I have been working on a project called Quality Streets since last August. It is a participatory appraisal project which was commissioned by Staffordshire University, Sanctuary Housing, Staffordshire Police Service and the Council to find out what the people living and working around Hanley Park like and don't like about the area, in order to feed back to the service providers, and target resources where they are most needed and wanted. The Participatory Appraisal (P.A.) approach necessarily leads to CHANGE, and is not just about consultation for the sake of it.
There has been a lot of consultation in the particular area over the years - and there is due to be yet more, as the UniQ developments (education led regeneration) really get underway. This means that many of the people that we wanted to speak to may have been consulted on previous occasions, and may, therefore be reluctant to give their views again - in particular if they had a bad experience last time, or did not see how their views were implemented. P.A. uses creative tools to break down barriers, and at times the process of consultation can feel like an end in itself - giving people the opportunity to use new equipment or pick up skills. This may explain why people were more willing to talk to us than if we had gone out there with clipboards. Additionally the first job in the process was to recruit members of the community to become the research team - they then received training in P.A. methods and carried out the research.
At first I found it quite funny being part of the project - I have used what look like P.A. methods within my practice previously. This has usually been a performative activity designed to LOOK like consultation but with a different investigation going on beneath it - using the tools to critique the tools. Therefore it was interesting to be involved in this project, and learn the science behind it. Creative tools were used to engage people in discussion, and I really feel that the different tools which I now have in my tool belt might come into play in the future. For me though it was strange that life seemed to be imitating art. It has been very interesting to see the P.A. approach in action from the inside of a project, and to see how it not only opens doors with the public, but that councils and public sector workers seem to engage with activity of this kind. The Quality Streets report has now been written, and there are recommendations for each of the partners as to how they can implement the changes and ideas which have come out of the research, and I am shocked to see the impact that the research is already having. A number of outcomes are already in place, and I can really see how P.A. can lead to action.
One of the findings from the project involved the way that people in the area feel that Hanley Park is an important community asset, but that many people do not wish to use the park, as they don't feel safe there, both in the day and at night. People said that they would like to see more activities and events happening in the park, which would bring more people in, and make it safer. As a result funding from the Targeted Support Fund (Advantage West Midlands) has been found to put together a number of community engagement activities in the park.
And now we come full circle: I have been asked to use some of the funding gained to organise art events in the park.
The amount of funding is not massive, and I pointed out that trying to have 'events' would have little impact, as each event would have to be small. So instead prefer to spend all of the money on one weekend event, but use it as a platform to demonstrate how arts activities could be significant in the future of the park. (More research is planned over the next couple of years - to look at what can be done in the park.)
The idea then is to hold an event over one weekend in June, with AirSpace Gallery Studio Artists (and friends). Each artist will be given £100 towards materials/costs and will produce an intervention somewhere in the park. A map will be created which will locate each project for the public. People will be given the map on entry to the park, and will be able to orienteer around the park, discovering the art works. As AirSpace studio artists we will see it as an opportunity to have an outdoor exhibition, and hopefully people will be encouraged to come and visit the park over the weekend to see the works.
The documentation of the projects will be very important, as Phase II of the project is to create a document, which sets out that the weekend event is an action research project - finding out through doing how viable and successful arts activities might be within the park - and perhaps offering a creative future for a public space in dire need of a vision. A small book will be made, which will be an important document for the artists (in terms of professional development - inclusion in a publication) but also will be important for the city. We will send copies to the council, and all of those involved in Quality Streets, and demonstrate through doing just how powerful arts activity can be in reactivating a place.
We had our first meeting as a group last night, where we discussed how we wanted to go ahead. We feel it is important to come up with an overarching theme for each artist to respond to (thinking caps on). We will also decide how to involve other artists. There are 20 projects planned in total - and there are 10 of us. I would also like to offer 2 of the opportunities to students, as this has come about through a University project.
Next stage is for each artist to carry out a research visit, and then put together a short proposal, which we will discuss at the next meeting in two weeks time.