Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Psychotherapy for places

Last week Cameron unveiled his plans to create a Happiness Index (Happinex?!) which will measure environmental and psychological wellbeing alongside GDP measuring economic health. The Happinex will include measurables and data which will be collected and analysed at various spatial levels from post code to whole cities but what will it tell us about the experience of a place compared to another? What makes a happy place?

On the other hand unhappy places (with high crime, unemployment, poor housing etc) continue to persist despite continual investment in them and all places will be made less happy by cuts to investment and services. What happens to the people that live in them and the future of those places? We need an approach to managing the negative impacts of these cuts that considers the human vulnerability of places to change. This has to happen at a local level or the Happiness Index could lead to vulnerable places being even further disadvantaged on the basis of their position in the index.

All places and areas despite their socio-economic standing will experience a material decline in their quality of life and well-being as a result of government cuts, but places that are already struggling face grim prospects. It is possible that the HI could make it even harder for those areas that are struggling to attract investment and support in the future. Therefore we need a means of guaging the level of vulnerability of places to cuts and how we can manage the negative impacts of this.

The resource invested in making places happy is minor compared to the money needed to intervene in unhappy places: to turn them around, change perception of them, and bring inward investment. The term “Feral Places” (Dr Tim Williams) has been coined to describe a place where, despite countless levels of investment and intervention it remains a problem place (high crime, unemployment, reliance on benefits, poor quality housing.) Is that because intervention has failed to tackle the “happiness” factors?

Herein lies the problem: government, developers and investors are NOT place-makers – they put kit in space. Places are made by people and their varying and uniquely local attachments to place; people are profoundly affected by change happening in their place – i.e. closure of employment centres, rise in house prices etc, which in itself makes development and regeneration process not just a physical one but actually more of a psychological process.

As we have said in other posts, we believe place is the spatial "self" and like the human self, places are vulnerable to change and negative impacts. This manifests in symptoms of decline, abuse and neglect. If places are to remain or even become happy in a climate of austerity and cuts then we must look at places as assets that require the same support, help and analysis that people need.

Places need to be examined in a way that tells us how it has got to where it has, what has gone wrong, what makes it hard to move on, what it is for, where it is going and what it needs to grow – psychotherapy for places.

Over the coming months we will be developing the idea of "Psychotherapy of Places" into a tool for helping places and communities understand, cope and respond to the coming cuts and remain resilient. As well as speaking to people living in vulnerable places we will also meet emotional geographers, psychogeographers, psychotherapists, artists, psychoanalysts, writers and filmakers, community workers and young people to understand what it means to experience and identify happy and unhappy places.

We want to look at cities and places in a completely different way - as living personalities that can be developed, grown and strengthened and appreciated for what they are - warts and all - in the face of change and challenge and able to fight back!

Let's have some urban love!

Sunday, 21 November 2010

the signal project

In doing some research for wild hackney we came across the Signal Project, a professional street art organisation that creates large scale public art and runs graffiti workshops. They are involved in the Stockwell gallery project which got some publicity in august as a hub for street art with strict curatorship from artists including Solo One. One of the many great ideas we have come across in looking at ways for Hackney to rethink graffiti management!

Check out the work of the signal project - http://www.signalproject.com/ and solo one's great blog 'say something beautiful or be quiet' - http://soloone.blogspot.com/

Monday, 15 November 2010

I am yours

The “Hackney Rabbit” was recently saved from the threat of eviction/obliteration from the side of Premises Studios where it had been a recognisable local character for over two years. The extent of public support and activism around saving the rabbit was overwhelming and strongly suggested that the Council’s policy towards street-art needs to change to reflect local attitudes and opinions.

However, more widely we think a new policy should also cover the bundle of informal “things” in our public spaces and neighbourhoods that often go unrecognised and unvalued by formal definitions/listings but contribute massively to local identity, uniqueness and cultural landscapes. These are things like old signs and clocks, original shop fronts and architectural features, patches of grass or “spaces in between”, local characters and fonts, mosaics and stonework etc etc.

By recording, identifying and valuing these things we can help to keep them as key features in our neighbourhood that contribute to what we mean when we say “I love Hackney” in the face of rapid change and regeneration – they are pieces of Hackney and we should value them!

Mend is working with Premises Studios and taking up this campaign; using the positive local support and momentum developed from saving the Hackney Rabbit as a resource to develop a more relevant and responsive policy for our public realm. We will convene a public meeting (with reps invited from the council) to identity the things we value, define why they are important and develop key aspects of a new policy to take back to the Council.

This means taking a fresh look and reappraising what we consider to be assets and the cultural and creative value inherent in them. Some of the things people choose to value will surprise us and challenge our preconceived notions of what should and should not be in public space. Is this because we have grown accustomed to public space being full of instructions, information and guidance instead of a rich mix of experience, emotion and questions – things that prompt us to experience urban space and not just move through it like sheep?

In the 90’s Light & Smith likened post-modern urban space as sterilised sanctioned spaces that were comforting and predictable but altogether bland and unexciting – a comfy designer sofa; as opposed to modern urban space that was unpredictable and full of the messy richness and drama of everyday life – an awkward metal folding chair. But everyday life is messy and unpredictable and isn’t that what makes it so good?!

The informal stuff gets hidden and obscured by the layer of formality, sanctioned safety net of over-planned public space – a wonderland of the bits you live your everyday life in but aren’t supposed to see. The opposite of the emperor’s fictional new clothes; instead the emperor is wearing some pretty out there garb but we all pretend to just see the dissapointingly coy underwear?!

Countless councils across the UK, Europe and the US are re-examining their attitudes to formal and informal uses of space; embracing uses and activities that open our eyes to new ways of experiencing and appreciating urban space. In the US there is a wave of urban exploration or "recreational tresspassing" http://www.guardian.co.uk/theguardian/2010/nov/14/exploring-with-recreational-trespassers that sees people climbing huge bridges to get a glimpse of a new wof the city, exploring the hidden rivers under London through Victorian sewers, and seeing the beauty in urban decay; parkour/freerunning and its opportunities for people to touch, feel and bounce of different planes and surfaces, street-art and its movement away from the indecipherable tags and slogans of the 80’s and 90’s that told the public “this is for us, not you”........

To the Hackney Rabbit that says “I am yours, and for all of you”.

The first step in the campaign is a campaign slogan so please send through some suggestions and don’t hold back – be catchy and cheeky! Post them on here or if you would rather you can email me at:

will be in touch again about the campaign and details of the meeting, all are welcome!

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

all hail the hackney rabbit!

we were really chuffed to hear to Hackney Council have withdrawn their threats to paint over the rabbit on the side of The Premises Studio. Julia and Viv got over 2000 signatures to their online petition to save the rabbit and over their 2 week campaign got national and international press with support offered from local schools and businesses. Read more on their blog - http://www.premisesstudios.com/blog/

next step a new street art policy for Hackney?

Monday, 8 November 2010

mending in bethnal green

Today we are going to meet with the team at Oxford House in Bethnal Green. Oxford House is a community and art centre with a great history in the area as it was the first 'settlement from Oxford University established in 1884. Back then Oxford House was built to be a home to graduates, tutors and those intending to enter the church so that they would experience first hand the problems of the city poor. Today it is a hub of activity, dance classes, art exhibitions and the Tower Hamlets futureversity (a poster from one of the films produced is on the right).

Bit of a hidden gem in the east!