Un(Urban) Day 1 – Discovering Neighbourhood

The first day of (Un)Urban: Investigating green spaces in East London has already finished, but it left us excited for the next two weeks and the challenges we will have to face. The day did not start promising, as we were welcomed by the sky covered in clouds and the heavy rain, but the bad weather did not stop Global Citizenship team from motivating us to give our best while we are here.

Global Citizenship Programme aims at giving us an opportunity to collaborate with people from different educational backgrounds and degrees, people who we might not encounter on a regular day at UCL, people who are willing to communicate and work together towards building better future. From beginning, (Un)Urban strand presents the issues concerning our well-being and behaviour in the city, things that surround us, but we usually don’t pay attention to, such as the impact of green spaces on our everyday life.

Whereas we started our day indoors, accompanied by rain outside, the afternoon brought change in location and weather, as after a great introductory lecture given by Professor Henrietta Moore and Dr Tuukka Toivonnen about what it means to be a global citizen and how important our eagerness to work together towards building better, more sustainable future is, we were put into smaller groups. After we introduced ourselves, we were given a simple, yet interesting task – we had to investigate the green spaces around UCL and become aware of their influences on us and other people. The walk enabled us to not only get to know each other a little better, but also discuss the impact of green spaces in London. We talked about architecture, urban planning, the universal need to get away from the concrete jungle, the usage of parks and gardens by people from different walks of life. We observed people who used the park despite the bad weather and discussed how different people utilise green spaces under different weather conditions.

My group decided not to follow our colleagues to Gordon Square Garden and Tavistock Square Garden, and went to Fitzroy Square Garden and Regent’s Park. Even though they are located in the same area, they serve different purposes. Fitzroy Square Garden is open to public only on particular days, normally being used only by residents of the nearby buildings. The area is important in terms of history, as George Bernard Shaw, Virginia Woolf and Francisco de Miranda are among its notable residents. The square is largely pedestrianised and the garden is fairly small, especially in comparison with Regent’s Park that is one of the biggest parks in Central London. Regent’s Park offers a wide range of outdoor activities for everyone, from playing sports to watching a play in an open-air theatre or walking a dog. It’s a great place to socialise with friends and family. These two places are great examples how the usage of green spaces differs in the big city.

Overall, the observations we made during our field trips in groups show the range of perspectives and definitely contribute to the better understanding of the need for dialogue between people to be able to create better solutions and improve our lives in urban areas. What we also learned today is that no matter how complex global challenges may seem, we must remember that it is we who have created them and we are capable of resolving them if we communicate and work together. Concentrating on the areas we walk past on our way to UCL helped us understand the ideas that (Un)Urban programme wants us to tackle.

(Un)Urban Day 1 – (Un)Urban Journeys

After a welcome to both the Global Citizenship Programme and the IGP (Un)Urban Programme, we broke into our working group for the 9 days – Group 2. We then met each other and discussed why we each chose the course.

Our first task was an (Un)Urban journeys activity, which involved a study of a green space with close proximity to UCL. Group 2 all chose to use Gordon Square (the closest green space to the East of campus), as our subject for analysis, with the question: Do you see any obvious connection between how people use green space and their wellbeing? as the primary focus for our study.We split into three smaller groups to work with together whilst in Gordon Square and surveyed the area for approximately 45 minutes. Whilst walking around the green space, we were told to make drawings, take photographs/videos/sound recordings, and get a sense of the urban environment and how people moved and utilised the space.

