I’m quite new to working for PLACED, I joined the team back in August. Although I have collaborated with Jo and the team for many years as part of my academic work. Moving from academia to delivering on the ground engagement has been a big shift. But most definitely a career change offering exciting, creative challenges. And a chance to meet more people and put my knowledge to use in live projects.
What has been occupying my mind a lot since leaving academia and joining PLACED though, has been the question of how I can put into practice some of the things I was working on as an academic.
My research was/is about physical activity and our built environment. I’d been researching running, trying to understand how runners create routes through local parks and down greener, quieter streets. I’d learnt that traffic free routes are really important as they provide calmer spaces for joggers to soak up the wellbeing benefits of their exercise. And urban parks are great at providing some of this close to where people live in towns and cities — something many of us have learned vividly during COVID. However, lots of things can snap people out of that wellbeing mode and into hyper alert mode, crossing a busy road for example. I also heard from people, particularly women, about safety issues in some of these supposedly relaxing places. Some women told me about how they would adapt their routes to avoid parks as darkness fell or preferred to run with others rather than run alone. And again, in the last few months and years we’ve been confronted with this reality after the tragic deaths of Sarah Everard, Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman to name only three.
I’d also been working with colleagues in Salford University’s Healthy Active Cities team on various projects looking at how we can make our streets safer and more inclusive to enable more people to participate in active travel — cycling, walking, scooting. Active travel, like exercise in green spaces, is an area where experiences differ by gender, race, class, disability, and geography. There is a lot of work to do.
So, what’s been occupying my mind since leaving academia and joining PLACED has been about putting my previous work and observations into practice.
PLACED has a great reputation, rightly so, for being good at making engagement open and accessible. And by doing that we’re more able to listen to the views of people often underrepresented in public engagement. But there is always more to be done.
Recently I led a workshop about a project we’re doing some engagement for. It’s about some pretty ambitious changes. There are big plans, and the area will experience considerable change over the coming decades. That’s very exciting in many ways. But what struck me about the conversations I had with people was how far we have to go to make sure inequalities like those I was researching are really built out of our towns and cities. I was having a conversation about accessibility of streets for older people and disabled people, and the stories and experiences recounted to me in a 10-minute chat demonstrated how much work there is to do. They weren’t talking about experiences from decades ago but current, ongoing experiences of trying to get the built environment made accessible to them. Not a big ask but still very much a big challenge. We spoke of physical discomfort from paving choices, dangerous trip hazards, confusing layouts, and blatant discrimination. And its not like I didn’t know about these failings, but now I’m tasked with trying to amplify those voices and this is both exciting and daunting.
It is my hope that at PLACED we can continue to seek out and amplify underrepresented voices within Planning, Architecture and the built environment. There’s definitely more for us to do but I’m pleased to be working in a way and for an organisation which is active in this work.
Some links for the intrigued
Dr. Sam Hayes
PLACED Project Manager