In-Common Walking uses participatory arts and participatory research methods to collate and understand a range of cultural uses and perceptions of urban commons and to gain a better understanding of how arts-based approaches engage local people in the co-production of knowledge.
The study is part of a wider research project, 'Wastes and Strays: the past, present and future of English urban commons', carried out by the universities of Newcastle, Portsmouth, Exeter and Sheffield. The project is funded for three years by the Art and Humanities Research Council.
The participatory performance and arts-based methods used in this study are a combination of walking, sensory mapping, reminiscence and storytelling, reflection and the use of digital tools (sound recording) to document everyday practices. An emphasis on place-based and mobile methods in this study aims to (i) develop knowledge of each urban common environment and (ii) focus attention on the sensory and relational dimensions of users’ lived experience. I will conduct a series of one-to-one, in-situ walking conversations with urban commons users. Participants are encouraged to guide me on a walk of their choosing and engage in a conversation around their pastimes, lived experience of the urban common and ambitions for its future. In the spirit of the redistribution of authority, implicit in ideas of the commons, participants author the route and the type of bodily engagement, i.e. volunteer conservation work, recreational walking, historical walk guiding. An emphasis on following the participant’s journey, both corporally and discursively, aims to support conversation around observations on the demonstrated activity, reflections on the physical features of the urban common and suggestions as to how access and enjoyment can be improved.
The conceptualisation of the activity as conversational rather than an interview reflects the emphasis on dialogue and the role of the participant as guide. In this ‘go-along’ approach, attention will be paid to the way the environment acts as a visual and auditory prompt to the thoughts, observations and stories being shared. The walking conversation method enables the researcher to listen aurally to users’ opinions and narratives and physically to their bodily actions, so gaining embodied insight into users’ everyday practices. The conversations are recorded through the use of a binaural (a stereo two-part) microphone placed in my ears, to produce 3-dimensional sound recordings of the dialogue and surrounding environment. It enables an analysis of the walker’s narrative in the context of a multi-layered soundscape, which is useful for locating the spatial relationships between the narrator, the researcher and the common. Observations focus on my experiences of walking with participants and my engagement with the sensory and material qualities of the commons. A process of re-walking the participants’ routes, either partially or in full, enables me to collect photographs, audio field recordings, notes and artefacts.
In-Common Walking is a participatory research project that charts the everyday experiences of four urban commons: Clifton Down, Bristol; Mousehold Heath,
Norwich; Town Moor, Newcastle upon Tyne; and Valley Gardens, Brighton. People who regularly visit one of these urban commons are invited to take the project's artist-researcher on a walk and talk to share their knowledge of the common. Participants may have a specialist interest or recreational pastime that they could share - a regular walk, birdwatching, foraging, fishing, conservation work, an artistic pursuit, history guiding, ecological activism or some other activity. The walking conversation is very flexible - participants are free to choose the route and to discuss the issues that seem most important to them. They might decide to visit particular places, share stories, demonstrate an activity or make suggestions on how to improve the enjoyment of these lands. By walking the urban common with participants, the researcher hopes to build up a dynamic physical impression of the common’s landscape and how it is interacted with.