Did the diverse groups brought together by the inaugural Festival of Place actually mingle? What potential is found in the liminality of the one-day conference? Anthropologist Nitasha Kapoor reports after her live placetest on the day
Days before the Festival Of Place, organiser and The Developer editor-in-chief Christine Murray wrote in Dezeen that she founded the event “in the hopes that by getting a jumble of smart people and professionals together, we can start to unpick these problems and find a way forward”.
The problems Murray refers to are complex and interconnected: a climate emergency, an epidemic of homelessness, a mental health crisis, and more.
As I arrived at the Festival of Place, charged with undertaking a live placetest of the event, that idea of “a jumble of smart people” stuck with me. Who are these people “who care about making places that thrive”, as Murray puts it? As an anthropologist and social researcher, that is what I was there to find out.
The inaugural Festival of Place brought together 450 developers, planners, investors, researchers, consultants, architects, community organisers, activists and designers – professionals across multiple disciplines linked by their interest in urban redevelopment.
Who are these people “who care about making places that thrive”, as Murray puts it?
Why have they decided it is worth their while to take a day out of work to be here? And how might this type of gathering help solve these problems?
As for the venue, it is interesting to consider the place where ‘place’ is being discussed. Tobacco Dock has always been about money, markets and the progress of capitalism. Beginning with the world trade in tobacco, it was briefly regenerated into a shopping centre in the 1990s, and now has become a venue for weddings, exhibitions and other corporate and commercial events. The interior design highlights its trade heritage, with exposed iron girders, wooden beams and bare brick walls (although I’d argue the replica pirate ships take things to a level of make-believe). Yet trade has long since given way to PowerPoint, plastic chairs and Post-it notes.
Placetesting does not preclude participation: I listened to presentations about regeneration, crime and the future of work, attended panels on the citizen-as-developer and curating culture, and took part in workshops to reimagine places, considering the health of future generations and the planet. I talked to people I knew and those I didn’t, and asked for their thoughts on the day. I kept my eyes and ears open, and took notes.
What I found was that people came to this gathering for different reasons. They were presenting, competing, learning, sharing, socialising, networking, or simply having a day away from their desks. The programme was more eclectic than at most architecture and development conferences, an ambition reflected in the fact that this was officially called a ‘festival’ and not a conference – although the rituals and norms associated with attending a conference are strong and, for the most part, people were behaving more in line with a business environment than a field in Glastonbury. There was a level of joy and fun in the programming that increased the chances of learning something or meeting someone new. Several people told me that they were there to witness and be a part of something from the start that was different.
Whether a conference or a festival, the liminal quality of these work-not-work environments means we’re more likely to have a new experience
Whether a conference or a festival, the liminal quality of these work-not-work environments means we are more likely to have a new experience, and that was certainly true at the Festival of Place. Liminality is a concept explored and developed by Victor Turner, a British anthropologist who was especially interested in rituals and rites of passage. The liminal state is one where people are removed from the normal structures of society due to some sort of ‘tension’, and in so doing they become ‘betwixt or between’ – neither fully here nor there, and possibly both. An example of a classic liminal phase would be the period of time between passing exams or handing in final assignments and the graduation ceremony or first job – the student is no longer studying but has not started the next phase of life and is in a sort of no man’s land.
Liminal states are periods of time where people can try things out and be experimental, a ‘perhaps’ state of mind. Anything might, or even should, happen. Turner called the people that share liminal states the ‘communitas’. He explains how this group creates strong bonds and a camaraderie in the attempt to work through whatever tension is being experienced. People had gathered at the Festival of Place to discuss and tackle those big problems. They wanted to figure out what could possibly heal the crisis and play a part.
Liminality became a theme that I continued to notice throughout the day. Anne Power, emeritus professor of social policy at LSE, spoke of the importance of half-acre infill sites, often the places that develop organically in between other places; she advocated leaving them as they are or enhancing them rather than filling them in or using them as a reason to start a development from scratch. Nick Tyler, professor of civil engineering at UCL, talked about how “places are people”, a reminder that without a deep understanding of people and culture there is little chance of creating and sustaining strong places. Prompted by these two speakers in particular, I started noticing and thinking about those who fall between people – the facilitators.
I saw ‘guides’ everywhere. They were the hosts of the day, chairing panels, leading workshops... the shapeshifters who translated presentations into possibilities for creativity
In Turner’s liminal rituals, there is an understanding that people will not stay in this state for long – a conference is just for one day. Crucially, they are not alone but guided by ‘ceremony masters’, guides who often mediate between what happens there and what comes next.
At the Festival of Place, I saw ‘guides’ everywhere. They were the hosts of the day, chairing panels, leading workshops, standing in the wings, introducing and greeting, actively listening and connecting people and ideas together. They were the shapeshifters who translated presentations into possibilities for creativity.