image1One of our first observations was how wild the park seemed, in terms of the variation of plants/trees, and the amount of wildlife that resided in the area: the noticeboard said that the most common species were foxes, house mice, brown rats and grey squirrels. (pigeons aside!) The amount of wild flowers, in particular bluebells, and variety of grass and tree sizes helped to create this sense of wilderness or oasis, within such an urban environment. The amount of foliage and trees on the outskirts of the park was greater, especially on each of the corners of the square, which helps contribute to the sense of privacy and unfrequented nature of the square, blocking out the visual and noise pollution from the adjacent roads. There are also small mounds and patches of dense grass, which provides relief from the flat and repetitive environment of London’s streets.
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The square has around 15 benches, a café, open grass in the middle and two statues. Most people in the park were either eating lunch, chatting to a friend, or utilising the park as a peaceful diversion on their route to work/home. We met a woman who comes to the square
everyday without fail (even in the winter months), some commuters and a tourist walking her baby around. To all these people the green space was evidently contributing to their daily wellbeing. We also discussed how people might be more inclined to meet or have a serious chat in a park, due to the sense of peacefulness and privacy. Then, we spoke to the café manager, who considered the majority of the users of the park to be those who study/work nearby, along with those who use it as a transitionary route. However, one problem that arose was the recent closure of the north gate, which has disrupted people’s routes and accessibility to the park; but it does arguably increase the privacy and sense of the seclusion that the square offers.

(Un)Urban Day 1: Into the wild

Hello and welcome to our blog documenting our experience of the (Un)Urban strand of the Global Citizenship Programme.

We started off the day together with the rest of the participants of the Programme at the opening plenary which included some introductory talks regarding what we could expect over the next two weeks. We heard from three students who had participated in various strands last year who were very positive and encouraged us to make the most of this opportunity.

Afterwards we split off into our strands and we were welcomed by Professor Henrietta Moore who gave an interesting talk which considered prosperity, well-being and cities. I was struck particularly by her emphasis on how prosperity encompasses more than just wealth and income but health, education, and ‘feeling and knowing that life is worthwhile’.  She also extended well-being to an issue greater than just how an individual feels, but how they experience community. Dr Tuukka Toivonen then spoke about the definition of global citizenship, which expanded what we had previously heard from Dr Tim Beasley-Murray about a (passive) recognition of our inter-connectedness with the whole of humanity, to a problem-solving activity in human-centered way, with the implication that ‘being a global citizen’ is something that can be learned by taking empathetic action.

 

A purpose of the garden- a place to relax and enjoy food and drink? Does the chain indicate crime in the area? A juxtaposition between a safe oasis and crime?
A purpose of the garden- a place to relax and enjoy food and drink?
Does the chain indicate crime in the area?
A juxtaposition between a safe oasis and crime?
Looking into the history of the area which surrounds the green spaces- a transition from residential to professional?
Looking into the history of the area which surrounds the green spaces- a transition from residential to professional?

In the afternoon we split off into smaller groups and met our Navigators, Tony McKenzie and Will Churchill, who will be leading and working with us over the next two weeks. To get us familiar with other team members and thinking about green spaces and wellbeing, we spent some time in the green spaces near to UCL, observing who they were used by and how they were used. We were encouraged to be creative in how we collected this information, including voice memos, photos, sketches, plans tallying the number of people walking through vs sitting down etc. We then presented our findings to the group and reflected on our experience. The group generated interesting ideas about the green spaces we had experienced- how were they limited by rules or enclosed by buildings, how much of an emphasis was placed on aesthetic versus function? We ended the day with encouraging words about our initial experiences, excitement for the project ahead and hopes for good weather.

(Un)urban Day 1- A Whole New World

“Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is a process; working together is success.” – Henry Ford

I think this is a pretty good quote to start off the first post. Having people coming from different disciplines, talking about topics that might have never cross our mind (e.g. open/green spaces, well-being, empathy, urban planning etc.) is definitely something incredible. It is really interesting to see how we all look at the same issue from very different perspectives.

I am impressed by how much idea we generated by just taking a brief walk in Gordon Square. We talked about how space/architecture can influence our behaviour (e.g. pathways and fences). For instance, the garden is “designed” in a symmetrical manners with some barriers giving an impression of enclosed/protected area, which might subconsciously imposed some restrictions on our behaviour (e.g. movement and emotion). Some expressed feeling uneasy when people walked around the garden, not using the footpath provided, potentially because of the “design” of the garden. This led to the discussion about empathy, understanding how different individuals might view and utilise the space.

