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Savannah Willits

July 29th, 2022

URBANFUTURES.ART/LONDON

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Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Savannah Willits

July 29th, 2022

URBANFUTURES.ART/LONDON

0 comments

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Gold Host, in collaboration with F.A.T Studios and LSE RUPS students, hosted a two part workshop with both school children and adults involved in urban planning or community building. The workshop was designed through a series of brainstorming sessions between RUPS students, F.A.T Studio, and Gold Host. During these discussions, the group spent a considerable time thinking and collaborating on how best to playfully engage the community in an indescribable, but imaginable future. 

URBANFUTURES.ART/LONDON, is a project that explores the idea that art can be used as a critical tool for expressing things that words cannot. We spend a lot of time thinking about the future and in particular the future of cities. Sometimes the words used in the context of urban planning and regeneration become tired and their meaning weakens. URBANFUTURES.ART/LONDON aims to challenge that. Through workshops that bring together idea of abstract mark making and mapping, we hope to encourage more emotional expressions around themes that are often linked to urban planning and regeneration. We welcome people of all ages and backgrounds to these workshops: school children, activists, architects, regeneration officers – all participants have a stake in the urban future and so everyone’s feelings about it are important.

Description of the Workshop: 

The first workshop was hosted on Friday, March 4th with local school children in 4th to 5th form (12-13 years old) at F.A.T Studios. The second workshop was hosted the next day on Saturday, March 5th with adults in urban planning professionals, such as architects, community organizers, housing specialists, local council officials, community engagement specialists, as well as artists. The participants had a stake in the future of the local area given each either worked or lived, or a combination of both, nearby. 

Brainstorming ideas like understanding the city based upon the perspectives of a series of objects

Both workshops followed the same structure, which included a hello and introduction to abstract art from arts facilitator, Rachel from F.A.T Studios. Next, participants received their first canvas to test out each of the art materials provided, including paint, stamps, colored pencils, sponges, pens, and a host of other assortment of art supplies. 

This practice was accompanied by a preliminary round of questions focused on feelings and memories, in order to get the participants comfortable with abstract expression, using the art supplies provided.

After this introduction, participants received a new canvas for the main event. This took form in a guided round of questions in which participants reacted to different scenarios within the city through abstract art expression. Examples of each of these questions (below) explore certain situations, both mundane and extraordinary, in urban life. 

  • What does home feel like?
  • And when you wake up each morning, to leave it – to go out to school or to work, what is that feeling like?
  • And when you return home, after a long, hard day, what does that feel like?
  • On your journey to school or work, what stands out to you – draw what it feels like to see it?
  • What does it feel like to know a route?
  • Have you ever heard the words ‘you’re late!’ – how did that make you feel at that moment?
  • Do you remember your last day off – like a full day off – with nothing to do? 
  • Have you ever been somewhere where you’ve been totally anonymous (nobody knows you)? Draw how you felt. 
  • Has anyone ever asked you to imagine the future – what’s that like?
  • How do you feel when you are in a crowded tube train?
  • Have you ever been in a place you felt like you didn’t belong? Draw what that felt like.
  • What does it feel like when you have been inside all day, and step outside for the first time?

 

Once all the prompts had been answered, each of the participants were asked to step back from their canvas and explore each other’s artwork. This exploration included encouraging the group to add descriptions next to each of the artworks created during the session. The descriptions ranged from literal interpretations to more metaphorical understandings of the art expressions. Once each of the art works had at least one interpretation from the group, each of the original artists returned to their canvas. 

A discussion followed, as participants described the reaction they expressed in relation to the questions, and how this related to the communal interpretations of each piece. This discussion re-interpreted the experiences, both communal and personal, understandings of navigating the larger urban experience. 

As a closing exercise, all the participants were invited to engage and add upon a map of the area of London. This collaborative effort between participants encouraged reconceptualizing the urban landscape on a map, through an emotional and personal lens. For example, the map was altered physically, through the use of art supplies, by participants to redefine the areas of personal or community importance, such as projecting ideas explored previously in the workshop on the map. 

Looking Towards the Future with Human Eyes

My involvement with URBANFUTURES.ART/LONDON began with my interest in human perspective. Our perspectives shape the cities we build, and a city becomes a composition of human ingenuity, artistry, and innovation. As planners and students, we explore structure, components, and systems that shape our cities. I loved the idea of a workshop that may help to refresh our ideas about human perspective on design, planning, and living. This workshop was an exercise in thinking for all participants, staff, and volunteers involved.  

I was particularly excited to get involved with the URBANFUTURES.ART/LONDON workshop series as a creative outlet for urban planning. The workshops are designed for community-focused exploration. The initial guiding questions helped us to verbalize and develop our thoughts, understandings, and inner perceptions. The visual art then encourages ideas that are not so easily verbalized, and event participants and viewers continue to form ideas together as a group and community.  Cities are webs of communities, traditions, and connections. These workshops allowed me the experience of observing and immersing myself in the intersection of art, community, facilitation, and urban planning.  

It is so important to continually expand our thoughts of cities, and in particular, the future, legacy and longevity of cities. Gold Host organization has a legacy of outreach and exhibition, and these aspects are important for me to take part in as a student and planner. This experience therefore helps connect to the coursework of Regional and Urban Planning Studies at the London School of Economics which emphasizes current debates, policies, and theories of urban planning.  

For instance, in our core modules we study and discuss the theory behind and practical case studies of community engagement during the urban planning process in the UK and US contexts. We discuss and debate the balance between community values and market value, as well as learn about the types of deemed appropriate engagement depending on the scale, timing, and type of urban planning project. In each of these discussions, there is a repeated question an urban planner must ask: whose voice is heard? It is incredibly important to understand who is being impacted by the projects and whose voice is prioritized, whether it be current residents, diverse community groups, or even future residents. Similarly, our course stresses the importance of investigating who is being symbolically represented in the development, plan, and engagement, as dedicated by field theory, based upon the assumptions of urban planning.  

URBANFUTURES.ART/LONDON brings another dimension to this coursework on community representation, as it literally and figuratively illustrates how another method of engagement can communicate community wants, desires, and perspectives. The integration of art, facilitation, and urban planning allows residents to imagine, without the limitation of words, to show what type of city they want to live in. At the same time, the workshop questions what is “deemed appropriate engagement” and places community members as both the creators and experts of their cities. It is this value and prioritization of the human perspective in urban planning, and by extension community engagement, that can fundamentally alter why and how we mold urban futures. 

Process in Pictures! 

Rachel (F.A.T Studios) explaining the exercise and abstract examples to school children. 

Participants getting a feel for the different art supplies available.

 Participants creating abstract expressions based upon urban experiences. 

The creative process!

Imprinting a unique perspective and understanding of community on the maps. 

 

About the author

Savannah Willits

Savannah is a master’s student at LSE in the Regional and Urban Planning Studies program. She is particularly interested in the intersection of urban development, housing, and behavioral economics. She plans to write her dissertation on the impact of planning development rights in London. Previously, she has experience working in a variety of disciplines, from policy and economics to history and real estate. While completing her undergraduate degree at Boise State she researched historic preservation, income segregation, and the impact of de-industrialization in the western United States.

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