Ashita Gupta has an MA in Urban Design and Planning with research expertise in urban design and regeneration, co-design, and stakeholder engagement. She is currently a Research Associate on the AHRC Design Exchange Partnership funded ‘Digital Seascapes’ project at the University of Plymouth; for which I am her mentor, specialising in digital placemaking and inclusive design.
Especially passionate about community engagement, and designing inclusive spaces, Ashita received the ‘Victoria Henshaw Price for Contributions to City Liveability’ from the University of Sheffield in 2021. In this interview, I speak with Ashita about her motivation for seeking community voices, why it is so important to include underrepresented groups in the community engagement process, and what she has learned from the Digital Seascapes project so far.
What is your motivation for working with members of the public and why do you feel this is important for shaping the built environment?
I strongly believe embracing a human-centred approach to shaping the built environment is essential because people are the ultimate end users of the spaces we design. When we talk about creating sustainable, inclusive, and contextually responsive places, it’s important to have a participatory process – whether it’s decision-making towards managing these spaces or designing them – to make sure anything we do is rooted in place and leverages the local intelligence of the community. Active involvement of the community in this context is not just a matter of good practice but a critical component to ensure a deep understanding of the local context and a commitment to inclusivity and accountability; making places more adaptable and therefore, more likely to endure and remain relevant with the changing needs of the community over time.
What is lacking at the moment and why is it important to include different voices?
Including different voices brings in a diversity of perspectives, which enriches the design process and helps avoid blind spots. Different people bring different experiences and needs to the table, resulting in more well-rounded and innovative solutions in the sense that they account for the social, economic and cultural factors that will influence how the urban spaces will ultimately be used. However, marginalized groups with limited access to resources are still often underrepresented and face substantial barriers to participation which are further exacerbated by the capacity challenges, information disparities and often, tokenism that exists in the community engagement processes. The individuals or groups participating in engagement activities may not always represent the full diversity of the community. Lack of accessible information further deters informed engagement and creates barriers to effective participation for hard-to-reach groups. Ensuring that all voices are heard such that decision-making processes are inclusive and equitable, therefore, remains an ongoing challenge.
Please can you describe the Digital Seascapes project and the key aims/outcomes?
Digital Seascapes is an AHRC Design Exchange Partnership (DEP) funded project which is taking a co-design approach to identify new ways for communities to engage with the sea as a public space using digital technologies. The DEPs are an innovative way of working; bringing together researchers, designers and industry stakeholders through three-way collaborative projects, which seek to demonstrate a tangible impact on local communities with the intention to diversify the voices who contribute to addressing the climate crisis.
The project is a partnership between the University of Plymouth, Plymouth City Council, Plymouth Sound National Marine Park (NMP), and the Rock Pool Project who have been working as custodians of the city towards the shared goal of building coastal resilience. The project aims to create pathways to marine citizenship whilst making coastal areas more accessible, especially for excluded communities in deprived coastal neighbourhoods; and more broadly to contribute towards building resilient and inclusive coastal communities.
Building on the learnings from the creation of the first UK National Marine Park (NMP) and the work of the EU Green Minds project in Plymouth for green and blue governance, we’re working with stakeholders for co-creating a digital citizen science toolkit to be used as part of a wider set of activities to engage coastal communities; particularly young people in caring for the marine environment. The project will pilot this approach in Plymouth with the aim for this to be replicable across other coastal towns/cities in the UK and will also develop a design guide with tangible examples as an outcome to inform a new policy approach for civic governance of marine spaces.
How has, and will, the project engage with local communities?
Together with our engagement partners at the Rock Pool project (a not-for-profit community interest company), we’re working with communities from the most excluded neighbourhoods in Plymouth (Stonehouse and Devonport) in a place-based community co-design process to prototype digital interventions which enable engagement with the marine environment and facilitate access to the sea. With some of the highest levels of deprivation in the country (top 1%), these communities are less likely to visit the sea despite living within a mile from the coast and have the potential to gain from the benefits such access brings. The co-design process will enable them not just to literally visit the sea during their engagement with the project but also to create a more sustainable legacy for the wider neighbourhood by creating pathways to marine citizenship. The project will give them agency to engage with and care for their coastal environment which will have a positive impact on achieving environmental goals around coastal resilience.
What have you learnt so far? What interests you from your experience on this project thus far?
