Oct 102017

As it’s World Mental Health Day today, I thought I’d share my latest reflections on the various blogs featured in my Sense of Place series and what they say about mental wellbeing.  My guest bloggers Richard Sved, Catherine Raynor, Wendy Smithers and Katy Cooper write beautifully about what ‘sense of place’ means to them.  Unlike myself, they make no explicit reference to ‘health’.  Nevertheless, the content of the blogs suggests all  their authors are joyful, thriving and healthy.  Why is that?

What strikes me first is that individually and collectively our blogs echo the themes of nef’s Five Ways to Wellbeing:  Connect, Be active, Take notice, Learn, Give. We write about meeting new people, walking and running, looking afresh at our environment, finding out about local landmarks and institutions, participating and volunteering.  The benefits come both to and from ‘place attachment’:  we need a place or places where we can do these things; equally, people doing these very things help make the place what it is.

The other thought that strikes me is that we are grappling with the concept of ‘sense of place’ at a time when the debate about local government’s purpose has been revived. For example by ADPHUK President Andrew Furber whose (paywalled) LGC article asks ‘Is the core role of local government still place shaping or is there a danger this phrase could distract from a new core purpose?’ which he defines as ‘wellbeing’.  I’m not one who would ever have seen placemaking as an end as opposed to a means; but, to coin a place-based metaphor, it is, surely, something of a two-way street.  Councils have jurisdictions which are geographically defined, but their responsibilities and accountabilities are to the people who live and work there.  If those people aren’t flourishing, what does it say about the place? So, the better question is: how can councils ensure their approach to place is one which engenders physical and mental wellbeing?

Which brings me to my final reflection:  place is the glue.  The evidence is that physical and social connectedness are necessary conditions for health, with good built environment design capable of generating both. Through my work advising two of the NHS England Healthy New Town sites, I have also been struck by the ubiquity of the ‘connectedness’ theme, articulated in various ways by residents, developers, NHS and local government alike.  Simply put, people want and need to get to, from and around a place in order to do all the other things they want and need to do – in order to flourish.

So,  ‘sense of place’ may seem a nebulous concept, but we know it when we see it, we know it when we feel it.  I’d even go further:  sense of place might be the very thing which binds the five ways of wellbeing together.

Oct 042017

In this latest guest post, Wendy Smithers of It’s Not Your Birthday But asks what happens to our sense of place if we consider the parts we haven’t yet reached.

It’s only natural that we develop a sense of place based on our interests, networks and needs. Whether that’s joining a running club, making friends with other parents at our child’s school or getting to know our local traders, communication tends to develop in areas of need and awareness.  Relationships develop as a result. People know our name, what our children will or won’t eat for tea, how we like our coffee, what bus or train we catch each day. This builds a sense of community. A sense of being noticed and known. As human beings that makes us feel good and helps develop our own unique sense of place. What happens to our sense of place though if we go beyond our own areas of need and awareness? Have you really looked at what else is in ‘your’ place? Most neighbourhoods have care homes, schools and sheltered housing. Others have prisons, hospices, hospitals or colleges. What happens if we go to the places where we have no need to be in our community? Or talk to people we have no need to?

It’s Not Your Birthday But… is a not-for-profit initiative to get different people in a community together, who would not otherwise meet, through writing. In the digital age, where everyone sees and shares everything, we’re championing the power of a postcard, card or letter to bring joy to and connect with another human being. So far we’ve paired secondary school students with residents in two care homes as pen pals. The writing workshops, in both settings, are facilitated by an artist who encourages the pen pals to be creative and confident with their words. At the end of the workshop programme, the two groups meet at a tea party. As well as building their own unique friendship through letters, the young people get to go inside a care home that they may walk past every day without knowing what goes on inside there or who lives there. The older people get to build a new friendship with someone from  a different generation, something that is quite hard to do if you live in a residential care home. Whether it’s the older or the younger pen pals, both gain knowledge and experience, both gain from realising they’ve helped someone else, whether it’s through sharing life lessons, connecting over a common interest or making someone belly laugh until they cry. Through one of our pen pal pairings, Ruby was surprised to discover her schools’ current focus on maintaining a required skirt length was also an issue for her pen pal Jean – over eighty years ago in the 1930s!

In another programme later this year, funded by the Youth Social Action Fund, we’re encouraging a group of 15 and 16 year olds to build connections through letters with a local day centre. By encouraging empathy and awareness, on both sides, we aim to build connections so that each part of our place intersects and we’re not a community of people living in their own separate parts of it.

