John Griffiths runs his research and planning consultancy Planning Above and Beyond. He also writes as the barefoot insighter for The Marketing Society blog and kindly told his Street Wisdom story there!
He say’s ‘Street Wisdom is picking up on some established ideas. Firstly that of the flaneurs – the movement of French intellectuals who would reflect on the world in the course of a long walk – often in urban environments. In recent years this has been drawn upon by the psycho-geographers – writers and journalists like Will Self and Ian Sinclair who used walking as a way of writing about the influence of history, culture and geography upon us.
It draws on the idea of pilgrimage – a spiritual and internal journey undertaken in parallel with a physical journey often taken on foot.
It clearly evokes the away day or brainstorm but a little more strenuous and inspiring giving the uncertainties of British weather. Why pay facilitators to inspire you to think out of the box when you can get up and walk out of the box for a few hours?’
Charlie Payne is a Community Engagement Officer for Teach First. She told her story on their community blog so we have reproduced it below for everyone else to enjoy.
Street Wisdom: what I learned from London’s streets today
This morning I took to the streets of central London in search of wisdom.
Before you ask, no – 6 months of doing community engagement at Teach First hasn’t driven me to abandon my shoes and sanity; I was taking part in an event run by Street Wisdom. I’m part of the team planning the London region’s ‘community immersion’ experience at Summer Institute this year, and want to make it both great and meaningful, so thought it only fair to experience some ‘immersion’ of my own and learn through doing. This is my story.
Street Wisdom based on a simple idea – that the environment and people around us are full of wisdom we largely overlook or ignore. By getting us out on the streets and immersed in the environment, Street Wisdom allows you to tune into the rich stimulus around you and learn. All you have to turn up with is a question or a problem you’d like some fresh answers to. As their strapline goes, answers are everywhere, you just have to ask. Sounds a bit like community engagement to me.
So having signed up online, this morning at 10am I arrived at our ‘starting point’ of Trafalgar Square. My first challenge was to find my group leader: Jim, I was told, was rather tall and in flip-flops and standing near the National Gallery. Looking around me at throngs of early-bird tourists (not many of whom, luckily, tall or in flip flops), I braced myself and set forth into the wilds of the West End.
Having located Jim, I joined a group of five others and we introduced ourselves. All from different backgrounds and jobs, we were, I felt, united by our tentative curiosity. We began in pairs, with two short walks of three minutes each. On the first walk, we discussed our favourite street and why. On the second, we talked about where we had our best ideas. No one said at a desk or in a team meeting; more likely on the loo or on the treadmill. Slowly Jim was opening us up to the potential of finding answers in a new place.
Tune in to the street
The next part of the morning was about attuning us to the streets, sensitising us to be receptive to the stimulus of the streets, really being present. We did four 10-minute walks – wherever we liked – and for each, Jim gave us a different question to consider.
The first: find what attracts you and repels you. Putting aside all thoughts of tourist traps and Union Jack tat, my feet took me off. I found myself drawn to form – symmetry, lines and stonework. I was repelled by traffic and noise. I ended up standing faintly mesmerised in front of a huge portrait of Winston Churchill in the National Portrait Gallery.
The second: slow right down. A slow descent into Trafalgar Square, listening and watching to what was going on around me. I counted drowned pennies against the blue tiles of the fountains and watched litter bob on the water. I sat on the ledge of the fountain and watched people pose for photographs. After initial unease, I could’ve done another 10 minutes, I could feel some mental clouds clearing.
Third: what amuses you? I found a lonely traffic cone warning of nothing and then I chased some pigeons. I may have laughed out loud.
And finally: find the beauty in everything. Some of it was easy: the architecture around Trafalgar Square is stunning, the green of the trees luminous. Mostly, less so: I found myself in the dirty stairwell of Charing Cross Station: discarded fag butt, screwed up receipt, dirty tiles and worn paint. Somehow I found beauty in transit – thinking of all the feet that passed here over time, of journeys started and finished. Memories, rusty but not gone. I thought about all the stories.
Walk your own path
40 minutes of attuning and sensitising complete, we then came back as a rather more alert group and it was time to focus on our question: what did we want the streets to help us answer? (Mine was, loosely about our community, and how I can support individuals’ engagement with the limits of their time and energy).
We then had 1 hour to walk, vaguely but not strictly in the direction of Piccadilly Circus, keeping our question at the forefront of our mind. Before we left, we were handed a post-it note with a location on it – to be opened strictly 20 minutes before we were due to meet. Off we all went again, lone foot soldiers of wisdom, one step at a time.
I’ll summarise the next hour as it’s largely in the tiny details and, frankly, you had to be there. But needless to say I made it to our destination on time and in one piece. I sought to see things differently – not ‘my London’. I lost track of time and sense of location – I am normally a walking human sat-nav so this was a new one!
Highlights: meandering around Leicester Square – a place I normally avoid at the best of times. I spent a wholly misguided few minutes in the M&Ms World Store (never been) before I was nearly asphyxiated by the smell of fake chocolate. I explored the backstreets of China town and watched a van-load of Durian fruit being unloaded. I browsed around a Chinese supermarket. I sat next to a German couple drinking coffee in Golden Square. I imagined walking down Carnaby Street in the 60s. I stood and watched some builders mixing concrete in Soho and listened to their thoughts on the right consistency, and David Moyes. Air Street, Beak Street, Bridle Lane, Great Windmill Street. Imagine.
An hour later I arrived at our recently disclosed destination and met everyone else who had been on the Street Wisdom event that morning – about 90 of us! We found our original groups and shared back the experience. This is a vital part of the Street Wisdom process, it was explained, that our individual experiences shed light on those of others and together offer a picture of the streets that we wouldn’t see ourselves. This was true – not one of us had walked the same path; the stories we told resonated but weren’t wholly shared.
Approaches varied. Some of us had spoken to lots of people. Others, like me, remained mute. One guy in our group had a question about opening his own café business. He had spent his hour in a hectic Polish deli and a noisy Italian café and had realised that his café, when it opened, would be no more a calm oasis than either but a happy island of chaos – that was just how it would be because that’s what he liked. Another woman in our group who was struggling getting the first scene of a play she was writing down, found a quiet church, where she found an opera singer rehearsing, with an audience of tired city workers eating their Pret sandwiches. As she put it, there are so many hidden gems for people to find inspiration in the city, if you scratch the surface.
We had all looked up and noticed things that we’d not seen before. It’s funny how we say we ‘know’ an area – can we ever, really? Isn’t there always going to be something new to see, to learn? That, and the importance of being present, being in the moment, being open to what might happen and not presupposing an outcome. All of this I can apply – and must – to working with the Teach First community, as I do. I’ve a feeling this will help me keep my shoes and sanity.
Might it work for you? Could it help you understand the community you live or work in, or even to answer a question of your own? Have a go.
This morning I took to the streets of central London in search of wisdom. I returned to the Teach First office not necessarily with all the answers to how I can support community engagement in our region, but a lot clearer about approaching this, calmer, and – I suspect – a bit more wise.