“How can local authorities and government agencies work positively with ground-up initiatives, lived-experiences and knowledge, and participatory processes to re-imagine and enliven our shared spaces and civic infrastructure?”
Town planners: People, Place and Participation focused on a number of practical case-studies, provocations and learning through a series of fantastic talks, presentations, workshops and discussions led by international and national speakers. The conference began with a warm welcome from Rosie Lynch (Workhouse Union), introducing us to ‘Town Planners’ which is a year-long active programme of design activities co-produced with VISUAL, Carlow. The project examines our sense of civic space, the principles of planning, and our relationships to the built environment and the world around us. Our location for this event was VISUAL itself, a wonderful contemporary art gallery space, theatre hall and performance space.
Firstly, Je Ahn (Studio Weave, London), was invited to the stage to present on ‘Placemaking: Narrative and Play’ where smaller and larger scale projects were elaborated upon by describing their collaboration with ‘makers’, ‘users’ and the ‘city’. Je spoke of the significance in bridging gaps between the community and local authorities’ decisions, in any public project, whether big or small. St Pancras Church Garden, London was an excellent case study in which Studio Weave were collaborating with the makers, users and the city while respecting the rich history of London’s context and their immediate location.
The session was continued by Helena Fitzgerald on ‘Planning and the Common Good’. She described her collaborative work method through the landscape of Ballyglisheen, where the locals and their direct knowledge of the historic landscape was key to participatory group work in developing the land: “Creating conditions in which place can be made, not creating the places themselves.” While facing climate change and biodiversity loss, Helena creates sustainable partnership approaches through locally-led agri-envirnomental schemes.
Following the presentation, Emma Geoghegan (DIT School of Architecture Programme Chair BArch), invited Ian Doyle (Heritage Council), Kaethe Burt-O’Dea (Bí URBAN), and the Arts Action Group Approach for a conversation on case-studies and practical examples of making community projects happen in Ireland. Ian Doyle discussed the ‘Ballybrilliant’ case-study which is a publication featuring five Irish towns where heritage is a resource to promoting and creating interesting places. The town studies demonstrated the need for leadership and people-centred responses. While Kaethe Burt-O’Dea presented us with a different approach on the NatureRX project and the Lifeline project – a greenway, creating a ribbon of green infrastructure and fertile ground for social innovation, enterprise, and nature-based solutions.
Arts Action Group Approach offered their manifesto and experiences on collaborative work – Take A Part Carlow. It is a socially engaged arts project in the Tullow Road area of Carlow town in which high quality, risk-taking and thought-provoking art is created in the community. Their role is to devise the framework for the works; the artist is the interpreter and the guide.
After a refreshing coffee break, Rosie Lynch commenced her talk on the projects of Workhouse Union, based in Callan. They are leading a number of public engagement processes with local authorities and community groups around the development of healthy and inclusive open spaces and neighbourhoods. Current projects explore the future of rural towns through Meet You at the Green? (2017) and Bring Your Own Chair (2018/19).
Dr Alastair Roy (University of Central Lancashire and Co-director of the Psychosocial Research Unit) had a diverse outlook on the participatory aspect of community works and the meaning of participation itself. The presentation titled ‘Participation in Civic Renewal – Friend, Foe or Fetish?’ went through a number of case-studies in which collaboration had worked or failed such as – Heart of Glass, The Skate Park (Studio Morison) and Future Perfect. The Skate Park, a partnership between the council, police, a skate business and more than sixty people from the local skate community, is directed at the needs of young people and their relationship with the town. It has directly addressed an area of persistent low-grade friction in many urban centres which exists between youth, who may feel they have little role in civil society, the public who are anxious about what they see as disruptive behaviour, and the police who are called on by different groups to restore order. The Skate Park as artwork is becoming a material exploration of how young people’s energy and enjoyment can become a cultural asset in the town.
The afternoon continued with a presentation of the journey that led to the Irish Pavilion at the 16th Venice Architecture Biennale, ‘FREEMARKET – Learning from Small Towns’; a discussion with Orla Murphy, Jo Anne Butler and Tara Kennedy. FREEMARKET highlighted the generosity, humanity and possibility in the common spaces of Ireland’s market towns: “Free Market proposes to reclaim places of interaction and community of the once economic and social hubs of rural Ireland which have undergone fundamental change. They propose to build upon the research of their team and others, and on the lived experience of these spaces, to re-imagine the shared urban territory of the small-town market places.”
As our session was coming to a close, Marjetica Potrč (artist and architect) concluded the day with her presentation on ‘Remaking our living places. Potential of art and social architecture in finding sustainable and democratic solutions for living together’. Through architectural case studies and socially-influenced sculptural installations, her work explored how we live, share resources, and coexist alongside one another. Responding to the theme of shelter, her installation in VISUAL creates a hybrid house structure which contrasts the architecture of two very different societies, one open and one closed. These are accompanied by a series of large-scale wall drawings, plus work stations set up for printing and clay-making. The exhibition will remain open until the 13th January 2019.