, we saw the rise of the “Big Society” idea, promoted by the Conservative Party as a way to “devolve power” to communities. In reality, what this often ended up meaning was local authority budget cuts. In fact, since 2010, local authority planning departments have seen budget cuts of 46%.

The Localism Act was passed in 2011, introducing “neighbourhood planning”, which in principle gives communities direct power to develop a neighbourhood plan, which sits alongside the local authority’s Local Plan to shape the development and growth of a local area. The initiative also enables communities to grant planning permission through Neighbourhood Development Orders and Community Right to Build Orders for specific developments.

The preparation of neighbourhood plans are requested to be “inclusive and open”, but as the criteria only requires a minimum group of 21 people to spearhead its development, and receive 51% of approval from local residents who turn up to vote on it, there is a lot of space for people to be left out of shaping it. Although a neighbourhood plan indicates where new homes, shops and offices should be built and what infrastructure should be provided, its contents must align with the existing Local Plan drawn up by the council – so the neighbourhood group cannot decide on less development or more affordable housing than is set out in the Local Plan.

The hope is that these Local Plans are representative of a wide array of community voices, however. The National Planning Policy Framework, published in 2012, states that “early and meaningful engagement and collaboration with neighbourhoods, local organisations and businesses is essential. A wide section of the community should be proactively engaged, so that Local Plans, as far as possible, reflect a collective vision and a set of agreed priorities for the sustainable development of the area.”

It also notes: “early engagement [and] good quality pre-application discussion enables better coordination between public and private resources and improved outcomes for the community.”

It is heartening to see an official recognition of the positive role that meaningful and inclusive engagement can play in making places. The next step is to see these ideas more closely followed and adopted by all practitioners – which may require more specific guidelines set out in the NPPF. Still, we have come a long way – and we hope the future for co-design is very bright.