We challenge the existing,
the conventional, what's been accepted
Working to produce a “Community Plan” for a large area in the south of Barbados, we recently spent a thought-provoking week leading Placechecks. Essentially, a Placecheck is a conversation – an hour or so’s discussion whilst walking around a place with the people who live and breathe it. By listening to our local hosts’ answers to the three basic Placecheck questions (What do you like about this place? What do you dislike about it? What changes would you like to see?) we learned, in just a few hours, much more about the real lives, concerns and hopes of ‘normal’ people in this part of Barbados than any literature reviews or data searches could have told us on their own.
For two of these Placechecks, the people who showed us round and chatted with us were young: children from a junior school, and teenagers and young adults from a youth group. Seeing their place through their eyes was an assumption-challenging privilege.
We are still considering the Placecheck “results”, so it’s too early to talk about the way they are affecting our thinking about the emerging plan. However, some of the comments we’d heard in our conversations with young Barbadians connected with something mentioned in an interesting article I read just after the last of the Placechecks. The article, by David Maddox, looks at the potential for using “simulation modeling” in community engagement and has been published on the Sustainable Cities Collective website: http://tinyurl.com/lvazlym
What caught my mind initially was the author’s expressed excitement about “engagement exercises that use simulation models as tools to get people talking not just about their opinions, but about the consequences of their opinions”. This is a crucial part of the planning process that is often given insufficient time and attention. Using simple, but well-considered techniques, it is already possible to involve people in identifying the consequences of plans and changes – up to a point – but it seems that the technology that has so excited David Maddox could make the process more accessible, deeper, quicker and probably more fun. By helping – encouraging – ordinary people to participate more directly and actively in the process of making difficult decisions, it should be possible to produce plans that have greater acceptance and are better understood. With the technology that David Maddox describes “Individuals can try out their designs and social ideas using the model as context, and have the model give some feedback about the how their ideas would work on the ground. Their ideas are taken out of the realm of unverified opinion and placed in a context in which their function, output, and outcomes can be compared. You might still prefer one type of design to another, but its performance could now be part of the decision mix“.
This is a really exciting development in engagement practice and the sort of thing that I can see could soon become real in a technologically advanced place like New York, where one of the models is evolving. But in Barbados or other small developing states? – way too ambitious, surely? But then I thought about a couple of things that we had learned whilst Placechecking…
On the Monday, we had been beckoned over to a small village “rum shop” with the unforgettable name “Bump Fart”s Variety” by a group of youths who were whiling away the morning chatting and drinking a beer or two (it turned out that Bump Fart has been the owner’s nickname since he was a small boy – he didn’t explain why, but we imagined a scenario!) They were friendly and offered some genuinely helpful insights in to the life of their community. We’d wondered, though about the circumstances that led them to be sitting in the rum shop at that time of a weekday – and we’d thought it interesting that, despite apparently being jobless, they were “playing” (our guess) on nice, up-to-date tablets and smartphones.
The second thing that came back to me was our chats with the junior school children (who were, of course, all much more technologically competent than me) and then with the older youth group, all of whom had easy access to the internet via laptops, tablets and other good mobile devices. Asked whether the neighbourhood shops, bars and rum shops were important meeting places for the community, they said they were – but mostly for older people rather than them. “So, what’s the equivalent for young people like you?” we asked. The immediate answer from one of the older members of the group: “PlayStation!”. Now, obviously, he was only partly correct – this was a youth group that meets regularly, so there’s at least one face-to-face community activity they share! – but it was an interesting response and it was not said entirely facetiously. What else is there to do as a young person in a remote village with poor transport links and little money? Are we unthinkingly forcing our young people behind their screens – and then blaming them?
Interestingly, all of the youth group members said they would like more opportunities and facilities for meeting together and they all placed high value on community cohesion. They also placed great value on allowing for expression of individual identity and providing space for everyone to grow fruit and vegetables – kitchen gardens are a strong feature of Bajan homes and one that the young people were both proud and protective of. It is far too easy (and lazy) to dismiss young people as only being interested in communicating through screens: mostly, their social and community interests do not stop there, but the actions and inactions of adult society sometimes force them to disconnect more than they might choose! Too often, adults feel they need to speak for teenagers rather than simply allowing them to engage actively in making choices and plans – when this is the case, how can we expect them to take responsibility for – and play an active role in – a community that doesn’t reflect their needs? Wouldn’t it be great if we used modern technology to engage young people in shaping their communities and their environments, rather than using it as an excuse for shutting them out?
If computer gaming technology can really be adapted into interactive planning “tools”, our young Placecheckers – and other young people living in this part of Barbados (and across the Caribbean) – will probably have the technology, the aptitude and the willingness to get much more deeply involved in planning the future of their places. They had plenty to say about the things they like, don’t like and would like to see change in their places – and their attitudes were, in fact, overwhelmingly positive. If we could get them more directly involved in generating and testing options – their contribution could be even more valuable. The challenge is actually not really to them, it’s to the senior members of the current generation of planning professionals – people like me – who need to see the potential of this and empower our younger colleagues – and young planners who don’t even know that they’re planners – to use their PlayStation skills to the full. And that takes me to a final connection. The Placecheck contributions made by the young man who told us that PlayStation is the new rum shop, made us all feel that he’d make a great planner. It turned out, however, that he is currently studying IT at university: but maybe that’s the perfect combination for developing the “PlaceStation” we clearly need!