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Co-designing better communities

How would our towns and cities, neighbourhoods and public spaces look and function if the people who live and work within them designed them? Theodore Zamenopoulos and Katerina Alexiou’s work is helping groups across the UK to find out and empowering them to become creative citizens capable of positively changing their communities.

Communities rarely have the opportunity to make meaningful decisions about their local environment. Most people find it difficult to understand complex town and city planning processes. It is also challenging to organise effective opposition to unpopular plans or to develop community-led alternatives. We want to change this.

For the past ten years, we’ve collaborated with public, private, third and civil sector organisations throughout the UK to co-design practical tools and approaches that empower people to break down these barriers and create positive, design-led change in their communities.

Empowering people to change their local environment

Our Creative Citizens research project examined how social and other media can engage people and empower them to use community resources and skills to make design decisions about their local area.

Between 2012 and 2016, we worked closely with Wards Corner Community Coalition (WCCC) members to support their campaign to prevent the demolition of the historic Wards Corner Building and its celebrated Seven Sisters Indoor Market in Tottenham, North London, and stop its community from being displaced.

"Wards Corner" by Alan Stanton is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

The Edwardian corner site started life as Wards Department Store in 1901 and remained one of the grandest department stores in London until its closure in 1972. Since the building’s current owners, Transport for London, began leasing its ground floor to independent traders in 1985, the indoor market has grown to become an economic, social and cultural hub for North London’s Latin American community. It is now home to more than 40 small businesses employing 150 people from 15 countries who make this corner of London so vibrant and diverse.

We supported the group to co-design and launch a digital public consultation for their community plan. The platform featured a 3D virtual tour and invited local people to comment on WCCC’s proposals to create improved trading spaces for traders, protect the building’s physical heritage and celebrate the market’s unique identity and culture.

A screenshot from the online public consultation

More than 200 local people provided comments on the plan, which the group fed into a detailed planning application to make their vision for the site a reality. Haringey London Borough Council approved the plan in 2014, which gave the group renewed impetus to fight for its proposal.

[The project] produced a really positive and beneficial outcome of the traders being involved in the campaign again. I think it was really nice to have a collaborative project with academics that actually came to something.

Wards Corner Community Coalition member

Scaling up community co-design across the UK

One of the tools we used to support the co-design process with Wards Corner was a new methodology to map and organise their ecosystems of local assets, such as skills, spaces and networks. Our experience in North London demonstrated this asset mapping process’ potential as a powerful tool in supporting communities to come together and make positive changes to their local area. The next challenge was to scale this approach to empower citizens and communities elsewhere, each with different objectives, capacities and needs.

We collaborated with academics and charities during our Scaling up Co-design project to establish networks and a shareable framework of methods and mechanisms to empower community-led design and action on a larger scale.

We applied asset mapping to help Sheffield Hallam, Brunel and Northumbria universities and charities and social enterprises such as The Glass House Community Led Design, The Blackwood Foundation, Fossbox and Silent Cities to identify and share common and complementary interests and competencies. The project also empowered partners to explore collaborative opportunities and developed their community co-design expertise and practice.

Deep friendships gave me the energy and confidence to talk about co-design in an authoritative way. This enabled me to embed co-design into Sheffield’s Big Lottery bid for [£] 6 m to reduce isolation and loneliness for older people. The bid was successful, with the work on co-design cited as the key factor.

Justine Rutherford
Silent Cities Founder

Scaling up Co-design enhanced the charity and social enterprises’ capabilities to bid for funding. It also built a network of more than 30 collaborators who have since delivered a range of successful community projects.

Reimagining places of worship

Since 2014 we’ve also delivered design training and provided specialist support to more than 460 custodians from places of worship across the UK to help them rethink their spaces as resources to meet not only their local communities’ spiritual but also cultural and social needs. Through activities such as live student projects, workshops and skills development programmes, our Empowering Design Practices project has enhanced these peoples’ understanding and appreciation of heritage buildings, built their confidence and helped them embrace change.

The project has also supported places of worship spanning different faiths across the UK, from Edinburgh to Sheffield and Stoke-on-Trent secure more than £400,000 to fund repairs, transform their spaces and invest in energy-efficient technologies.

What I think this project has shown is that the future of those buildings is based in their value to the whole community. They are a fantastic resource which can be used for worship […] but also for a wide range of other things that will enrich lives and bring joy and create a sense of identity and engagement, all of those things which are top priorities in the country as a whole today.

Diana Evans
Historic England

Written by: Dr Theodore Zamenopoulos, Senior Lecturer in Design at The Open University and Dr Katerina Alexiou, Senior Lecturer in Design at The Open University.