Virtually co-creating a park with residents

This post is from Emma Thorpe, Planning Associate at BeFirst and a graduate of the ‘all-virtual’ Leaders Plus Round 8 (2020-21). She wanted to present something similar as her Proposal for London final assignment, but had lost her voice. She can present in autumn with another group, but asked to do a blog post as well – and are we glad she did; what an inspiring project! Everything they’ve done here is replicable, so hope you can take advantage where you work or live…

Digital engagement and Be First’s experience with community co-creation

If you work in the built environment sector, I’m sure that, like me, you will have spent many long evenings stood in a cold community hall in an effort to consult communities on proposals for development. If you were lucky enough to have anyone turn up to your events, many attendees would likely be the ‘usual suspects’, unhappy with the proposal in front of them and possibly with any proposal.

The pandemic saw many developers mirror consultation techniques of old but on a digital platform. Whilst this opened up consultation to a broader group of people, one public-sector developer grasped the pandemic as an opportunity to try and really do things differently. At the start of summer 2020, the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham, working with its regeneration vehicle Be First, ventured into its first experience of community co-creation.

Community co-creation of Phoenix Park

The Gascoigne neighbourhood in Barking is in the middle of ongoing regeneration being carried out by Be First on behalf of LB Barking & Dagenham. For many, regeneration is disruptive, with spaces and connections blocked off whilst buildings are demolished and replaced; recognising this, the borough and Be First wanted to give something back.

A small plot of land, sandwiched between two regeneration phases, was found and dedicated for a new temporary public space.  To bring the local community front and centre to the design of this space, Be First called for residents to join a new Gascoigne Residents’ Forum.  Throughout autumn 2020, fortnightly Zoom meetings were held with the Forum and landscape architects Fabrik to co-design this space, with the result being Phoenix Park.

The space provides a combination of play, exercise, growing and performance space. The park will operate for 3-5 years, before the site will be used to create new homes as part of the ongoing regeneration works.

The workforce and material supply has been a mix of resident and local authority volunteers, with expertise from the contractor supply chain who supervised and led on-site construction activities, for a really positive sharing of knowledge and experience between residents and tradespeople throughout.

The genesis of Phoenix Park has brought together people of different ages and backgrounds to design and deliver a space for their community. Phoenix Park now stands as a stage for a post-pandemic reconnection and there is confidence that the space will provide a lively environment for community growing, unity and activities.

Co-creating Phoenix Park has helped establish a strong foundation for long-lasting and trusting relationships between Be First and the local community that will improve engagement as regeneration continues. We’ve learned a few lessons that might help others:

What was fundamental to the success of this project?

    • Having a diverse and representative resident group: Prior to embarking on the co-design project, Be First recruited actively for members to be part of the ‘Gascoigne Residents Forum’. Selection criteria called for a diverse and representative group of individuals from across the neighbourhood, producing a rich and creative range of design ideas and making the temporary park valuable to all local residents.
    • Establishing clear terms of reference and rules for participation: Setting clear boundaries as to the purpose, objective and scope of the Residents Forum helped keep sessions focused on positive design interventions. Rules for participation focusing on mutual respect between members allowed everyone to meaningfully contribute.
    • Capacity building: Most members of the Gascoigne Resident’s Forum had no prior experience in design, planning or construction. The early sessions focused on building members’ skills, capacity, and confidence to allow them to fully engage with landscape architects during the design development workshops.
    • Transparent conversations around cost: Being open and honest regarding budget and costs of materials concentrated people’s minds on what could actually be afforded and where best to invest the money available.

What were the key challenges and what can others learn?

    • Technology: How many times since March 2020 have you heard the words ‘you’re on mute’? For some, even logging into a Teams or Zoom meeting at the beginning was new and came with its challenges. In addition to delivering training on the engagement platform of choice, in some areas it may prove necessary to financially invest in technology and internet connections to allow all people inclusive access to meetings.
    • Embedding circular economy principles: Delivering a temporary park that could be dismantled and re-established elsewhere in Gascoigne as regeneration continued was as exciting as it was challenging. It forced the group to fully embrace circular economy principles and cater for future flexibility and improvisation. Having experts on hand to advise on such matters throughout is essential to ensure the right design is developed first time.
    • Engaging younger people: The Gascoigne Residents’ Forum is still in place to represent the majority of Gascoigne residents, but there are no under-18s yet. Contacting this age group through schools and community groups through engaging workshops will ensure that even the youngest in our communities have input into co-creation projects.

If you want to know more about how this project went for your own area, yon can contact Emma at emma.thorpe@befirst.london.