Relationship-based placemaking: a paradigm shift « Canning Town Caravanserai

Relationship-based placemaking: a paradigm shift

In 2016, MELA Social Enterprise published a book called Connections: 12 Approaches to relationship-based placemaking. It was a collaborative effort in which 12 MELA Associates explored their own practice in building connections between people from diverse backgrounds; between people and the places they live; and between people and professionals.
What do we mean by relationship-based placemaking? In today’s understanding, placemaking is about how a place looks, how it is used, and how we, as design professionals, can make it better physically. Often we focus on the buildings that define outdoor spaces and what happens in them, or we focus on the outdoor spaces between buildings and design the objects that go in them, things that make them more pleasant like trees, benches or water features. In some cases we invite people to tell us about their places and ask them what they want to see change so we can design better. For me, placemaking goes even deeper. I believe places are designed first and foremost for people to meet and connect. What this means is that placemaking and how we design the buildings and outdoor spaces has to start with its social role. Sometimes ugly-looking housing estates have very vibrant communities and at the same time luxury apartments have no sense of community at all. Relationship-based placemaking is about building trust between people and bridging our divides through the design process. It’s a big role, but if we don’t build relationships it will cost us billions of pounds to address depression, isolation, poor health and social exclusion.
In 2016 I became a trustee of the Caravanserai. My main attraction here was a pilot in Canning Town which had delivered so much on relationship-based placemaking with relatively little resource. Rather its lasting success and impact is how many new friendships and connections had local people made. Focusing on commerce, education and social cohesion as the drivers for spatial interventions it included anyone to participate across the generations, cultures and incomes.
In the book Connections, three major themes run through the chapters which were explored in more depth at the Connections book launch in October, 2017.
The first theme was building trust – the critical ingredient for people to engage with each other to shape a shared future, and for professionals to support community-led placemaking initiatives that will be much more sustainable long term. Trust cannot be developed quickly – it takes time for people to believe in the reliability, truth or ability of someone else. The short term consultation periods that placemakers often take just do not allow for this value to be built. Several opportunities to meet, to connect, to converse, to share are necessary for trust to be gained between local people and between people and professionals. But starting with building trust is critical if the outcome we are seeking is to develop networks of social capital that can support health and well-being, lower crime, better life chances and lower discrimination. The Caravanserai provided the meeting place – the opportunities for encounter and collaboration over a five year period which help develop trust between the users over time.
The second theme was designing in places with complex and diverse identities – in a globalised world with large scale immigration, places are no longer homogeneous. Places have become complex with competing identities which make a place interesting, but at the same time can exclude some groups from feeling they belong. Placemakers, whether they are professionals or local communities, require the awareness to make places feel like everyone belongs when they design those spaces of encounter and meeting. Often, placemakers are forced to offer ubiquitous solutions that have no scope for evolving or adapting to the changing complexion of a place. Increasingly it is becoming apparent that its not only the physical design that has to be adaptable, but more importantly how places can be inhabited and used over time. In the Caravanserai pilot in Canning Town, the different identities were woven in to the very fabric of the place through the integration of sari patterns in the new roofing material that was produced, or the cross-cultural music gatherings, or simply by designing place that was open enough to welcome all people regardless of background.
The third theme was bridging communities – a new desired outcome for those placemakers that engage with communities in diverse areas. Bridging communities marks a shift from consultation and engagement with those with the confidence, education and capacity to express their views, to another model in which the placemaker is the facilitator of community-building across societal divides to reach a more equitable and inclusive place. This is a new role for professional placemakers as it places responsibility on them to build local networks that may not already exist with the intention of paving the way for building trust and ensuring their design interventions represent the diversity of groups. It is critical, however, if the commitment is to create places people can feel they belong, but more importantly, they can build relationships with new people they don’t often hang out with. Research shows that networks that bridge across cultural divides are crucial for social mobility and improved life chances (Nasser, 2015). The social capital built in Caravanserai is what marks this project separate from the rest. Key to social capital are the activities that build relationships such as the community garden, the Long Table and performance that cuts across cultures and forms a common focal point.
In exploring the above themes, the concept of ‘placemaker’ is fluid – it is not only professional placemakers who have been educated and trained to plan, design and manage places, but it includes all those who use a place, whose daily behaviours make the place what it is, and whose presence (whether transient or permanent) change the place continually. Here are the findings from the conversations had at the Connections book launch.
Key recommendations for building trust:
• Trust has to be enabled, either through policy, an institutional ethos, or a neighbourhood initiative
• We need greater transparency and dialogue about our different values and where is our common ground
• Institutional Placemakers need to engage with leaders of communities
• Creativity is a builder of trust but should not be a one-off intervention at the start of the project. Instead, it should be maintained throughout the lifespan of urban development.
• Professional education requires new skills sets for a diverse and complex world starting with empathy, listening, respect, and sensitive engagement.
• There is a role for social media in community-building, but nothing can replace face-to-face meetings and encounters
Key recommendations for designing in places with diverse identities:
• Placemakers would benefit from non-rational approaches to understanding places: even though they may not be measurable, they do have value
• Non-western traditions (that reflect the diverse and complex makeup of cities and societies) can offer placemakers new ways of designing harmonious and balanced places
• More room for experimentation, creativity and curiosity through temporary uses, meanwhile spaces, and pop-up spaces can provide sense of ownership and testable inclusive designs
• Use of online platforms to make radically transparent the many voices about place to counter mainstream narratives about place
• Local Authorities to promote community-led financing of neighbourhood-based initiatives
• Arts organisations are an important part of the social infrastructure of a place and can be an advocate and facilitator for urban and social development and regeneration.
Key recommendations for bridging communities:
• Maintaining a balanced place requires making a place affordable through mechanisms such as lower business rates and genuinely affordable rents
• Charrettes, Learning Journeys, and participatory mapping are some ways of building a shared language between institutional placemakers and young people through face-to-face encounters
• Every place needs a community heart to bring people together
• Community centres and high streets are critical bits of social infrastructure to build relationships and intergenerational activities
Nasser, N (2015) Bridging Cultures: the guide to social innovation in cosmopolitan cities. 10-10-10 Publishing. 
Nasser, N (ed.) (2016) Connections: 12 approaches to relationship based placemaking, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

Dr Noha Nasser
Founding Director of MELA Social Enterprise and Trustee, Caravanserai
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