Stories of Place as Regenerative Design Practice
On Dudley High Street, we invite people to come together to reveal hidden stories and experiment with ideas for flourishing futures. Through many and varied projects, experiments and experiences, we open up ways for people to take cultural action rooted in long term thinking and care, collective imagination and regenerative design.
Since November 2021, we’ve been exploring the following question through our experiment ‘Stories of Place’:
What if we connected with stories of place from past, present and future to collectively dream of regenerative futures, and make these futures more tangible in the present?
Inspired by Mang and Reed’s framework for regenerative design, this lab note explores how the Stories of Place enquiry and ongoing learning process is emerging as a practice of regenerative design through:
- Developing an understanding of place through developing a ritual with time and place and shifting towards cultural democracy.
- Designing for harmony with place through integrating nature into design processes and experiences.
- Creating a culture of co-evolution through co-creation of a cultural ecology of community research with rhizomatic learning, and collective discovery.
A quick introduction to Mang & Reed’s Regenerative Design Framework
Pamela Mang and Bill Reed from Regenesis Group and Story of Place Institute, developed a framework for Regenerative Development and Design. They describe a process of co-evolutionary bio-becoming in which:
‘In order to create sustained ecological health, humans must evolve a conscious and integral interrelationship where humans and nature are in a mutually beneficial being and becoming relationship.’
They believe that regenerative design can improve the ‘health and vitality’ of life communities, ‘build the capacity of underlying relationships and support systems of a place’, and create a ‘field of caring, commitment and deep connection to place that enables’ this process and benefits to ‘endure and evolve through time’.
As Sarah Ichioka and Michael Pawlyn put it more simply:
‘Regenerative design and development is that which supports the flourishing of all life, for all time.’
Mang and Reed’s framework for regenerative approaches includes three phases and developmental processes:
- Understanding the relationship to place — ‘it uses the power of storytelling to articulate the essence of place, how it fits in the world, and what the role of those who inhabit it can be as collaborators in its evolution.’
- Design for harmony with place — ‘Translates this understanding into design principles and systemic, integrated plans, designs and construction processes that optimise the presence of people in a landscape by harmonising with the larger pattern of place.’
- Co-Evolution — If the previous two phases ‘have succeeded in creating a culture of co-evolution in and around the project, and not just a physical product, its effect can be seen even before final build out.’
Although Stories of Place hasn’t been developed with this framework from day one, there are key crossovers between the iterative process of the experiment and the three cyclical phases. The framework, alongside ‘our new shiny (and a little bit ancient!) GUIDEing principles’, have been useful to reflect on the process so far and where it is taking us, building on our previous lab notes:
Understanding of place
In our last lab note, we talked about indigenous thinking of time in creating a lake of Dudley High Street stories from the past, present and future, all swirling together to inspire stories and action for the future. A collective resource of many voices has been growing through our online lake, with stories from Afro Histories Dudley, research and reimaginings from Architecture Masters students from Birmingham School of Architecture and Design, poetry, historical photos, and photos from local folk’s walks, including the More-than-Human High Street.
One of CoLab Dudley’s holistic lab goals is to:
Reveal, care for, and design with local place based knowledge and stories. This is part of a regenerative design approach that prioritises whole living system health by discovering and aligning with the unique potential of Dudley.
To help us discover and align with the unique potential of Dudley, we have developed a monthly ritual of coming together to gather and reflect on the local place based knowledge in our growing lake of Stories of Place.
‘A distinction made by the ancient Greeks between chronos and kairos — different types of time — has been all but lost in our industrialised, globalised, urbanised cultures. Chronos came to represent chronological time: linear, sequential, regular and quantitative. Kairos, by contrast, referred to moments that are qualitatively different and in rhetoric it referred to opportune time: a moment to seize for the greatest effect.’
Time here isn’t linear or chronological. It is kairological. We dive into the lake of Stories of Place, weaving stories from different times with different minds, nurturing experiments rooted in historical and future contexts, whilst building relationships with each other.
‘Reawakening our perception of time and developing a more discerning sense of its qualitative aspects may help us to reconnect with place, to live more fully in the moment and become more effective agents of change.’
Our first three sessions were focused on exploring different ideas inspired by the kairological lake, gradually focusing into sub groups of different curiosities. After this, we developed a rhythm for each session where the group would focus on one emerging idea (a lodestone), to prototype and reflect upon it.
For our lodestone in March, Bill invited people to prototype Sonification of the High Street. Bill crafted a series of rules for people to play with to transform Street Detectorist findings and other Stories of Place into a collective score for the High Street.
