Community consultation done differently
This in a nutshell was the aim of the Community Consultation for Quality of Life programme, a major research project instigated by the Quality of Life Foundation and led by Professor Flora Samuel, University of Reading. To connect with communities, Urban Rooms came to life across the four nations of the United Kingdom during 2022: Belfast, Northern Ireland; Cardiff, Wales; Edinburgh, Scotland; and Reading, England.
The research had two aims, first around digital mapping to support community engagement and provide a more holistic view of social and environmental value of land use. Programme partner Commonplace provided the digital infrastructure for this part. The second aim was to identify good practice in community consultation and engagement. This was no small challenge given the frequent negative experiences of people in neighbourhoods in the past.
Community Voices Cardiff
Urban Habitats supported the Urban Room in Wales – Community Voices Cardiff – led by co-investigator Professor Mhairi McVicar of Cardiff University. Urban Habitats were involved both as advisory panel members and through a community co-design session as part of the incredible Urban Room programme that ran for a whole month in May 2022.
The term ‘consultation’ was quickly dispensed itself as part of the problem being associated with negative approaches experienced by people living in neighbourhoods in the past. With the expert facilitation of Mymuna Soleman the group considered how words and language can immediately put people off engaging with public bodies, organisations, and professionals who seek to consult. You can read more about that in this excellent blog post.
There was much consideration of methods and approaches with a feeling that consultation in the past has been:
Let us take up your time and not pay you, then ignore what you said, then gaslight you by saying we’ve consulted with you.
Whereas it should be:
I share my power with you and support you to change things for you.
The evidence for agency and a sense of control are well evidenced as wider determinants of health. For practitioners, if you cannot evidence health creation through your engagement approaches then how can you demonstrate you are not in fact doing the opposite and risking harm?
Doing things differently – create your own park!
As part of the Urban Room we were able to share and test further our approaches to community engagement. We were delighted to be able to collaborate with planner and educator Aisha Ali for this session for primary (elementary) age school children around a neighbourhood park co-design activity. The vibrant Urban Room space at the award-winning Grange Pavilion provided an ideal setting to welcome participants. This early-stage co-design activity was focussed on holding a space that was welcoming and inclusive; providing a creative activity that would spark and encourage ideas; and then creating a carefully facilitated time where children were able to explore their ideas and think about their neighbourhood, park, nature, and green space in new and different ways. The output of this session was a wall-sized poster created by participants.
This was a highlight of the month. It offered a well-planned and structured drop-in activity which welcomed all ages, inviting everyone to sit down, grab a pen or cut out images, and talk to each other while working up a vision of a park. The ideas put on paper were energetic yet practical, and the real takeaway from the activity was the openness of conversations and the connections which started to be made – with no predefined agenda and no ‘plan’ to ‘react to’, there was none of the tension in the room which can often accompany consultation events. By beginning conversations before proposals emerged, the connections made offered real possibility to feed into future proposals.Prof Mhairi McVicar, Cardiff University
What we learned
This was an opportunity for us to put much of our thinking into practice – including the practise of facilitating space for community voices to have space to have a voice in the first place. In our work linking health and environment we strongly believe and seek to evidence the links between agency and a sense of control as a wider determinant of health. This was an opportunity to develop our practices in supporting communities to hold and reflect on their own knowledge: not us playing back people’s own knowledge to them.
The really hard work is in identifying and building trust so that many community voices feel welcome and able to share their knowledge and experience. We were privileged that the Community Voices Cardiff team had already done this so were able to participate in open conversation with people we already had the utmost respect for and to learn from them.
A distinction drawn by the outstanding educationalist and thinker Abu-Bakr Madden Al-Shabazz was really clearly drawn in the distinction between neighbourhood being where you live and community being a concept that transcends geography. This very clearly therefore highlights how confusing language by particularly built environment practitioners about ‘consulting with x community / communities’ or ‘consulting with the community / communities in x location’ is itself totally disjointed from how many people actually think about community.
Have you thought about doing consultation differently?
And do you want to do it in ways that can be evidenced to support health creation? If so we are keen to work alongside people in neighbourhoods; organisations; and others to do this. And we are open to discussing both project work and also believe there is great opportunity for learning and research collaborations in this area. If this sounds like you, please get in touch!