Talk to Me!

It’s one of modern life’s many ironies that people are afraid of  talking to their neighbours because they don’t know them (because they never talk to them?) and yet will spend hours type-chatting to people on Facebook that they have also probably never met.  Partly it’s because they fear that their neighbours may be lunatics, and they can’t ‘unmeet’ them, once they have said ‘hello’ a few times. You’d think you’d notice, though, if you were the only sane person living in a whole street of nutcases. (or zombies! See below.)

Another of life’s ironies is that people don’t vote in elections, when the outcome really matters, but will pretty much vote in their millions, and even pay for the privelege,  for almost any “talent” contest on TV.

Where these two ironies intersect is in the arena of community consultation. Imagine this scenario : big change is coming to your neighbourhood! They are planning a tower block/global sporting event/teenager’s playground/local garden group/affordable housing/ drug rehabilitation centre/waste processing plant/insert almost anything you fancy! Common sense (and at the opposite end of the spectrum, Planning Law) dictates that you should know about it, and have a reasonable opportunity to give your views, either for or against.

My work as a community landscape architect  involves a lot of this, and so I can say with authority that most of the good people working in built environment professions consider it a right bind. They just don’t want to talk to a load of tedious residents who will complain about all the annoying things their Local Council or Housing Association has done to annoy them since 1957. They just want to get on with designing public spaces and places, as they are trained to do, without the interference of the people who live there. But, Dammit! they are obliged to at least look as if they are trying to ‘consult’ ; so, rather cunningly, they organise a meeting, in a horrible community centre, with plastic chairs, overhead lighting, and a smell of loo cleaner, on a tuesday evening at about 7.30. They print out a load of drawings and put on their most professional looking jacket, and go and sit opposite, and talk and smile at the extremely few residents who bother to turn up at the meeting. They might even publicly lament the fact that people aren’t interested in the exciting developments planned for their neighbourhood, and then they will go home, satisfied that People Have Been Consulted.They forget, because meetings are their life blood and main way of acting in the world, that normal people hate them and find them stressful, and will not go to them if they can possibly avoid it. Children will not go to evening meetings because they are in bed: frail old people won’t go because they are afraid of groups of teenagers hanging about : teenagers won’t go because Fuck off!, the employed won’t go because they’ll have to hurry their dinner ; half of married parents and most single parents won’t go because of childcare : and what you are left with is very few people indeed. (see photo above, which is from a company website advertising how well they do consultation)

But. There is another way, and one that for me has come out of my thoughts about the permaculture principle of People Care :  it involves treating people as individuals, which most public bodies and companies seem chronically unable to do. Now I think of it : the seed of this probably cam out of the work I did while working for the (now defunct) Landscape architecture firm Parklife : which just goes to show that nothing is ever really a total waste of time, eh!

So what you do is you talk to people : you have a project or an idea, and you go to the place where it might be going to happen, and you talk to people about it : just random people that you see there, or you knock on their doors. You listen to what they think about it, and you use that information to modify the design, and you talk to more people, and you ask them to talk to others about it, and you give them your contact details, and you talk to them. Soon, everybody knows about the project, and feels involved, even if they don’t agree with it.

It’s mad, isn’t it? Too out there. It’ll never catch on.


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