PLACES THAT MATTER
Participatory Research in Regent Park, TO
Regent Park: Places that Matter was a participatory design research project that examined the role of place-making in the midst of community disruption. To do so, we conducted a series of design research exercises with several residents of Regent Park in Toronto, Canada; a community undergoing a multi-year urban revitalization effort. The slides that follow summarize this research.
As of November 2013, the ‘revitalization’ of Regent Park is partially complete. While it has already been touted a success, disparate feelings about the area persist. The developer is actively working to combat the deeply entrenched stigma associated with Regent Park (euphemistically dubbing it ‘Downtown East’), while long-time Park residents watch as their neighbourhood is transformed beyond recognition.
The disappearing version of Regent Park - seen by outsiders as a depressed and dangerous neighbourhood – had, like most neighbourhoods, a strong social and cultural system that grew organically out of the community of people living and working there. The shared physical spaces within Regent Park became permeated with significance. Those spaces are gradually disappearing, with new ones taking their place.
Through research, our team hoped to gain an understanding of how residents’ experiences can give place meaning, by inviting long-time and more recent residents and community workers to share stories of the significance of shared spaces in Regent Park.
This investigation focused specifically on shared space within the community - places that are publicly accessible, though not necessarily public. The local pool, an intersection, a park, a restaurant and an arts centre are all examples of the types of ‘shared space’ that may be researched. The goal of the research was to explore, specifically, the meanings attached to shared spaces in the community and, to that end, the project deliberately excluded private residences and other self-contained spaces. Part of the research intent was to understand - should they emerge - the deep layers of meaning that can simultaneously be attached to specific sites by multiple people.
To do so, we conducted individual interviews with people who have first-hand associations with Regent Park. They represented a variety of socio-economic situations, genders, cultural backgrounds, and ages. Our research methods included card-sorting and mapping exercises.
Respondents were asked to participate in various design research activities in order to help them reveal personal opinions and ideas about Regent Park. The tools were designed to help identify places of significance and understand their importance within the community. The research methods included a card-sorting exercise - intended to function as a means of initial discovery and insight for the research team. During the card sorting activity - and a mapping exercise intended to help participants build a visual narrative of spaces that are meaningful to them within their neighbourhood.
Along with several themes, perhaps the most important insights to emerge from the process of card-sorting were the stories and anecdotes shared by participants. They shared fears, fond memories, concerns about the redevelopment, and frustration with the stigma associated with their community:
Intended as an opportunity for participants to take us on a virtual tour of their neighbourhood, the mapping exercise revealed rich symbolism and meaning within the shared spaces of Regent Park.
The diagrams that follow show a graphical summary of the questions posed to participants, and their answers (Click to enlarge):
To analyze the information gathered from the card-sorting and mapping exercises, the research team used investigator triangulation (using spreadsheets to carefully document and organize the key descriptive narratives from the audio recordings of each interview) to spot emerging themes, and statement cards to establish thematic groupings of information.
Using the triangulated data, we each pulled quotations that struck us as meaningful and poignant. Each quotation went onto an individual page, and was captioned with a paraphrasing of the meaning of the quotation by a study team member. This allowed the study team to convey nuances that may not have been evident from the written quotation alone.
From these discussions, we narrowed our groupings down to several key themes:
Though small in size, this study revealed several interesting points of consideration for further research into place-making. These include:
It is continually surprising how open complete strangers can be when given the opportunity to share experiences and feelings. At the beginning of the research process, our team had reservations. As outsiders, we assumed the interest level might be low and our participants may be cautious when letting us sensitively explore Regent Park, one of Toronto’s most studied and scrutinized neighborhoods. Only minutes into our first interview, however, we realized how powerfully connected a person can be to their community.
The degree of vulnerability some of our participants demonstrated was truly inspiring and thought provoking. After our short research project, we are left with more questions than answers on what it means to identify strongly with a place and what it takes to be heard. In five brief sessions, we came to understand Regent Park as a neighborhood beyond violence, poverty, and crime. More than a failed social housing project, Regent Park is a community with stories of vivacity and suffering, resilience and tension. Most importantly Regent Park is not about the buildings, but about the relationships that form between people and their community through the spaces they share.
If this study were to move forward, we hope it could help residents of future revitalizations to share knowledge with influential stakeholders, and contribute in a meaningful way to the design process. Additionally, by conducting this research ahead of construction, planners and developers could be made aware of sacred community landmarks they must be sensitive to. If spaces cannot be saved, memorializing them - even in a small way - could help residents cope with the loss.
Team: Laura Dempsey, Kelly Kornet, Amy Satterthwaite, Krittika Sharma