Mike Harrison: Learning from listening to communities 

Mike Harrison, creative director of HarrisonStevens, details his participation in an innovative collaboration that was undertaken as part of the What if…?/Scotland exhibition, originally designed to be staged at the Venice Biennale, but now on show at the V&A Dundee.

Mike Harrison: Learning from listening to communities 

Mike Harrison

What if…?/Scotland is an exhibition that frames hopes and dreams for our communities through the people who live in them.

Created by 7N Architects, with Architecture and Design Scotland, it was originally designed to be staged in Venice as part of the 17th International Architecture Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia. Commissioned by the Scotland + Venice Partnership, the exhibition can now be seen at V&A Dundee where it offers a range of responses to the Biennale theme of  ‘How will we live together?’

HarrisonStevens were amongst 25 design organisations who took part, with a representative from each paired with a citizen from one of five locations across Scotland and invited to ask questions such as: “If you could change one thing what would it be?” and “What would ‘change’ look like?”

As landscape architects and urban designers we often come into a community with a proposition, seeking support and comments so it was interesting to start with a blank sheet of paper and no agenda and to collaborate with just one person on their ideas for the place in which they live.

Mike Harrison: Learning from listening to communities 

The What if…?/Scotland exhibition (photo credit Alan Richardson)

In this case Bahiya, a young woman in her 20s who had grown up in Wester Hailes, had an issue that she wanted to see resolved and through a series of workshops, walks and talks she made clear the problem - that the different areas of Wester Hailes are less connected with each other than they are with the heart of Edinburgh.

Looking at the neighbourhood through her eyes it became clear that, while roads and green routes link all seven ‘kingdoms’ of Wester Hailes by car to the city centre, these same elements of connectivity provided a boundary to neighbourhoods. Crossing from one part of the area to another can only be achieved by using narrow and intimidating pedestrian footbridges to cross major roads, making socialising and participation in activities across the area challenging. 

This project was conceived before the pandemic, but the Covid crisis has given it added relevance and it was interesting to discover how a failure of planning and design from the 1970s, when cars were given precedence over pedestrians, is continuing to cause problems at a time when the idea of ‘community’ and localism has taken on such significance.

Mike Harrison: Learning from listening to communities 

Mike and Bahiya (photo credit Bash Art Creative)

As a company, HarrisonStevens is already working in Wester Hailes, with the Westside Plaza Civic Square due to open in the next few weeks. During our work on this project we talked to local groups, businesses and young people about their vision of what the space could be. Participating in What if…?/Scotland has underlined how vital it is for design professionals to engage closely with communities in this way and to involve them in every stage of the process so that the solutions we end up with make a positive difference that are still a force for good in decades to come.

Meanwhile the ideas we developed with Bahiya for this project included ‘greening’ and widening the footbridges in order to create safer routes between the neighbourhoods but in the end it was a digital solution, a virtual community hub based around an app called ‘WHapp’, that would provide coordinated information on events, activities and availability of space at existing community facilities across the whole Wester Hailes area, that helped to resolve the issue, proving that the only way to reach a positive outcome is to start by listening.

The conversation with Bahiya, and the others that formed part of this process, have been made into short films by Basharat Khan as part of a production by 7N Architects and O Street and these are a thought-provoking look at what close collaboration between citizens and design professionals can achieve.

  • Mike Harrison is creative director and co-founder of HarrisonStevens, Landscape Architects and Urban Designers

What if…?/Scotland runs at V&A Dundee until 21 November 2021


Share icon
Share this article: