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BUILD IT AND THEY WILL COME only works for ghosts: why 'capital' grants must fund pre-activation

Updated: Nov 28, 2022

'Ghost' baseball players run to their positions from a corn field, recreating the scene in the Kevin Costner movie 'Field of Dreams'
The film 'Field of Dreams' told us Build it and they will come but it doesn't really work like that. Credit:Library of Congress

The research showed there was no need for an adaptation of the offer, just minor changes in making the paths more physically accessible for people with mobility needs.

The research was accompanied by a map of from where respondents – visitors to the forest – came. The free-to-access facility stood at about 4 o'clock, east-south-east on the city’s urban fringe. The participants came predominantly from between 8 and 2, the more affluent west and north. There were no respondents who had found their way to this green belt from the deprived communities that on the forest’s doorstep.

Community co-design of the new improved cycling facilities had been suggested. Of course, the community who already used the site – having driven up the steep single-track lane, over the dual carriageway, to the car park and main entrance at the back of the site – had already said they thought everything was fine. That made sense, they were using it, any barriers to participation had been overcome.

What about co-designing the changes with members of the nearby communities currently not accessing the site. What if we asked them what would make them come use this as a place to ride?

Built environment teams are increasingly open to the idea of co-creation. Locally we’ve seen it a lot in the development of provision for walking and cycling as active travel, but this, like so many forms of traditional consultation or engagement still generally focuses on people who are already walking and cycling (or vehemently opposed to the measures). ​

If we were trying to reach the ‘hardly reached’, the inactive, and engage new people in the possibilities of cycling; if the research methods remained the same what context would they have to help design a cycling facility?

What if they hadn’t rode a bike in 30 years? What if they’d never experienced a cycling facility – or had only experienced one they didn’t like? What if they didn’t have a bike, and had never ridden a bike? How would they respond to an artist’s impression or rank their preferences in a meaningful way?

The local authority agreed, and a bid went into the fund, not only for a traditional ‘feasibility study’ into the environmental logistics of improving the site but ​to include an approach we called ‘pre-activation’, to the social feasibility of the project.

The plan was to work with local community organisations who understood their residents. We would take a person-centric approach and support locals who didn’t cycle to access a bike for them and their families, lights, helmets if they wanted them, Bikeability (learn to ride) training, wayfinding support, even a bike seat for a toddler if that’s what they needed. They’d access short led-cycle rides with others like them, and these rides would eventually make use of the protected cycle lanes that ran along the dual carriageway that segregated them from the green belt and access the forest. Then they would be in a position to tell us, what would keep them cycling, and what would help others who were in the same position they were only weeks previously.

The funder saw this approach to create insight as to how to ensure the facility was accessed by the deprived communities on its doorstep was considered ‘revenue’ rather than ‘capital’ and out of scope. ​

Without a broader, more systematic definition of what is acceptable within a capital fund be it for sport or transport, we risk designing better infrastructure only for those already making use of that which exists already – not those whose behaviour we are hoping to influence into activity.

This approach isn’t cheap, but it is just as an important a piece of the feasibility jigsaw for a new or improved facility as whether you have the right kind of soil. It’s certainly a lot cheaper than unused infrastructure.

Some capital funders have accepted or even now insist on ‘activation’ as a small part of an infrastructure project.

I’d argue that ‘pre-activation’ ought to be just as important an aspect of that picture, be it to design a cycling facility, safer walking and cycling, a multi-use games area, or any infrastructure to support activity in the public realm.

If we only ask people what they want in an active environment, we’ll only ever repeat the same environments that exist now, that create the same barriers to participation, for what other context do people have to break the mould?

Taking inspiration from other forms of active and tactical placemaking, ‘Pre-activation’ should be funded as a standard form of participatory action research. This would allows us create more than a 'context free consulatation'. We could work those we wish to engage to paint a picture of what is possible and allow them to show us what will help them become more active. Then, we may use our expertise to interpret not only their words but also their actions.

I collected a few examples of approaches similar to my concept of pre-activation while on my Churchill Fellowship and I'll hopefully share them soon. If you’ve others I’d love for you to share too.

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