One Sunday in July I stood in a small park in a Central London and asked people to pin cards to a tree, telling me what they loved about the community around them. Not to exclude digital natives I also selected a hashtag and invited responses through social media. The fantastic responses I got were an incredibly useful start to developing a neighbourhood plan.
Neighbourhood planning requires wide engagement and an evidence basis to meet the statutory requirements of the Localism Act. Although having a public meeting and setting up a WordPress blog, Twitter account and such are undoubtedly useful, following the maxim “go where the people are” is also essential in order to create a plan that has legitimacy.
In helping to kick off the development of a neighbourhood plan for Soho, London I went to the village fete, the biggest event on the annual calendar. I asked “What do you love about Soho?” and encouraged residents, visitors and business owners to pin responses on cards to a tree. Digital natives were given the option to tweet or Instagram if they preferred with a hashtag. Without being prompted to talk specifically about urban planning, people gave some very useful responses.
Expressed in a variety of ways, they advocated a mixed community in terms of development and people. These are both things that are currently under threat, with retail and office space being lost in favour of entertainment uses and luxury housing.
The positive wording of the question was deliberately used to try to elicit what people wanted more of, not what they were against. Again without being prompted, some people also gave some feedback about small changes that would make them love their neighbourhood even more. This was also a great opportunity for me to tell them about the possibilities of neighbourhood planning and ask if they would like to get involved.
On a more personal level some of the responses were quite touching as people told me how they lived in the neighbourhood for several decades and in some cases several generations. Many expressed an emotional connection to both the place and the people. Unexpectedly to me, people also really loved reading the cards. Often once they had they became keen to contribute.
None of my ideas about how to do this are original. I’ve borrowed them all from other practitioners. That is one of the wonderful things about neighbourhood planning. So many groups are sharing and learning from each other. Thousands of communities that might be different in their own ways are all going through exactly the same process. The pragmatic amongst them realise there is no need to reinvent the wheel in each location.
This piece originally appeared in Sustain Magazine