What can heritage offer to utopian thinking?

The Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Connected Communities Festival 2016 will take place across the UK culminating in a series of stall and workshops to be held 24 to 26 June.

The Festival is part of the Somerset House’s UTOPIA 2016: A Year of Imagination and Possibility which commemorates the 500th anniversary of the publication of Thomas More’s Utopia.

The University of Leeds’ Centre for Critical Studies in Museums, Galleries and Heritage contribution to the wider programme is a project, titled My Future York. The project will build on research conducted as part of How should heritage decisions be made?, a Connected Communities project that finished in 2015.

Liz Stainforth, one of the Centre’s Early Career Researchers who will be drawing on her PhD research as part of the project, said:

“Utopia speaks to the study of heritage in that it opens up perspectives on the past, shedding light on the ways people hoped or imagined the future might be. Understanding how different visions of the past might inspire different types of interventions in the present and the future is an increasingly pressing issue for heritage decision making and the project is a brilliant opportunity to explore this further as part of a community engagement process.

“My Future York will be working in collaboration with York Past and Present (a dynamic facebook group), York Explore Libraries and Archives and York Environment Forum. A key focus of the project will be to explore how engagement with heritage can be used not only to think about what we value from the past but to open up ways of thinking in new ways about the city’s future planning and decision making.

“The tagline for the project is: The past was different to today, the future will be too – what future do we want for York?”

Helen Graham, Director, Centre for Critical Studies in Museums, Galleries and Heritage, and Principal Investigator for Heritage + Utopias: Possibility Thinking for Living Together said:

“One of our motivations for undertaking this project as part of the Connected Communities Festival is to address the problem of consultation.

“Consultation is usually not designed in ways which enable people to engage with the complexity of the issues, to take into account other people’s needs or views or to take responsibility for the outcome. Consultation, therefore, has a range of negative effects, not least that the views that consultation processes enable often appear thin and uninformed. As such the consultation often just exacerbates cynicism, from both decision makers and members of the public.

“We want to engage richer understandings, local knowledge and collective hope – pasts and futures – to develop more dynamic engagements in local democracy.”

Phil Bixby, chair of York Environment Forum, said:

“York desperately needs a framework for engaging its residents in the process of change. Much current consultation founders on the misplaced belief in an enduring if imperfect present, rather than a belief that the future could be different, let alone better. The Environment Forum is keen to help unlock the imagination of the public to work towards a more sustainable future for York.”

The project will seek to find more creative ways of undertaking engagement with the issues facing York’s future. The team will initiate:

Open exploration of visions for York’s future – starting with what individual people, families and communities want to do in their lives now and in the next 10, 20 and 30 years. We will do this through stalls, workshops and through online engagement.
Active engagement with York’s past to open up new perspectives on issues facing the city such as flooding and housing. We will do this through workshops at York Explore Libraries and Archives and walks through the city’s historic and green environments.
Deepening and extending understanding of the crucial issues that determine the city’s future and seeking alternative ways forward, We will do this through public talks and workshops, from green belt legislation to approaches to transport and engaging with new ideas and inspiring ways forward from elsewhere.
Developing resonant stories about the city and what the city might become through exploring new ways of working with lots of different types of contributions people might make from oral histories, memories and archive photos to workshop flip charts and post it notes and social media discussion and by creating a dynamic feedback loops to iteratively inform York’s public debate.
Feeding into policy making and decision making. We will do this by being proactive in involving York’s policy makers and decision makers as we go along, feeding into formal consultations (e.g. Local Plan and York Central) and opening up new ways for the city to approach ‘consultation’ in the future.A crucial aspect of the project is how understanding the city’s past – through engagement with memories, local knowledge, archives and the historic environment – can open up new ideas and debates.
Victoria Hoyle, City Archivist said:

“Archives are usually associated with studying history and the past. You wouldn’t necessarily think they were useful for imagining and creating our futures. But actually archives are powerful tools for understanding change, for getting into the minds of our predecessors, and so better understanding our own motivations and actions. Archives give context to what is happening now and help to reflect on what might be possible in the future.”

York Past and Present facebook group has over 12,000 members who regularly share photos and memories and together represent enormous recourse of knowledge and creativity about York. Richard Brigham and Lianne Brigham, administrators for the group said:

“We are taught that with age comes experience and that experience is something we learn by so without looking at our past we can’t be expected to learn for the future.”