Our preliminary findings reiterate how people living in socio-economically disadvantaged areas have less access to green and blue spaces, and therefore disproportionately benefit from the exposure and access to them. Coastal communities are some of the most deprived in the UK, where people living in deprived neighbourhoods are severely impacted by accessibility barriers from participating in the public realm. While economic and social deprivation in coastal communities has been much talked about in recent years, much of the evidence especially around access to the sea is anecdotal which adds to the complexity of the challenge. Therefore, I’m interested in exploring whether we can address some of the research gaps and create ways to overcome some of these challenges using digital technology as a tool to foster engagement with a ‘blue commons’ and enable civic participation in the governance of marine spaces.
What is the role of digital technology in this project, and what has it uniquely added?
Digital technologies in this project are being used in the context of digital placemaking. There are still few examples where the novel ways of participation that digital technologies enable are being used to explore new modes of governance and foster engagement with the green and blue spaces in cities. We are trying to address this gap in research with a focus on the sea and marine environment – which are still quite an underrepresented urban public space within this research context. We’re using digital technologies and data as tools to build narrative and give nature a voice for creating empathy and understanding between people and natural spaces – not just to foster deeper connections to place but also to grant greater agency to the communities involved. Using digital tools in this collaborative and iterative process of co-design is contributing to building the community’s resilience by not just helping them build literacy around the usage of digital tools but also generating their own evidence base to be stewards of their marine spaces and drive social change.
What has the response been so far?
The community engagement workshops have been quite successful in helping us establish baselines, most importantly around people’s relationship with the sea and their connection to the marine environment; including patterns around how they use outdoor seaside spaces and the barriers in accessing them. Our conversations with the community during these workshops have been instrumental in driving this work forward – revealing the subjectivity of people’s relationship with the sea and a weaker sense of place in relation to it which translates into a lack of engagement with the marine environment and impacts how often people frequent these spaces. We’ve found that how individuals identify and relate to the ‘sea’ and their notion of what constitutes ‘visiting the sea’ is quite varied. I’m looking forward to exploring this further to see what this means for the interventions we develop.
What are the next stages, and planned outcomes?
Using a paper-prototyping method in the first stages of our co-design workshops at Firestone Bay to draw on local insights, needs and challenges to expand our vision, we’ve captured people’s relationship with the sea to define what it means to think about the sea as a public space. We’re now collaborating with the local community, NMP Marine Rangers and the Rockpool project to build functioning prototypes using these low-fidelity prototypes as a starting point. This will provide tangible outputs and skills development opportunities to help develop a greater sense of ownership and agency. We will then trial and evaluate these interventions in our pilot site against the initial challenges to make final iterations.
The outcomes will include new knowledge about how a digital placemaking approach can be applied to marine environments including digital prototypes around engaging with the sea as a public space. We expect these to include citizen science toolkits to engage with marine biodiversity and encourage people to spend more time by the sea. We’re aiming to develop a social innovation model based on knowledge exchange and capacity building between partners and the community and will produce a design guide scaling and replicating projects across other marine environments which we hope can inform a new policy approach for civic governance of marine spaces in the UK.
Your previous experience includes developing digital toolkits as part of the Living Lab approach, and you have undertaken extensive public engagement with school groups in the city over a one-year period. Can you tell us more about this please?
This research was a part of the EU Green Minds project – a 4 year- multi-partner project funded by the Urban Innovative Actions aimed at delivering an integrated planning and management system for urban nature within Plymouth using nature-based solutions. Place-based digital technologies and data can provide new ways of interacting with nature by enabling us to see how wildlife uses our green spaces; to help us value and manage those spaces in ways that benefit people and wildlife while also helping the community to share data in meaningful and accessible ways. Using collaborative place-based citizen science, we set up a Lora WAN-based Living Lab infrastructure and sensor network in the city to empower the community to monitor wildlife and the environment. We co-designed site-specific digital experiments across pilot sites and used this infrastructure to make urban nature more exciting and visible to people, for enhancing ‘nature-connectedness’. This included prototypes such as interactive signage, nature discovery trails and a chat to the park interface.
In the co-creative process, we also identified challenges around establishing pro-conservation behaviours and co-designed a ‘Nature data probe toolkit’ to intervene by creating intentional engagement with urban nature using simple nature-based activities. Co-designing with local school groups in this process was especially useful as young adults and children are not only amongst the most excluded from the decision-making process but working with these groups is particularly effective for creating long-term impact in establishing environmental stewardship.
Thank you Ashita for your time and sharing this inspiring work.