In July 2016, the 4th Community Architects Network (CAN) Regional Workshop brought together community action practitioners from countries all over South East Asia. The first day was spent in Bangkok, Thailand, introducing the participants to the work done and challenges faced by CAN members in Thailand, China and India. The following five days were spent in groups – each focusing on a different sector of city development, for example the transport group, which I was part of – doing fieldwork alongside local communities in Chumsang City of Nakornsawan Province, Thailand.
Today is just about listening
“Today is just about listening,” we were told. That was how we started our fieldwork on the 16th of July. Focusing our attention on understanding the local communities of Chumsang, listening to their ideas, concerns and how they wished their city to be in the future. This was a challenge, particularly as most of us had spent the first two days of the workshop meeting and exchanging with many different people from Sri Lanka, Nepal, India, China, Thailand, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam and Cambodia. So by the time we arrived in Chumsang, my mind was already full of questions and ideas. I was excited and a little rushed to quickly understand the context of Chumsang, considering we had very few days to do so and then to, somehow, ‘co-create’ something.
Co-Creation was the theme of the workshop. It was described in the introductory programme as the “co-creation and design between man and nature through a process of understanding and respect”. Understood in this way, co-creation was very representative of the dynamics and needs of Chumsang. Like other similarly sized cities in Thailand, Chumsang faces many concerns related to its natural resources and landscapes, the loss of its cultural traditions, the changing dynamics of migration in its young and old populations and as a result the increasing day to day challenges in making the city livable, sustainable and lively.
Following this theme, the workshop in general had a loose structure that allowed space for conversations to evolve, take different directions and reveal those elements that were not immediately obvious about the city and its people. At first this way of working felt uncertain, unfamiliar and risky but as we were immersed in to the fieldwork, the friendly people and the excitement of it all, it became easier to go with the flow and allow our ideas and projects to develop in a very organic way.
Our behinds were burning but our faces were bright
As the transport and cycling group, we happily spent a lot of time on our bicycles, visiting the city and using any excuse to get on the saddle. By the end of the first day, it was harder to walk straight and our faces were quite pink from the sun, but it was through these rides around the city that we found inspiration to work. We even wrote a song!
Within the transport group, I felt very connected to my colleagues, not only by being part of CAN, which encouraged us to work together but also through our other interests, in my case cycling. In other cases, photography, culture, music, heritage and ecology brought people together to share ideas on making the city. These elements, represented through our different interests and hobbies, are also an important part of what makes cities vibrant and CAN Co-Create seemed to build on this synergy very well. It took a wholesome perspective toward community architecture and in this case, for the first time, at the scale of the city. I think this was one of its greatest strengths.
In this way, the opportunity that CAN workshops bring about by generating attention, bringing in professionals and practitioners from many contexts to work with local communities and catalyze change not only focused on one arm of city development but many. We established groups that addressed housing, mobility, politics, environment, culture, health and one that emphasized the connectivity and cohesion between these different elements at the level of the city. The workshop also became an opportunity for the mayor to come face to face with the energy of the city’s people, their desires and motivations and to engage in direct conversation with them about their different ideas for the future of Chumsang.
At the same time, this transversal approach also brought many communities to work together. We worked with two cycling groups, a group of elderly, the old market community, young school children, communities that were to be relocated and communities that had already been housed. Initially, it seemed that these different groups had their own motivations for participating in the workshop. However, at the end of each day, as we reviewed our progress and our findings, the work gradually demonstrated how intricately connected these different motivations and processes really were.
Although some groups progressed quicker than others during the five days of fieldwork, reviewing, changing and even starting over a couple of times; the level of involvement from community groups in the presentation of the outcomes, on the last day, was moving. It showed that these processes of participation intrigued people and invited them to feel part of something greater.
So although lengthy and sometimes frustrating, the time it took to build, validate and present ideas with communities, seemed to generate a collective sense of a ‘Community of Chumsang’. In a way, the notion of ‘co-creation’ really materialized through this challenging and timely process. Toward the end of the workshop, I increasingly noticed that people built on these connections and worked with them, moving around the room, between different groups, sharing information and presenting ideas in sync with each other.
Sharing is where everything starts
There were many things about the CAN workshop that motivated me but it is what happens after the workshops, which I find the most significant. How the transformative process that CAN workshops initiate, by bringing so many minds together in one place, can ripple out into a series of waves of transformation in other places; How those of us who attend the CAN workshop can carry our experiences and through them, diffuse the energy of CAN into existing and new networks. After the workshop I was left with this intrigue, excited to see what happens next.
The workshop produced Facebook groups [CAN Co-Create Chumsaeng City & Unsung Stories of Chumsaeng); brought cycling movements together to carry out a collective ride throughout the city with the support of the police; created brochures to promote tourism, made a song and proposed many other small achievable projects that the local communities could carry on after the workshop. I see these outcomes as small actions and tools that are practical and achievable in the short term but which have the potential to keep co-creation running by “people’s process”, as we like to say, in the long-run. If people follow up and use them.
A month later, I am visiting some of the CAN members in Vietnam. They have been great hosts, showing me around and teaching me about the beautiful city of Hanoi.
“Sharing is where everything starts” says Houng, one of my hosts and also a CAN member. Being back in conversations about community practices reminds me of my intrigue, what happens after the workshop? How does the transformative process of CAN Co-Create continue?
Still excited from the experience, I’ve noticed some signs that suggest the transformative process is still running. The actions that we took and the ‘web’ of tools that we began to create seem to have given the ‘network’ a potential to catalyze this process. Believing it all the more as I listen, discuss and exchange with people who, despite having returned to their busy lives, are still talking about visiting Chumsang again, strengthening the CAN network in Vietnam and even about extending the scope of the existing one.
CAN Co-Create Workshop Teaser Video – Final Video will be published in October
Luisa is an alumni of the MSc in Building and Urban Design in Development at the DPU. Currently she is working in Manila, Philippines as a beneficiary of the DPU/ACHR/CAN Young Professionals Programme.