There are also some surprising facts that we have never thought of. For example, when we were brainstorming about what people might do in the garden, we mentioned about playing Frisbee, walking dogs, hanging out with friends etc. However, after spending some time “experiencing” the garden (which we probably didn’t have the chance to do so due to the busy schedule during term time), we found that Gordon Square, in particular, might be more like a “museum” kind of garden? There are statues remembering a poet, a Special Operations Executive agent during the Second World War and an archaeology stone placed around the garden. Surprisingly, the activities we thought of (e.g. sports game) are actually not allowed in the garden!

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We also observed a separation of space – an overgrowth wild area used as a habitable space for the biodiversity and a kept tidy area with benches for users. Rethinking about the concept of space, it is probably something that we take it for granted and never really pay attention to.

Some other ideas that we have raised:

  1. The rhythm of space (e.g. the walking pace in different places, either in the garden or on the street, in the morning or during the night)
  2. Space and emotion (e.g. green spaces and stress)
  3. How people make use of spaces (e.g. activity maps)

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Before I end this post, I would like to include an interesting question raised by one of the group member today:

“Is there a difference between a park and a garden? Gordon Square used the term ‘garden’ instead of a park. ”

Uncle Google says “A garden is usually a place for plants, flowers, trees, and other plant life. They are most commonly placed around people’s houses. A park is a public place that can have anything from walking paths, to open fields, sports fields like a soccer pitch, or play equipment for children.”

So, perhaps, garden is more for quiet and calm activity whilst park is for more lively and active activity? This is an intriguing question I must say!

 

Keywords generated by the team to sum up today’s programme:

“trees”, “interesting”, “inquisitive”, “cleansing”, “exploring”, “experiencing”, “environment”, “perspective”, “morality”, “refreshing”, “empathy”, “understanding”

 

P/S: Special thanks to Umar, Alyssa and Yasmin for the input 🙂

Day 1: (Re)discovering Gordon Square

When was the last time you thought, and I mean really thought, about that unassuming patch of green you walk by every day or that row of trees outside your house? To a busy Londoner rushing from one appointment to the next, these bits and pieces of green can easily fade into the steely grey cityscape. And yet, if you look closely, you can find signs of plant and animal life everywhere.

As an introduction to the (Un)Urban strand of the UCL Global Citizenship Programme, we were asked to do exactly that: become aware of the natural space we were in (in our case, Gordon Square, a public garden located in the centre of UCL faculty buildings and Halls of Residence) and discuss its purpose, aesthetics and atmosphere.

In groups of three, we set out to wander the garden’s meandering paths, cross the wide lawn and walk beneath lush canopies of leaves, heavy with fresh rain.

With thick bushes and tall trees blocking out any outside sights and sounds, Gordon Square revealed itself to be a true oasis – a sequestered retreat from hectic campus life, the ideal place to stroll, read, chat and eat. It is no secret that deepening your connection with nature can make you happier, more relaxed and more resilient to the pressures of urban life. But was this really nature?

We quickly realised that this supposedly ‘natural’ space was just as purposefully designed and carefully maintained as any other public space in the heart of London. The grass was cut evenly, trees were strategically planted at certain spots and the fences that bordered the paths were small but impossible to ignore. The fact that Gordon Square was covered in greenery and not concrete did not mean that it was any less artificial.

My friend Anne aptly mentioned the concept of ‘second nature’ which, rather than being left untouched and free to grow without intervention, is constructed and groomed by humans to serve a specific purpose.

This phenomenon, of course, does not necessarily result in grave exploitation or destruction of natural habitats. Gordon Square, for instance, features a fruit composter and a vegan café, encouraging the garden’s users to commit to the protection of the environment.

Apart from this, cultural, artistic and historical concerns seem to have played a significant role in the development of Gordon Square. The busts of poet Rabindranath Tagore and WWII agent Noor Inayat Khan create a quiet, commemorative ambiance. A sign explicitly instructs visitors not to play ball games or bring their dogs to Gordon Square: this is a place of remembrance and contemplation.

While vibrant university life continues outside the garden gates, Khan’s and Tagore’s faces remain unmoved. Carved into bronze, their distinct features remind us of the lasting impact that every individual can make on the course of our history and the heritage of our world.

So next time you find yourself in Gordon Square, don’t just rush to your next class. Instead, look around for a bit, take in the moment and linger just a little longer.