We interpreted a list of observations from the High Street with sounds and durations to help us make noises as we co-created a collective score of Dudley High Street (and in turn, a new story of place):
Our ritual of gathering around and co-creating Stories of Place through creative experiences, has helped us to develop our understanding of place (principle: Learn by Doing Together). Jo also reflected that we have been openly holding an enabling space for a multitude of voices and life experiences on a route to deepening imagination practice (principle: Invite Curiosity), shifting us to cultural democracy.
Cultural Democracy: When people across society, from different cultures and backgrounds, have the freedom to participate in cultural life and therefore define what culture is. The celebration of co-existing cultural traditions in human society and the rejection of an “official” singular culture.
Centre for Cultural Value
This might also enable the disruption of old power, defined in Heimans and Timms’ Participation Scale as practices of compliance and consumption. Rather than accepting pre-existing narratives and consuming maps, Stories-of-Place-ers have, through participation, been co-creating new narratives.
Design for harmony with place
In our previous lab notes, Introducing Street Detectorism and Prototyping Street Detectorism, we discussed the co-design of Street Detectorism: an activity in which people are invited to venture onto the High Street with a clue to hone their senses and gather Stories of Place by drawing or writing on a map.
In August, we were invited by CIVIC SQUARE to prototype Street Detectorism in another context: Ladywood. This generated questions on how we could adapt it:
- How do we go from a map of a limited area of the High Street to lots of different places of different scales in Ladywood? Who decides the extent of the map?
- Is it appropriate that we use clues generated with Dudley locals in another place?
Street Detectorism had been developed with local people with an understanding of their place, creating principles that helped us to co-design it in harmony with that place. Copying and pasting this activity into a different geographic area would not have been a regenerative approach (scaling-out). Instead, tools were created for a different kind of place detectorism emerge, with support for local people to host the activity (scaling initial conditions).
We took inspiration from a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) in Designing Resilient Regenerative Systems. Deborah Bidwell introduced biomimicry, where we move away from the Western ‘extractive dominant mystic relationship with nature’ in which we perceive ourselves as being separate from the natural world. We have 3.8 billions years of regenerative design in nature to learn from.
‘We are nature too, we evolved here, and we need to learn how to fit in. We’re a young species, only some 300,000 years old. And fortunately for us, there’s 10 to… 50 million wise elders… who have lessons to teach us about how to fit in here on Earth in ways that are collaborative, cooperative, not extractive, and ways that are regenerative…and… “create conditions that are conducive to life”.’ Deborah Bidwell (also quoting Janine Benyus)
There are three elements of biomimicry:
- Ethos — We learn to love, value, and respect nature, fitting in with humility and doing active good.
- (Re)connect — We recognise indigenous people haven’t lost their connection to nature; we ‘remember how to belong in the natural world’; and we ‘observe nature carefully, observantly, humbly, quietly’.
- Emulate — We translate a natural strategy or biological design into human design to ‘create more efficiency, less resource use… and conditions more conducive to life’.
For Street Detectorism, we wanted to tap into the Ethos and (Re)connect elements of biomimicry. Instead of using clues generated by local people, we could use tools from nature to sense our surroundings.
We prototyped a more adaptable version of Street Detectorism on the High Street in which Street Detectorists ventured out onto the High Street with a blank page, a tool from nature to focus our senses, and a question to ground ourselves in deep time.
Alan chose to be grasshopper legs, to create this rich map of the direction and strength of sound. He imagined that 1000 years ago, there would have been a more rounded noise, not sudden from all directions; there would be lots of people, traders and drinkers, in a more consistently busy market.
Dionne was taken out of work mode by venturing out onto the High Street as a potato plant hair, sensing vulnerabilities. Inspired by data humanism, she created this beautiful map called Potato Chronicles.
Lorna became a shark snout, picking up electric fields. She was blown away by the amount of electric objects and actions on the High Street, and started the immense task of counting them all. Her wisdom she wanted to share with future generations: Don’t rely on electricity!
Sue explored the High Street as mycelium, listing connections and contrasts she sensed. She became anonymous until she looked up and someone smiled at her, transforming her back into a human. The newspaper headline of her connections catalogue: It’s all go in Dudley!
I remained in the lab as a narwhal tusk, sensing chemicals and salts on the High Street. My hand became a conduit for a bobbing McDonalds bag of salty food and streams of and flows of exhaust chemicals. Looking 100 years in the future, I imagined my tusk would either be overwhelmed with many more man-made chemicals and radiation, or, hopefully, more natural chemicals from plants and nature.
