Part of Welcome to my Place.
The Welcome to Finsbury Park project was co-organised with the Transition Finsbury Park association to engage the London N4 local communities with their neighbourhood. It consisted in a two-month field investigation using videos, and concluded in March 2010 with a workshop and the co-creation of subjective maps (these two activities are documented in the following manuals). Below is a review of the project and some conclusions, co-written by myself and James Thomson from the Transition Finsbury park association.
Transition Finsbury park, part of the Transition Towns Network, “intends to find ways of living that are based on localised food production, sustainable energy sources, lively local economies and an enlivened sense of community, rather than cheap and polluting oil”. The volunteer group is relatively new in the Finsbury Park area and was looking for new ways to interact with local communities. The Welcome to My Place project fit in with that purpose and this is how we started to collaborate. We should also mention the great support we received from the Finsbury Park Homeless Families project, the Green Lens Studios, as well as the Faith, Football and Falafel initiative.
The N4 area in London welcomes one of the most diverse set of communities in the UK: Moroccans, Kurds, Somalis, Italians, artists, office workers, evangelists, Muslims, musicians, and many more. Each of these communities has a different perception of what sustainability is about. Instead of hammering green vocabulary and precepts, the Transition Finsbury park association wanted to first listen to what local communities had to say about their direct environment. As they rightly pointed out, the idea of ‘sustainability’ is a pretty abstract concept, but growing vegetables in a garden speaks much more to people. The solution needs to come from them and be stated in their own words. Following the Welcome to My Place general concept, we asked people to film the places that matter to them in the N4 neighbourhood, and to welcome the viewers to the places of their choice. We collected around 24 videos (visible here) that we used in a workshop held at Green Lens Studios. We screened the videos and drew subjective maps of the area as a way to reflect on the inhabitants’ perception of the neighbourhood.
Here are step-by-step manuals for those interested in applying the same method to their area. This exercise gave us the opportunity to explore the area in a way we have never done before. Working with many communities, we discovered a rich and multi-layered environment which we might have struggled to imagine on our own. We would recommend anyone to take the time to go through a similar process in their vicinity.
Welcome to Finsbury Park: Review and Conclusions
By Christophe Bruchansky and James Thomson
1. Meeting the people
It may be a nerve racking experience, but the best way to discover the places that are important to people in the neighbourhood is to go up to these people and ask. It was not the most efficient method perhaps, in terms of the number of videos we collected, but it was the one that most opened our perceptions. We took a map of the N4 area and split it up into several parts for each volunteer to explore. Walking in the streets armed with leaflets, wondering who to get video contributions from – really forces you to look and explore what is around you and find out who your neighbours are.
We have the Haringey artist community and the Florentina clothing village near Hermitage road, the Turkish restaurants on Green Lanes, the ubiquitous barber shops, the wealthy Crouch Hill streets, the Jewish community near the reservoirs, the centre for the mentally impaired, the schools, the churches, the Muslim community, the pubs, the Algerian cafés, library goers, and so on. We tried to engage with these communities and discovered an area filled with different interests and preoccupations.
We contacted communities on the Internet too, where many forums focussing on the Finsbury Park area already exist: http://finsburypark.wordpress.com/, http://www.finsburyparkpeople.co.uk, http://www.stroudgreen.org. Facebook, MySpace, YouTube and Vimeo are other online hubs where we found people who have an interest in the vicinity.
Using the local connections that the members of the Transition Finsbury Park association had already established turned out to be a very productive way of getting video contributions. We would like to point out, however, that even though most of the people we met did not participate in this specific project, meeting them for the first time was one of the most valuable outcomes. Both in terms of shaping a more holistic perception of the area and in building new relationships, invaluable in the long term for community groups hoping to work together in the future.
We have learned how significant local community organisations can be to making projects like ours happen. If we wanted to convince individuals to participate, it was essential to first gain the support of leaders in their community. Three of them responded enthusiastically to our call and greatly helped us throughout the project: The Finsbury Park Homeless Families project (see the Children chapter), the Faith, Football and Falafel project (see below) and Green Lens Studios (see the chapter on the mapping workshop).
When we presented our project to the North London Central Mosque, they thought of introducing us to the people from the Faith, Football and Falafel project; who had organized video workshops with members of the Muslim community to promote grass-roots cultural dialogue. They are also behind the Vaudeville Court TV project, a socially engaged appropriation of the seemingly uncharacteristic Vaudeville Court building. The video below illustrates how much the representation of a place, and an entire neighbourhood, can be subverted and reshaped unexpectedly by its inhabitants, such as by using Wi-Fi.
The same participants of the Faith, Football and Falafel project filmed cafés and restaurants in the Finsbury Park area. The videos give a true sense of the identity of these places. We were interested to hear that the term ‘cosmopolitan’ was used in at least two of the videos.
The N4 area is certainly cosmopolitan and highly transient in its population. Many people commute to and from the city centre during the week, while on weekends, a home game at the Emirates football stadium can completely change the area’s dynamics. This makes the process of building a consistent identity quite a difficult one at least – but not impossible.
In our interpretation, the presence of this transient population has, in many ways, led to a neighbourhood that is not as socially connected as it could be. In terms of identity, a number of local communities tend to stay in spaces where they can build their own references to identity. The area has its fair baggage of history though, and we were fortunate to meet some of its storytellers. However, there did seem to be a lack of motivation or desire for staking a claim to a piece of the area’s identity. For an urban area loaded with identity and diversity, this attitude might not be such a bad thing for a population wanting to get on with business-as-usual in the short term. But it does not help an association like Transition Finsbury Park to articulate a message based on the re-valorization of the locale. By motivating people to speak to the camera about the place, there is hope that a collective local identity can be galvanized in the near future.
2. The many facets of Finsbury Park
In the middle of this non-negotiated facet landscape, the iconic Finsbury Park seemed to catalyse the beginnings of our dialogue. Despite its rich history (see Wikipedia), Finsbury Park may appear to lack a particular identity and be viewed as a place of pure recreational functionality, ‘a green place in the middle of the traffic’. On the other hand, this is also a place whose identity has been shaped by the people that inhabit it, as well as the stories and relationships which have been built upon it.
Finsbury Park inspires common feelings associated with most inner-city green places: old-fashioned and made to be enjoyed with friends and family.
Timely events are organised in the park, like the Kurdish New Year celebrations in the middle of March. As suggested in this related paper, the park could be treated as a “non-place” in order to allow these types of events to occur.
These events play an important role in the vicinity. They offer a rare opportunity for interaction between local communities. It could be said however that in their willingness to pacify space, local authorities erase the need for local communities to talk to one another, administrative procedures replacing all negotiations of public space.
Things that seem like a natural feature of the park, its birds for example, are cared for by a warden officer. People like Les Pope – who has lived in the area for over 20 years – could take a central role in the identity building process from within the park. However, because the service he provides is maintained by the local council, his knowledge and experience appears lost to the local population.
3. Children using the parks and playgrounds
We had the opportunity to work with children on this project thanks to the support of the staff at the Finsbury Park Homeless Families project and the Parkwood primary school. A thorough and detailed outlay of the workshop can be found in our video workshop manual.
Children are well-known for their candidness and curiosity, so we were half-expecting them to show us new and original places in the N4 area. However, when asking the children which were the most important places for them, they nearly all replied saying that it was the playground and the two nearby parks: Finsbury Park and Clissold Park. While longer sessions may have led to more peculiar locations, green open space seemed to be the most natural answer. So, we took them to the parks and the playgrounds. We filmed what they had to show us. Afterwards we invited them to draw their places and we added the drawings in the videos
Their choice to film playgrounds and parks seems to us characteristic of the relationship people have with the N4 area. Beyond the numerous coffee shops, restaurants, bars, community and religious centres – the rest of the public space is perceived purely as a place of transit. Children are not allowed to explore the streets by themselves and are kept in dedicated recreational spaces, which appear to become something of a micro-neighbourhood for them. We both wondered what the result might have been if we had facilitated the same workshop in a rural environment – where children are possibly freer to explore their surroundings.
That being said, the children we worked with managed to symbolically recompose the outside, with its legends, quests, and stories. The youth we worked with seemed to do this very well, given the obstacles that seemed to stand between them and their local environment.
This analysis goes into the direction of movements that advocate the re-appropriation of public space, see this video created by the think tank Demos for example.
At the end of our call for video contributions, we organised a workshop at the Green Lens Studios, a photographic studio and project space that aims to connect creativity and sustainability. In this workshop, we screened all the films to provide local perspective and context. We then asked the eleven participants, all somehow related to the local area, to draw a series of ‘subjective maps’ of their neighbourhood.
We used a series of techniques to facilitate the exercise – including rolling a dice to determine whose turn it was to draw a piece of the map, which is explained in our subjective maps workshop manual. They worked pretty well, and just like the creating of the videos, the most interesting element of the process was the conversation between the participants.
Quite soon in the workshop, we noticed that the blank piece of paper we had provided the participants was less of a source of confrontation than we had expected it to be. Instead the exercise turned out to be more about discovery and sharing of ideas. Participants did not know one another, nor did they recognise many of the places discussed with each other. There were some landmarks which emerged with consistency, such as parks, streets and churches, but each seemed to tell their own subjective stories by way of graphical interpretation. It seemed useful for participants to exchange these stories – either to discover aspects of an area they did not know, or to confirm perceptions of places they never had the chance to express in a group.
Map 1: Finsbury Park Area: 23/03/2010
The resulting subjective maps look more like a mythological tale than like a contested space. A strange sense of place quickly emerged, parks populated by mythological animals contrasted with local shops and supermarkets identified by their staple consumer products. A mythology made of dark secrets such as the street of the second-hand phone accessories (Blackstock Road) and the needles that once littered Finsbury Park before its clean up in the 90s. Looking at these maps, you get the feeling that at least a couple of decades have been etched into these creations, punctuated here and there by the closing down and reopening of buildings – new and old identities overlaid.
Likewise, the visual representation of ‘smell’ came as something of a shock. Thick charcoal smog emanating from the underground tube network fills the park – London’s body odour. Also worthy of note is the considerable influence memorable events, specific to the area, played upon the subjective landscapes illustrated. Like the time the police heavy-handedly invaded black stock road – for better or worse – shown in Map 2. The map-making process equally demonstrated our ability to define things that are not physically tangible. For example, the appearance of mythological labyrinths beneath the Finsbury Park Lake – perhaps representing ‘escape routes’ or gateways out of the city towards the romantic English Countryside. And while these maps are evidently effective in recording historical truths – they also show themselves to be revealing in their predictions of how the future may look in the local area. Map 1 demonstrates this well – showing the agricultural cultivation of local parks for food, and inner-city wind turbines painted purple. A tree also protrudes from the roof of the Vaudeville Court housing terrace.
It is surprising to say that in creating the maps there were almost no disagreements within the two groups, but when they did occur they were more about the geographical location of places than their actual presence or representation. Without an i-phone or ordnance survey map on hand, our local geography did seem to suffer a little bit, but most participants were quick to let go of their preconceived notions of accuracy. In fact this seemed to enable them to become more focused on their personal, subjective experience of the vicinity, rather than the coordinates which have attempted to define their own neighbourhoods in recent years.
Map 1: Finsbury Park Area: 23/03/2010
Catalysing neighbourhood dialogue has remained at the heart of this project from the start, from collaborating to produce the first videos of the N4 area through to the creation of subjective maps. Commuter lifestyles, the constant flux of populations, and the pacification of the area by local authorities all made community dialogue almost non-relevant, it would seem. Cohabitation remains peaceful and everyone seems content to make sense of their own private space the way they want. However, much of the public space appears in the shape of ‘non-place’ transit functionality that even children cannot or do not take the time to discover. While the area is filled with pockets of rich cultural identity, it took considerable effort to open some of these doors to the rest of the community. We must thank the local charities and volunteer organisations in Finsbury Park for the solid ground work which enabled that to happen.
As explained on the Transition Town Network‘s website, many of the global challenges that are likely to affect us all in the near future need to be resolved locally. If cultural corridors remain as closed as they are now, future strains on local resources over the next decade (such as our dependence on cheap oil for food production) may lead to insurmountable challenges. Mapping activities certainly seems to provide the individual and group alike with a sense of empowerment towards achieving these types of goals, many of which are being promoted by local grass-roots organisations like Transition Finsbury Park.
Having gained a better understanding of the London N4 area after two months of working on this project, we believe that in order to encourage people to think locally, we need to promote the value and cultural identity of the places in the vicinity. Perhaps the videos, drawings, and maps that have been produced here could, for example, be exhibited publicly. But crucial to this happening, it must be stressed, are the social figureheads and storytellers we have met along the way.
Mobilisation around environmental sustainability from all corners of Finsbury Park will not happen all at once. Cultural corridors need to be actively pried open in due course. Creativity, play, and self-expression could be the catalysts at the heart of these efforts.