Have you ever visited your local hospice? Local prison or young offenders institute? If not, what do you imagine it’s like? As one hospice day patient commented, ‘People are nervous about coming in here but we’re just human beings and we’re not dying today. It’s just another day, same as for everyone, but we try and make it a good day.’ Our programme that paired Year 7 pen pals with hospice patients saw one pairing exchange artworks as both were avid and talented artists. All hospice patients commented on how good it made them feel to tell their own stories to an eager listener and to offer life advice to a younger person who really appreciated it. It’s a basic human need to want to be useful and help others, even at the end of life when others are continuously helping you. On another project at our local YOI we work with young men aged 18-21 to tell their own stories through words and letters. We’re planning to share their work with friends and family in the visitor centre and the local library to give some insight into what their place feels like to live in and show they’ve used their imaginations and creativity to create other settings that they might one day call their place.

By building connections with other parts of our community we can deepen and extend our sense of place. We can feel an even greater sense of belonging because we’re not just cherry picking the parts we need but actively engaging with the parts where the lives and experience of others may enrich our own or offer us new insights.

Last week we ran a workshop with ten residents at an Assisted Living home. One of the residents was joined by her daughter who had recently visited Auschwitz and wanted to write about it because she could think of nothing else. Her eloquent words described the horror but also her need to know how this could have happened. Quite by coincidence, the local secondary school will take 40 Year 10 students on the same trip in December. With permission, her words were shared with the school. The teachers felt the observations she made and the questions she raised would provide a great stimulus for the students. Her words will be shared with all the young travellers as they start their journey to Poland. So the words written by one generous traveller in our community will inspire and stimulate the minds of forty 14 and 15 year olds she has never met but now has a connection to.

So next time you’re thinking about your place and what it means to you, consider the parts you haven’t yet reached. Chances are by giving even just one hour of your time in a new place in your community you’ll gain more than you give, learn something new and have an even stronger sense of your place.

Wendy Smithers works as both an Arts Producer and an Arts & Heritage Fundraising Consultant. She provides specialist support to a range of arts and heritage organisations across all types of fundraising.   Follow @INYBB_

Sep 242017

Health consultant and writer Katy Cooper has written this latest guest blog about her year-long project photographing her neighbourhood.

Six months ago today, I was reading on Next City’s website about Chuck Wolf’s book, ‘Seeing the Better City’, which exhorts us to use our cameras to keep an urban diary as a de facto planning tool – and I realised I don’t really know that much about my neighbourhood: Brockley, South-East London. Despite moving in 17 years ago (before the arrival of much-improved transport links and much-inflated house prices), I tend to rattle about in the same few streets, the same few cafés and the same park: I needed a reason to expand my horizons. So, I’m doing a photography* project, taking a photo a day from Brockley for a whole year and posting it on Twitter (@healthkaty).

Some of the photos are time bound: the spring blossom for which Brockley is rightly famed, Open House Weekend, the London Marathon, Brockley Max festival, conkers in September, the demise of a local garage, and (stretching the definition of ‘Brockley’ to breaking point) the Tall Ships Festival at Woolwich – or a car, abandoned after a crash, that sat on the pavement for months before being removed. But most are simply Interesting Things that I have encountered on my meanderings over the course of six months: the local cemeteries (notably Nunhead, one of the Victorians’ ‘Magnificent Seven’), new cafes and businesses, hidden mews, beautiful flowers in front gardens and at the station, Brockley’s famous street art, and all the buildings featured in a June conference about innovation in the conservation area.

I’m loving it. It gives me a reason to get out and about,** to check out places of which I’ve heard but never visited, and (if I’m running) an excuse to take a quick breather to get a picture! Beyond the photos themselves, I’ve never been more aware both of the transience of place – the fleeting bursts of colour from summer flowers, the very first subtle shifts marking the transition between seasons – and of its history and continuity. And I know what makes Brockley ‘Brockley’, even as its boundaries morph into Nunhead, Lewisham, Ladywell, New Cross, Honor Oak… SE4 is my place. It’s home.

You can find the photos by searching on Twitter for #Brockley365, and I will blog more about this again, over on my own website.

Finally: all suggestions for local photos are welcome – after all, I have another 183 days to go!

* I say ‘photography’, but this is something of an overstatement. I’m using my iPhone camera, for convenience – I can snap whenever I want.

** I confess that I do occasionally use a photo that I took on an earlier day – but I try to post them on the same day they are taken whenever I can.