The Street Detectorists ‘loved’ using the tools from nature: it felt ‘different’ and they felt ‘challenged in a good way’. They felt having a map was still useful as a prompt, as a blank sheet of paper can be overwhelming. They also thought it would be helpful to have different entry points: people could choose to experiment with visualising data, exploring places, or just being present, like a choose your own adventure book.
For CIVIC SQUARE, we created an invitation for people to take part in the next iteration of Street, or Place, Detectorism, and sent over tools and questions for the Detectorists to explore Ladywood with, along with an optional map with a boundary determined by people that have an understanding of the area.
Not only did this process nurture connections between Dudley’s Street Detectorism with the more-than-human (principle: Nurture Connections), it encouraged us to think systemically and regeneratively, share resources (principle: Be Good Ancestors) and create opportunities for shared learning (principle: Learn By Doing Together).
In each Stories of Place session, everyone brings with them their curiosity and knowledge which is shared, combined, and morphed into collective questions and ideas. We have become a community of rhizomatic learners:
“Rhizomatic learning describes a process of learning that does not come from a single central point of origin, that allows for multiple, non-hierarchical entry and exit points in learning and in teaching. In a rhizomatic learning system, the community of learners is the curriculum. The system is less goal oriented as it allows learners to react to emerging circumstances, continuously generating new questions. In fact, the point is to embrace what we don’t know and never cease to ask questions. Rhizomatic learning acknowledges the diversity of knowledge production systems and therefore constitutes a model for an epistemological alternative to Western rationalism.”
In February, Helen brought in a few books she was curious about, around the archaeology of place names.
“Indeed, in place names you find almost every aspect of humanity highlighted and recorded like a beacon in time. Some of the echoes of these voices of the past will be heard loud and clear, no doubt who the originators were. Some are faint, almost inaudible and distorted, leaving uncertainty about their identity and what they are trying to convey.”
The History of Place Names in England and Worcestershire.
Kirren and Alan were also drawn to place names, so together they explored historical names, how they change over time, and possibilities for the future. They developed ideas for how they could engage other people in this, thinking about how people journey through places, places without names, and how we can draw on our senses to name the places we are in.
From this rhizomatic learning, Helen developed a prototype of ‘Place Naming: Transform Anywhere to Somewhere’.
Helen invited us to search for micro spaces on the High Street, and created names for them. When sharing our place names, we realised we’d mostly been drawn to recesses on the High Street; places we could stop and linger. Some of these places were neglected, forgotten, or in transition. The process had us sharing stories of what we’d seen in the present and reminiscing on stories of the past. Mark reflected that we seem to need stories in order to claim space. By spending time with these micro spaces and giving them our focus, stories soon emerged along with names like the Passage of All Sorts, Yam Nook and Side Salad.
The names revealed stories and experiences of Dudley High Street from the past and curiosities of the present, helping us to notice overlooked potential (principle: Be Good Ancestors).
We invite you to download the Place Naming activity and take a walk along Dudley High Street, your home or another place to transform anywhere to somewhere:
Through our ritual around understanding of place and design for harmony with place, a cultural ecology of community research and collective discovery has emerged.
“Artistic or creative expression and cultural work are central to social change; they allow us to feel at the emotional, physical, and spiritual level. Cultural Strategy focuses on creating conditions for discovery, experiential learning and artistic immersion — versus simply focusing on ideas, stories, or message dissemination… In this way, Cultural Strategy creates leverage opportunities for critical consciousness and collective discovery.”
Art/Work Practice, ‘Cultural Strategy: An Introduction & Primer’
This cultural ecology has led to the emergence of meaningful connections between people and place (principle: Nurture Connections). Collective sensemaking and collaborative design that connects issues and reveals patterns is enabling us to co-evolve experiments that are designed mindful for the interdependency of elements within our ecosystem (principle: Seek Living Systems Health).
This has led us to exploring different ways of inviting people to engage with and co-create Stories of Place on Saturday 1st October 11am-3pm. You are welcome to join us for:
- Journeys to the High Street — celebrating the stories of Black communities who have journeyed from across the world to the High Street.
- Scale of Permanence — travelling through deep time to spot or create stories from the past, present and future of Dudley High Street.
- Who owns the High Street? — exploring who owns buildings on the High Street and creating interventions to share this knowledge.
- Street Detectorism — venturing out onto the High Street with a map and a tool from nature to discover old, new and potential stories of place.
- Stitchers in Time — 11am-1pm — stitching stories of future Dudley.
The prototypes within this event will circle us back to the cyclical phases of regenerative design: It will deepen our understanding of place, help us to join dots across the system, and lead to other reflections and sparks of ideas for further co-evolved design for harmony with place.