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Wider Engagement Award winner 2015

Sponsored by The Idox Information Service

Idox

Sir Peter Hall Award for Wider Engagement

Winner

Dr Paul Cowie, School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape, Newcastle University

The Town Meeting

RA10

About the project

The Town Meeting uses theatre to explore how communities engage with planning. The project helps to develop public understanding of the planning process, but also allows audiences to 'co-produce' research on community engagement with planning academics.

The Town Meeting was developed by Dr Paul Cowie and Cap-a-Pie Theatre company. Previous research on neighbourhood planning has tended to rely on traditional methods such as interviews, focus groups and questionnaires. The use of theatre as a tool for conducting collaborative research, known as performance ethnography, is novel in spatial planning.

The Town Meeting play depicts the consultation process for a major planning application set in a fictional town called Little Rikjord. The town is a vibrant and affluent community, however its prosperity owes much to an open cast iron ore mine, whose seam close to exhaustion. The mining company has applied to expand the mine, but this will require the town to relocate.

The play has been performed in seven communities across the north of England. The use of the play has been extremely effective, engaging members of the public across a wide range of ages. Audiences have been very enthusiastic – some audiences have become so involved that they have needed to be reminded that the play illustrates a fictional scenario.

The play has also helped to develop an ongoing relationship between the researchers and the communities involved in neighbourhood planning with the overwhelming majority of attendees signing-up to continuing involvement in the research.

You can read more about the project here.

Implications from the project

The play has highlighted the extent to which planners need to have strong skills as facilitators and mediators of community engagement, and not just rely on their technical knowledge of planning legislation and processes.

Audience reactions to the play have emphasised that the fairness and transparency of the planning process is almost everything in the eyes of the community; communities can be hyper-sensitive to attempts to manipulate the planning process in ways which they perceive disadvantage them. Interestingly, it is older age groups who are much more sceptical about the planning process and their opportunity to influence it, while those under 30 have a much more positive view.

The results of the research will be used to develop the teaching curriculum for prospective planners, including community engagement in planning. A version of the play has been developed for use within the MSc Town Planning degree at Newcastle University. This gives students a first-hand insight into community engagement, representation and managing consultation processes.

Judges' comments

"This application demonstrated the most novel approach to engagement, by challenging communities to role play and to engage with local planning issues in a very different arena and style, that has the potential to move participants beyond self-interest to explore empathy and legitimacy of actions."

"[A] great idea."