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08/03/2018

IWD: Opening up conversations between different groups of people

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Anna Brand reflects on an Urbanistas Edinburgh event looking at community ownership, creativity and representatively consulting communities

Urbanistas is a collaborative women-led network amplifying women’s voices and ideas to make cities better for everyone. The network, started by Liane Hartley in London in 2012, has seven chapters across the UK, USA and Australia. Urbanistas Edinburgh came to life in 2017, and celebrated the start of 2018 with its first ‘Expo’. What is an Expo? Read on to find out…

An otherwise dreich Scottish midwinter evening was livened up by four brilliant speakers who volunteered to take the floor and share their big idea on one unifying theme – Gender Nature City.     

Helena Barrett kicked off by taking us on a historical tour of the Edinburgh neighbourhood of Wester Hailes, explaining how norms of placemaking in the past had left green spaces and other public places that were disconnected, underutilised and lacked purpose for the community. Helena is a creative placemaker at WHALE Arts, a community arts organisation in Wester Hailes. In an area with a history of community activism where women’s involvement was key, but where that spirit is in many ways said to have been lost today, these spaces have the opportunity with WHALE Arts’ new project to be reimagined and repurposed as centres of the community. The discussion centred on ideas for where to begin with the project, and the need for something that is open and accessible, and that is really “owned” by the community.

"How do we open up conversations and support curiosity?"

Community ownership was also a theme for Cat Magill, a research associate at the Edinburgh Living Lab, based at the University of Edinburgh. This time we were on a futuristic journey rather than a historical one. She explored how new uses of data and technology can support citizens to participate in creating the present and future of the City of Edinburgh. One current project - CitySounds - is exploring how acoustic monitoring could help to learn about biodiversity in the city and how the Internet of Things could be a resource for citizens and communities to tell their own stories about nature and greenspace.

In explaining the common struggle to representatively consult communities, and especially in bringing women into the tech world, she asked: how do we open up conversations and support curiosity, learning and asking questions between different groups of people. We talked about the need for a shared language between art and science, and between the people who understand one or the other.

From exploring cities and nature in the virtual world, we moved to exploring them in person with Anne McCall MRTPI. Anne is the director of RSPB Scotland and is a planner by background. She asked: how are we supposed to make people care about some of the most pressing issues of our time – biodiversity loss, climate change – without giving people the possibility to experience nature in cities and on their doorsteps? And how do we make this nature accessible for women when statistics show that men feel the physical benefits of living near green spaces more keenly than women do?

McCall concluded that it is not necessarily true that if we build it they will come; it also needs to be safe, accessible and engaging and make women feel empowered to move through it and explore it. How, she asked, do we get people to engage with nature if they don’t feel that they can get off the path? ‘Getting off the path’ became somewhat of a theme for the discussion, both in its literal and metaphorical sense.

"Women’s access to places and nature can be frustrated in many ways"

Many similar questions were asked when Clare Archibald stepped up. Clare is a writer with an evolving interest in ideas of place. She spoke of how unexpected circumstances, and a commission from Sanctuary Lab, gave her the time and access to engage with nature and places that were not wild or wilderness but perceived by others and at times herself as being so. This led her to put a call out for other women’s thoughts on and experiences of aloneness, darkness and wilderness; returning a rich diversity of experiences.

While many stories were of empowerment, some also reflected a lack of confidence. Women’s access to places and nature can be frustrated in many ways; through physical barriers and through fear carried within ourselves, and projected on women by wider society. Clare is continuing to explore these themes in the second phase of her Lone Women in Flashes of Wilderness project, about women’s feelings of aloneness, darkness and wilderness, and this was something that resonated with many people in the room.

We had arrived expectant and certainly a little bit nervous for the first ever Edinburgh expo. But everyone quickly got comfortable in this group of inspired and inspiring women who all want to transform the meeting space between nature and cities for all different reasons. We all want to feel safe, capable and empowered in nature, communities and green spaces in both urban and rural contexts, and we were offered much food for thought by the four speakers of how to make this happen.

Needless to say we are all looking forward to the next opportunity to have the same rich exchange on a new theme. Keen to pitch at the next Edinburgh expo? Let us know on Twitter at @UrbanistasED. Or find your local Urbanistas chapter here.

Anna Brand is land use policy officer at RSPB Scotland.

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