PL-01: Belonging


When a group of placemakers and architects get together to discuss the notion of ‘belonging’, it’s a sign that the room is in full heart-centred mode when a concluding idea encourages the promotion of ‘messy joy’.

Let us explain. On Tuesday evening we headed over to the JTP offices on Great Sutton Street for PlaceLabs.

This quarter’s theme was ‘Belonging’ with presentations by Produce UK’s Catherine Borowski, JTP’s Ivana Stanisic, and the Calthorpe Project’s Jack Harrison.

Explaining that growing up unprivileged in Hornsey forced her to examine her own sense of belonging at an early age, Catherine opened the presentation segment with a photo of her installation from 2016’s ‘You Get What You’re Given’ exhibition. “I remember my whole childhood dreaming of stair spindles,” she said: “All my friends lived in old houses that had amazing front doors with stained glass and brass knockers, and all we had was a broken doorbell… Our stairs had plasterboard, not spindles.”

With the heavy-hitting kudos behind her collaboration with artist Lee Baker – the tongue-in-cheek SKIP Gallery – Catherine’s pivot point was around the sense of art’s role in encouraging people to participate in community, and the expression of one’s own sense of place in the world. Then referencing Produce UK’s signature events around Kings Cross in the second half of her PechaKucha, she remarked, “They were really good fun. It was before a lot of development. There was public art going on, but it was about bringing a family audience to Kings Cross and that changing perspective side of things, because families were not used to going to Kings Cross to hang out and socialise. Our job was to change people’s attitudes.”

Next up was architect Ivana Stanisic, whose key message was the necessity of valuing personal agency. Ivana’s slides portrayed her belief of how a sense of agency is not only important to people on an immediate, individual level, but how it’s key to the longevity and success of buildings and communities. With slides of the colourful houseboats on the canal in the Kingsland Basin; the buzzing merchant area in Vienna; and a well-populated hotchpotch block of late 20th century flats in Madrid, her message was clear: “We have these joyful places which are socially and visually a mess.”

Ivana went onto explain, “That’s why people go there, not because it’s a set of beautifully designed closed systems with buildings that architects have lovingly crafted… It’s because places have allowed people to move in, to adapt, change uses, and allow different types of people to move in.”

The final PechaKucha was courtesy of Jack Harrison, placemaker, futsal enthusiast and community football coach. Jack’s presentation centred around not just what football and sport can teach us about belonging and placemaking; but how it’s proven to be an essential part of it.

He explained, “In our increasingly polarised consumerist world, we need public spaces and projects that bring together the not-like-minded and the not-like-situated. I believe that sport and our public spaces can help us […] feel a sense of belonging, not just to our cities, but to the country as a whole.”

Recounting his sense of disconnection from London and its people when he first moved to the city, he contemplated how he was able to coalesce a sense of belonging through his work as a community football coach for refugees, disenfranchised young people, and young offenders. One particularly poignant slide was a photograph of an Angolan refugee: “He’d celebrate every goal he scored by exclaiming, ‘This is my house!’”

Leading the discussion section of the evening were Rosanna and Payal – and it was clear the comparisons between football and architecture struck some serious chords! Catherine pointed out the success of Produce UK’s sports events in Kings Cross, and how, “…that was a massive thing for getting participation. I think sport is really key.”

Likewise, guests discussed how art, art spaces and galleries are just as important in generating a sense of community. When Somers Town’s Esther Caplin took over an empty unit and turned it into a gallery, “…what we noticed was that people came in, we got to know people living locally.

You start forming relationships, you start talking about what you’re showing, what you’re doing, workshops and things. It has an amazing affect and added value.”

But the take home thought from Tuesday’s PlaceLabs came from Rosanna: how people aren’t instantly willing or able to give up their identity to be part of something. To that end, how can events and programmes in public spaces help people to find their place in the bigger city or society? Placemakers have yet to find the absolute magic formula, but if Tuesday’s event is anything to go by, we’re getting there.

A space that encourages inventive thinking, the quarterly PlaceLabs events take a PechaKucha style format and invite three speakers from the placemaking world to present their thoughts on a specially selected theme. These are followed by discussion and idea-sharing, and the opportunity for guests to network. And of course, there’s wine…

By Plum Phillips