Team member Phil having a conversation on the a community event day.

Creating a space for imagining; asking different questions

One of the wonderful aspects of community building is hearing stories about what communities are doing to grow a sense of place and come together more; street parties, cafes, new groups, Festivals and so much more.

Near where I live is the amazing Randwick Wap, with it’s medieval costumed procession, cheese rolling and dipping of the Mayor and Queen in a pond. The Wap was first recorded in 1703 then halted in 1892 due to rowdiness, then restored by the late vicar Rev. Nial Morrison in 1972. Every year now hundreds of residents and local groups get involved; the Wap is like a “glue” that brings the community together and helps enable a whole host of other activities to flourish in the village throughout the year.

There are many other Gloucestershire examples but I also love stories from around the world, like in Boston where poems were painted with an ‘invisible’ water resistant paint so that they only appeared on the streets when it rained (i), or the bus turning circle in Tooting (London) that got turned into a ‘village green’ (ii) or in Melbourne where folks create and dress up in elaborate cardboard costumes and battle ‘for fun’ (iii).

Community building has been happening for decades in many different ways, but I’ve found that there are some ‘tools’ that can facilitate even more of it to happen. One of those key tools is asking different questions. What do communities do best? What do they need help with? How can outside agencies help communities? Questions that uncover what people’s passions and gifts are and what, if they joined with neighbours, they might do in their neighbourhood. These questions can often be the start of imagining and creating more connections in a community.

A favourite question is ‘What If…’. This question can help communities think about what might be possible. It is such a powerful question, as it allows dreaming and stepping into what we might accomplish together. It is therefore very wonderful that Rob Hopkins has just written a whole book with the title, ‘From What Is To What If, Unleashing The Power Of Imagination To Create The Future We Want.’ In it, he explores questions like ‘What If We Took Play Seriously’ and ‘What If We Became Better Story Tellers’. Playing with such ideas extends the range of possibilities for creativity and for change.

Actor Roy Faudree says: ”Fun is a very silly word, but a highly productive state.” In Rob Hopkins book there are a host of wonderful stories, many are full of fun, where roads have been closed to traffic so children can play, car parks are now food gardens, supermarkets have replaced air freighted goods with local alternatives, public spaces have been adapted to grow edible plants and so much more. Rob Hopkins says, asking the question ‘What If…’  can help us unlock the imagination to explore the big challenges we face. He writes:

“"The question simply begins to open the door, creating a crack through which we might push and rush to the other side. It is an invitation as much as a question. At a time when such spaces seem in short supply, ‘What if . . .’ becomes the perfect antidote to ‘There is no alternative.’”“
Rob Hopkins

In the book, Rob shows that many of us are forgetting how to use our imagination and how that might be having huge untold consequences on our communities. His book explores what we can do to revive and replenish our collective imagination – and he argues that there is no end to what is possible.

I say ‘Yay!’ To that!

Too often we are not making the space to explore or think about what might be possible and too often the possibilities of change have been underestimated. This is dangerous. However, similarly I’ve heard some suggest that small steps like smiling at neighbours or saying ‘hello’ are somewhat ‘tame suggestions’ in terms of growing community. Nothing could be further from the truth. These small steps can lead to discovering neighbours interests, sharing a front door key when away, and can at times lead to much more. In one community I’ve seen a street party start with those first steps. In another, a weekly cafe was founded and in another the residents closed the road to traffic so that children can play.

There is a wonderful expression about how building communities can only be done by ’travelling at the speed of trust.’ Some changes cannot be rushed however much we might wish it.

Rob, at the Stroud Book Festival in November, got the packed Subscription Rooms audience to explore ‘What If’s’ for Stroud. Dozens of ideas came forward like ‘What If’…we had a night school of imagination, a civic imagination centre, everyone switched off their computers for a day, every building in Stroud had a garden or window box to encourage insects, children could run the council for a week, a free bike hire system throughout the Five Valleys, every green space has a story telling chair and a piano, a weekly gathering to paint murals on buildings and so much more (iv).

Some of this is about what can be called ‘placemaking’; inspiring people to collectively re-imagine and reinvent public spaces as the heart of every community. This may be at the street level or maybe a whole village or a city. Key is community-based participation and a process whereby people uncover the resources and assets in their communities and capitalise on them. Cara Courage, describes placemaking in her TEDx talk as “a set of tools and an approach that puts the community right at the front and centre of changes to where they live” (v).

Placemaking is one aspect of community building that perhaps doesn’t get enough attention. It is much more than just urban design – the cultural and social aspects are key. It includes telling stories which help people better understand their community. It is these stories that are crucial in strengthening the connection between people and the places they share (vi). Cara Courage says there is a golden thread of the arts through placemaking, but that it is not the kind of art that you see on a gallery wall.. From my experience community artists are often some of the best community builders.

Lucy Neal’s book, “Playing For Time, Making Art As If The World Mattered’ is packed full of examples of wonderful community building arts projects with the power to change. She writes; “I’ve always seen participatory and celebratory events as a catalyst for change: occasions that take us out of our ordinary lives to glimpse other ways of seeing and being.”

When our imagination is given space, anything is possible. When we change the questions we ask, we can open up new possibilities and dreams. Then people coming together and sharing conversations can lead to the most amazing collaborative actions. It is the gifts, passion, wisdom, resources and energy of all of us that leads to the possible.

Philip Booth, Lead Community Building Guide, Barnwood Trust




(iv) See Transition Stroud’s newsletter article:

(v) Dr. Cara Courage

(vi) Placemaking is not possible without what some have described as ‘placeshaking’. Howard Blackson used the term “placeshaker” as a “catch-all for the grass roots engagement efforts that empower, but don’t necessarily define, placemaking.” Scott Doyon writes that “Placeshaking is about connecting with networks of shared interest and rattling cages. It’s about phone calls and rallies and blog conversations and demonstration projects. It’s about all the things that need to be done, just so we can begin the hard work of placemaking.”  See references at: