By Emma Newman
Before coming to intern this summer at The Glass-House, I only had vague ideas about community engagement in design. I was convinced that community-led projects were confined to textbook case studies on faraway places – it did not occur to me that they were happening in my own backyard.
Working alongside such a vibrant group of women was formative, dynamic and, crucially, a lot of fun! The team kept me busy, allowing me to dip my toes in all the various projects going on at the office. To name only a few of the highlights: adapting a collaboratively-made map from The Glass-House’s ‘Portobello Connects’ into a series of digital maps, helping out an engagement event at Bow Church with Empowering Design Practices, tracking the progress of past Glass-House projects, attending a RIBA training workshop in Essex and tagging along to a study tour of London’s makerspaces.
Helping The Glass-House team to produce props for the new Design by Consensus workshop with Tongji University was particularly rewarding. Stepping into the shoes of the co-designer, playing with materials and experimenting with solutions to a complex brief helped me to see co-design with new eyes. I came to appreciate its playfulness, its messiness and its unique capacity to fuse ideas and create a shared outcome. It was easy to see how co-design could be scaled up to larger groups working on larger projects and reflect on the immense transformative power that this can have. Moreover, through my work creating an archive gallery of models made by participants of from past Glass-House projects, I developed a great affinity for the hodgepodge and the ‘just-pieced-together.’ It was so refreshing to be in a space which fuelled such playfulness and imagination in design, making me truly excited and inspired to see how this field will continue to grow.
Looking back on my internship at The Glass-House, not only have I gained clarity on what community engagement and community leadership mean, I also acquired practical knowledge of best practices when activating citizens in placemaking. Most importantly, I developed a much stronger personal connection to community engagement. Indeed, I am now much more alive to engagement initiatives as they crop up around me throughout London. From an invitation to a public consultation on the Heathrow expansion on my doorstep to a ‘How would you design our future city?’ children’s museum collage activity, these projects have suddenly seized my attention.
I feel that I have a greater appreciation for the work that goes into these projects, an awareness of the politics surrounding them and, vitally, a new vocabulary to talk about them. Indeed, I have, by osmosis, become well-acquainted with the language surrounding this field (including some words to avoid). Overall, I trust that I am now better equipped to think critically about projects like these, develop informed opinions on them and become a more constructive participant. Here emerges perhaps my greatest takeaway from my time at The Glass-House: by learning how to engage others, I feel that I have become a more engaged citizen myself.