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Engaging youth in representations of place: more than just an open day

LizaGriffin5 February 2015

This post and the project exploring place in Kilburn has been undertaken in collaboration with Kamna Patel.

Students introduce their representations of their neighbourhood

Students introduce their representations of their neighbourhood

In the old days school level students saw universities as the most mysterious of places – where and what were they, what do they teach and how? They were rarely told anything much in answer – except that it was a very good idea to try and get in. But how did people know where to apply, and what subjects to choose? Little guidance was available.

Today, much has changed. It’s common for prospective university undergraduates, to attend ‘open days’ available throughout the year from all and sundry higher education establishments. At them, potential applicants can hear from academic staff what to expect if they go university, and learn briefly what different subjects have to offer.

All very useful, but now, academics from Development Planing Unit in University College London are going one step further. We are offering some school students the chance to become undergrads for a time and join us in a research project exploring urban citizenship and place-making.

This is what students at St Augustine’s School in Kilburn have recently done. We have collaborated with Helen Allsopp, their teacher, to run a series of workshops on a favourite theme amongst geographers and planners; a ‘sense of place’

First, the workshops explored the students’ own perception of Kilburn, where they live – what is it like for them, and how much have they noticed recent changes in the area. And they explored how the changes going on reflect the broader processes of globalisation that we are constantly hearing about (e.g. big new developments funded by foreign capital, soaring house prices fuelled by demand from people wanting to work in London, changing ethnic mixes, and so forth).

Explanations of the different methodologies used were displayed around the exhibition

Explanations of the different methodologies used were displayed around the exhibition

Then the students used techniques from the social sciences to analyse different portrayals, or ‘representations’ of Kilburn, coming from diverse sources such as websites, films, written texts in books, magazines, music, social media and so on.

Besides these workshops, the students conducted fieldwork in the area. There, intriguingly, they made maps of how people, including themselves, feel about different parts of Kilburn – identifying, for example, ‘spaces of fear’ where it might be dangerous to go at particular times of day or places where they feel more at home. In such exercises they applied different research methods (such as transects walks through their neighbourhood) as used by social scientists and Town Planners amongst others.

In all this, the students were getting much more than just an ‘open day’ afternoon. Theirs was an in-depth experience, sustained over time, of the kinds of things they might expect to be doing at university, including an up to date view of the sorts of research methods and analysis that planners and geographers might apply in their work. And here, the St Augustine’s students were actually sharing in such work.

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The workshops and fieldwork ran over several months, culminating in the students producing their own representations of Kilburn shown at a roving expedition running throughout 2015 – at UCL, at St Augustine’s and at the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn. The exhibition’s centrepiece is a series of 3D maps of Kilburn produced by the students themselves. These are not a ‘conventional’, accurate-to-scale representations. Instead they incorporate their different perceptions of, and concerns and aspirations for this busy, dynamic and multi-faceted place.

The exhibition opened in January 2015, and at that opening visitors were guided through by some of the students themselves, explaining the maps and models, and recounting how they were produced. They also had to explain to the audience the practical usefulness of such cultural geography work, in developing peoples’ sensitivity to place and encouraging them to think about how they can help to shape places for themselves and help to give them meaning.

The latter was one of our main aims of the project. In our on going action research on this project we plan to reflect upon the extent to which the participating students, through their involvement, were provided with a sense of how they themselves might be able to shape their own urban environment and ask whether this contributed to a nascent sense of citizenship.

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The project is impressive – partly because of the impression which the students make on the visitors as they are guided round. Here is a group of enthusiastic, smart and articulate young people, with a dynamism that will undoubtedly make them an asset to whatever university they eventually choose if they seek to continue their studies. And hopefully they will have a flying start through their experience of doing some university level work with the academics who will teach them.

 

Liza Griffin is a Lecturer and Co-Director of the MSc Environment and Sustainable Development at the DPU. Kamna Patel is a Lecturer and Co-Director of the MSc Development Administration and Planning. Both have lived in the Kilburn area.