One of the common themes of the Pioneering Places projects is how heritage assets – often long-forgotten or underused sites – can be used to generate and create new assets, inspire new ideas and create new relevance for these heritage sites for future generations.
As an award-winning digital artist and lecturer at East Kent College’s EDGE School of Creative and Business, Matt Rowe is someone who knows a thing or two about inspiring the next generation. Having worked on two of the Pioneering Places projects – in Folkestone and Dover – Matt also has a good insight into what sets them apart from other placemaking initiatives.
“Placemaking projects can often be a smokescreen for gentrification”, says Matt. “Pioneering Places has been a lot more about genuine community engagement. Typically, when trying to engage people in planning or placemaking projects it can be easier to ‘buy’ people in. These projects take a different approach. They’re more collaborative, drawing from the ground up. It’s very empowering”.
Both Fort Burgoyne in Dover and the old Gasworks site in Folkestone have a strong sense of history, but also a certain mystique about them. Largely overgrown and abandoned, a key part of both projects lies in harnessing that history whilst sparking imagination about the possible futures of the sites with a sense of creative freedom.
“The Gasworks site is ideal for this”, Matt explains. “It’s somewhere that no-one really wanted and no-one knows what to do with it. Risk-taking is therefore encouraged. A lot of projects led by large cultural organisations can often be focused on big announcements, and festivals – polishing content to look Instagram-ready”.
But as Matt has found, these sites require a different approach from the cultural organisations involved in Pioneering Places. It is as much about the process as the end-product.
For Matt, part of this is about capturing a place in transition – both what a place was, what it is and what it could be. One example of how this translates in a very direct way is the production of a 3D virtual model of the Fort Burgoyne site commissioned by The Land Trust. Based on laser scans of the physical site, this accurate 3D model has now been given to Matt as a digital asset for use by his students at The Edge School of Creative and Business.
The cost of bringing in 3D laser scanners and producing an accurate 3D model of a site would normally be too prohibitive for any college to consider, so Matt is excited about the opportunities this presents to his colleagues and students;
“We can start to plan all of our projects at the Edge around these assets. We can really build from this and explore many different things – games design, projection mapping, construction design, touch-boards, arduino boards, narrative-based storytelling. It’s a spring-board for engagement with the heritage site with a different audience”.
Commissioning young people
The benefits of businesses and organisations engaging with schools and colleges are widely recognised, but in practice this happens far less than it should. One area that has been proven to yield great results is being explored through Pioneering Places project partners The Land Trust and Albion Inc in commissioning the young students at The Edge to deliver a short film as part of Fort Burgoyne’s Year of Engagement, with professional guidance from Matt and the team at Albion.
“This is about co-construction of engagement, with our students at the heart”, says Matt. “The brief has been designed to allow a lot of creative freedom and to fire the imagination, with 1950s style tones imagining a future that never really happened”.
Crucially, there’s a commercial-level budget attached to the project too, which helps support the aspirations of the students – they know they’re being taken seriously – whilst allowing The Edge to give the students some experience of managing a budget. “It’s delivering work experience in a meaningful way,” says Matt, “which also has meaning for the community”.
Matt sees opportunities for a strong legacy from The Edge’s involvement in the project and through the commissioning brief, both for the college and the community. “The call-out of the brief, response, feedback and understanding can be shared and given to others to help. That’s really exciting. It’s progressive”.
Some of the second year students have already visited the Fort Burgoyne site for initial research and photo shoots and there’s even a possibility that some of East Kent College’s construction students could get in on the action in constructing some structures on the site as part of the project.
Matt is hopeful about the potential for new partnerships The Edge is developing through this project;
“The approach from Pioneering Places has been ‘what is it you need and how can we make it work?’. It’s about growing stronger networks and showing young people that they have opportunities”.