Guides play a role that is barely noticed until it isn’t done well, like when there isn’t enough time left to ask questions of a panel, or when you are asked by someone who missed a talk what happened and you don’t have anything interesting to say. Or when the coffee is bad. Without these small and thoughtful details, we are left with an experience that is predictable, that doesn’t come to life. Without those guides and their skills, we are left with presentations of fact, without the chance to build on it.
I was struck by the ease with which these guides move in a place that is filled with people who are unfamiliar to each other. That was most clearly signposted by what attendees chose to wear: suits, business casual, summer dresses, trainers, backpacks, folded Bromptons. These choices signal the different types of work happening at the conference, but also reveal different economic and social backgrounds and, likely, different politics and perspectives on places and people.
Dr Patrice Derrington, professor and director of the real estate development programme at Columbia, gave a keynote speech where she talked about a development industry that is fragmented, and has always been that way. Global financial flows have little in common with community-organised events; people who are comfortable working in risk analysis, spreadsheets and bottom lines are generally at a distance to those working with the community, stories and human potential. Yet they are all trying to make places that thrive, connected by the guides who seem to know everyone or want to get to know everyone in the room.
I talked to a number of the guides at the conference, and recognised a pattern in their stories. They are able to speak to different types of people, and when necessary translate those ideas to others.
How do you recognise a guide? They were the kids at school that were friends with a few different cliques, moving between them, popular without being front and centre
On stage, Emma Warren, author of Make Some Space, a book about how to help culture thrive, advocated for the importance of ‘relationship managers’, people who understand both sides of the coin and who can mediate between different environments.
Ash Patel, community engagement officer at Quintain’s The Yellow, a community hub in Wembley Park, told me about how they might run a community workshop in the morning and demonstrate the impact of these events to middle-managers and directors in the afternoon.
Dinah Bornat, founder of ZCD Architects, translates the natural ways in which kids play into the language of masterplanning. Bornat developed innovative mapping techniques off the back of countless hours observing and talking to kids about their daily lives and local neighbourhoods for a better understanding of how children use space and what they need.
How do you recognise a guide? When they were young, they were probably the kids at school that were friends with a few different cliques, moving between them, popular without being front and centre. They took an ‘odd path’ to get to where they are; it was not what they set out to be or do, and remains unexpected and surprising. It is obvious in the way they tell stories about their work that they love what they do.
These are people attracted to complex problems, and they like trying to solve them. They aren’t afraid to acknowledge the scale of the current ones: the word ‘crisis’ was repeatedly used on and off stage
Patricia Brown, director at urban consultancy Central, spoke to me about the importance of hospitality – including food and drink, to the extent that she uses it as a defining feature of her manifesto, the often overlooked importance of creating the right vibe in the room to get people comfortable and setting the right conditions for positive conversations.
Over lunch, Warren told me about how her ideal gathering would be to invite people to a place, give them delicious food and drinks and leave them be, believing that the best conversations often come from a place of generosity and simplicity.
These are people attracted to complex problems, and they like trying to solve them. They aren’t afraid to acknowledge the scale of the current ones: the word ‘crisis’ was repeatedly used on and off stage. The numbers are striking: an estimated half of all emissions come from development and construction, in part due to the basic building blocks of concrete, glass and steel. More people in the industry are beginning to understand that they must be smarter, better and take responsibility for their role in the problem. Or else what?
“It is still not too late to act,” said climate activist Greta Thunberg recently. “It will take a far-reaching vision, it will take courage, it will take fierce, fierce determination to act now, to lay the foundations where we may not know all the details about how to shape the ceiling. In other words it will take cathedral thinking.” But these guides thrive when faced with knotty problems, and they often share that kind of “cathedral thinking”: they know there is work to be done and they know there must be a way through, even if we don’t yet know every step of the way. And, of course, you can’t build a cathedral on your own.
During his workshop, Tyler asked the question at the heart of good places: “How do you get people to trust each other?” The people who can stand firmly with one foot in the land of numbers and business, and the other in the land of people and stories can help to galvanise a fragmented industry. They gain the trust of different groups by finding commonalities, rather than dwelling on differences. They are community organisers, urban consultants, business academics, the people writing reports, editing magazines, researching, campaigning. They are trusted sources of knowledge and goodwill for the industry because they have specialist knowledge and their motives are to make the industry better. They are the people you call when you have a really difficult problem, something that hasn’t been done before, that needs a different approach and a different group of people on the case.
During his workshop, Tyler asked the question at the heart of good places: “How do you get people to trust each other?”
Sometimes it takes a big gathering to see who turns up, who shines bright, and who you can call the next day to make places that thrive. The Festival of Place was ambitious, and it happened – hundreds of people were there and according to the post-event online survey, two-thirds say they are likely or extremely likely to attend again, with just one person saying they are unlikely to come back next year.
What I learned during the live placetest was that we have strong and mighty guides among the makers of place, and they play a critical role as informed hosts, gathering different types of people together, making sure everyone feels like they are getting what they need, and challenging us to do better.
All photographs by John Sturrock
Next year’s Festival of Place takes place on 7 July 2020 at Tobacco Dock, east London