Photo credit: Ellie Shipman
The Shape Our City research project and consultation offers a new way to engage residents in decision-making in Bristol. As a participatory artist with a background in Sustainable Development and Community Development, I was interested to work with the Shape Our City team to bring my own creative methods and engagement activities together with the fantastic digital consultation tools, public art and illustration they had already initiated.
My process focussed on creative, versatile and participatory tools, which could be used and re-used in a variety of contexts – by researchers, facilitators and, most importantly, residents. This took the form of a series of icons for each of the research areas as round stickers, which were used to code tags of comments and ideas from residents. The tags were added to three fabric banners, which were made for each of the focus areas: Barton Hill; Lawrence Weston and Knowle West. This took place over a series of community workshops; a free lunch in Barton Hill and stall at Knowle West Fest. The banners showed an illustrated map of each area as a visual prompt for residents to identify areas for public health and urban improvement in their communities. They were designed intentionally unlabelled and unbranded so the communities can be gifted them to use for their own projects, consultations and events.
From these events we saw that residents were interested in the banners themselves, and the stickers worked well to help prompt conversation in each of the research areas. Children in Barton Hill loved leading the banner walk themselves, parading the map proudly as they ran around the local area, with parents identifying areas for public health improvement. One of the researchers attended the local lunch, which was a great way to show residents that they were influencing research and genuinely being listened to. It was also beneficial to show researchers the effectiveness and impact of creative consultation processes and the power of talking to people in a more informal environment.
In order for the process to continue to increase participation in public decision making, creative engagement processes and community conversations need to become more embedded in research and urban planning processes and more of a genuine exchange. Local people need to be further seen as the true experts in their local area, and a diverse group of residents needs to be continuously engaged and welcomed into a two-way dialogue and relationship with the powers that be. This needs to be beyond (but still including) the community planning groups, the local forums and active residents to include others who may get left off the rota of groups to consult. Blaise Weston Residential Home was a great example of a group of residents with a wealth of knowledge of the local area actively wanting to take part in consultations but being regularly left out of such conversations. We held a drop in workshop with Blaise Weston Court and simply sat and chatted with residents, staff and volunteers in the community cafe with the map across a table, making notes on tags as we spoke.
Creative community consultation processes have developed hugely over the last ten years or so. Companies such as Bristol’s Mufti Games are using play to engage communities in discussions about the housing sector; Place Studio use ‘Spaceshaper’ workshops to support resident-led neighbourhood plans amongst other urban change projects; or Make-Good who involve communities in design and architecture of their own neighbourhoods. There does seem to be a gap for awareness raising consultation activities around both urban planning and public health, which is perhaps a niche Shape Our City will continue to carve.
Taking part in Shape Our City has further affirmed for me the importance of the connections, mutual understanding and respect necessary to affect real change involving residents’ voices and experience, research and planning. There need to be as many opportunities as possible for these conversations to happen: in multiple places – from the office to the allotment to the living room; in multiple ways – from the post-it workshop to the three dimensional creative project; and at multiple levels – researchers and residents, residents and planners, planners and researchers – everyone and everybody.