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Small but perfectly formed placemakers

2 August 2019

Catherine Greig, Director

It can be hard to run a business and keep the scale of the work interesting, meaningful and financially viable. Often the bigger projects feel more viable but keeping the meaning alive can be a struggle, whereas the smaller projects can be really challenging to deliver without spending buckets of extra time and causing a financial strain on the business.

However, I really think there has to be room for both. So much of the meaning is created at the grassroots or very local level – those everyday heroes that work hard to make their neighbourhoods better in some small but important way.  

With that in mind, this month I have pulled together a list of six of my favourite smaller-scale organisations or projects that have audacious goals. They are all focused and specific about what they are trying to do, which is what makes them so great. There has to be space for smaller-scale, tangible, neighbourhood-level change in each piece of placemaking; these organisations can give us all some inspiration for how to achieve this.

Urban Canopy | @urbancanopyuk

Urban Canopy is dedicated to engaging communities in the sweet spot between horticulture, art and education. We’ve dabbled in food growing and community gardens but these guys are dedicated to it and they do it really well – no sad hanging baskets or wilted annuals on their watch!

I love seeing the work of Bill Ramage and Stephen Lawlor pop up on my feed. It seems to revel in the simple joys of being outdoors, growing stuff and enjoying what plants have to offer. Their recent Tea Trail gave me huge project envy – they created a map to a series of herb beds, then invited people to walk the tea route and harvest herbs to create their own blend and fill their unique teabag.

Urban growing at its best I think.

Streetspace | @street_space_

Streetspace is a social enterprise focused on working with the people of Barking and Dagenham to improve their streets. I often talk about needing to really get to know a place to do the best work and I love that Founder Phillipa Banister is committed to a specific geographic area. It allows for true local collaboration and participation, provides the chance to really get to know the fibres of a place and ensures that the effects of their work are more sustainable. This kind of commitment to a place is really inspiring and by no means an easy choice when you are launching a business (make:good had work all over the place at the beginning just to get on our feet).

Company Drinks | @goingpicking

We’re sticking in Barking for my next choice – Company Drinks, who use foraged berries and flowers to produce drinks that are sold at the V&A among other places. Volunteers can join founder Katherine Böhm for a foraging expedition and help collect bounty to be made into drinks. The act of foraging provides company, social connection and is an opportunity to get outside and appreciate where our food comes from.

Registered as a Community Interest Company, Company Drinks grows, picks, processes, bottles and sells drinks, then puts profits back into the local community through projects and programmes. The community activities create spaces but so does the act of foraging, as it brings people together in their shared public space in a way that traditional community centres often struggle to.

It hits that amazing sweet spot between being a business and creating meaningful social impact.

Tinker Town | @ArchiTinkertown

Tinker Town is a Glasgow-based project produced by The City of Play which sees the spirit of adventure playground-building brought right onto people’s doorsteps as temporary constructions.

In another life this is what I would spend my days doing; building things with pallets, scrap material and a splash of bright paint. I love the immediacy of just building stuff with children, knowing it’s temporary but also knowing that universal experience of the joy of building something yourself. In a time when education is being squeezed into an increasingly narrow funnel, think of all the learning, lifelong memories, friendships and possibly the odd splinter that can be gained in an afternoon spent with Tinker Town.

Wood Street Walls | @woodstreetwalls

Something that comes up time and time again as I stand on the street talking to people is that they don’t want their area to feel like it could be anywhere; they want it to hold onto its unique identity. Wood Street Walls does just that by curating projects that connect artists with public spaces to create work that both celebrates local distinctiveness, but also enhances that distinctiveness through its production.

There always seems to be an opportunity for local people to choose the next location or the next artist to work with and even to influence the artist’s work, so that each wall encapsulates the ethos of the whole project.

Mill Road Summer | @MillRoadSummer

This initiative sees Mill Road Bridge, Cambridge, closed to traffic from 1 July – 26 August this year and instead transformed into a space for people. It will remain open for local businesses and for people walking, shopping, cycling and enjoying a summer of reduced noise, cleaner air and lots of outdoor activities and events, with a parklet and activities like outdoor yoga on the agenda.  

I love the idea of closing a road for a window of time and using it to demonstrate all the wonderful things that can happen and space that can be opened up when you take cars out of the picture.  

What are your favourite examples of small but perfectly formed placemaking? Tell us on Twitter.

Photo credits | Photo 1: Street Space, Photo 2: Company Drinks, Photo 3: Tinkertown; City of Play, Photo 4: Wood Street Walls, Photo 5: Mill Road Summer; David Johnson, Photo 6: @UrbanCanopyUK