In this post, Catherine Greig from make:good reflects on the relationship between participation and wellbeing. make:good is a design studio involving people in shaping neighbourhood change. They believe in meaningful processes of local participation, bringing together all people in an area to collaborate on building its future.
Here at make:good we’ve been thinking about wellbeing and participation; quite simply, does it make us feel better to be involved in stuff?
Wellbeing science would tell us that it does: being involved in community rights processes, as well as outcomes, can contribute to people’s sense of wellbeing. It makes us feel purposeful, gives us a goal and is inherently sociable as you need to work collectively to get anything to happen.
We’re interested in the benefits of participation in the projects we are working on but also whether it is possible to promote the use of participation in projects to clients by talking about the wellbeing impacts. But does the suggestion of increased wellbeing make a difference? So far it hasn’t been a deal breaker; people are either coming from a paradigm of believing in the value of participation as a route or they think it will actually bring conflict and meddling so they use basic consultation techniques instead.
The clever folk at NEF wellbeing think tank have identified five steps to wellbeing which actually work really well for our approach to projects, so we had a go at reframing what we do around them:
1. Connect: all of our projects involve collaboration. We look to bring together people who live, work, play or have a connection to a place to think about local change. Through this process, participants make new connections with people, services and places in their neighbourhood.
2. Be Active: one of the big challenges on our projects can be getting people over the threshold of their front door to come and actively participate. The walking, making and activities we co-design and deliver with people can offer a way into being more active.
3. Keep Learning: anyone who has ever tried to make any idea real will know that it is always harder than you imagined, takes longer than you thought, but that you learn a huge amount in the process.
4. Give to Others: our projects rely on the generosity of time, insight and skills of people who know an area really well. We are always thinking about legacy and aim to leave motivated people behind who continue to make positive change in their neighbourhoods.
5. Take Notice: being aware of the relationships and emotions around change is crucial to getting any project to happen. Yes, we encourage people to look more closely at their built environment but more than anything people being more aware of their own skills and the skills of those around them is the thing that makes projects truly special.
So certainly, it makes us feel good to get involved in things locally, but does knowing that it’s good for us encourage participation? I’m not so sure. I think reasons to be involved in our projects vary: frustration with what is happening in an area, a desire to protect current assets, or simply the prospect of having some fun. The wellbeing benefits therefore may just be the thing that keeps people involved in the long term and may never be self-identified. So measuring the impact of participation on a person’s wellbeing is hard to do conclusively – but the proof is in the pudding for us: people in the main are happy to be asked their views, feel a part of something larger and our work is often a starting point for individuals to become more active in their community. The very act of looking out and venturing beyond one’s own front door – something participative projects like ours consistently encourage – is a wellbeing achievement not to be sniffed at.