Designing food citizenship spaces

One key element of food citizenship is connection. When people are brought together, new relationships are formed, information flows more easily, ideas are generated more quickly. New possibilities emerge. It is this emergence that builds resilience.

Building on initial workshops on community food resilience in Sheffield, in August 2020 we interviewed community food organisations to get a sense of how they design spaces which foster social interaction. Here are some things we learned in the process.

Who owns the space?

A clear tension that emerges concerns who owns the space, both legally and emotionally, and how that impacts the way people behave within it.

An organisation or body may be owning the space legally, but how that space is managed, and how people can use the space can make a huge difference. Some organisations talk of their role as softly holding the space for the benefit of the community, making sure they are not precious as to how the space is used, so long as the community is happy with what it is used for.

Community members can become more emotionally connected and invested in a place when they are actively involved in designing, decorating or building a space. This means they will likely participate more with the space moving forward and look after it. The process of co-creation can also help foster a stronger sense of community, with members forming deeper connections with each other around this shared project. What can this look like in practice?

  • Participatory City’s Tomorrow Today campaign is trying to bring streets together by sending out starter-packs for community-led projects. From one-off events like a street party, to longer-term projects like open orchards, they encourage neighbours to collaborate and get stuck in to building the kind of streets and communities they want to live in.
  • Glasshouse Community Design is a national charity that supports communities, organisations and networks to work collaboratively on the design of buildings, open spaces, homes and neighbourhoods. They see design as a way to connect people and empower them with enhanced confidence, skills and a greater sense of agency.

Physical spaces

Emergency food providers do so much more than provide food alone. Designed well, they can foster social interactions, counter loneliness and offer space to learn and share skills, stories and experiences. However, there is a constant struggle for organisations to design for efficiency versus designing for social connection. This has been heightened under the pandemic and social distancing restrictions.

Here are some of the things an organisation may have done that prioritises efficiency:

  • Workstations set up to ensure efficiency (eg: one task per station, items ordered for easier packing)
  • One-way system for human traffic (sometimes due to  social distancing rules)
  • Formalisation of volunteering (job descriptions, strict schedules, regular shifts, databases of volunteers and contact lists, necessary DBS checks, etc.).
  • Packing larger parcels (for a week’s worth rather than a few days) to streamline packing management.

All of these are very important to ensure the system works well. However, these organisations know they respond to the social needs of their communities as well.

In order to remain as connected as possible under physical distancing restrictions, here are some of the steps they have taken to preserve social interaction:

  • Removing physical barriers as much as possible and creating open spaces, especially at the moment when physical distancing requires a bit more room for everyone (eg: warehouse open space, windows/glass to see into rooms, cafés removing excess items on counters)
  • Having offices as close together as possible with colleagues, or near the building’s entrance, to be at hand when needed or welcome new people into the space.
  • Have a spot where people can “chill” and “wind down” (whether this is sitting at the staff kitchen alone and able to take off a mask for a breather, or going outside for a cigarette)
  • Play music and ensure any chatter is heard to create a sense of buzz in the space (packing together gets the highest chatter score!)

Due to the restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic, many people expressed how much they miss having a physical place to come together as a team. In order to remain connected with peers, communications take the form of calls on mobile phones, using simple tools including whatsapp groups, or simply pigeonholes for each staff member, where colleagues can pass on work or goodies.

Beyond physical spaces

The buildings we design are only part of the picture. The procedures people go through to access a space, as well as the digital spaces we maintain, also have an impact on our sense of connection to the space and the other people in it.

During the pandemic, there has a been a big shift in attention to and use of digital communications, as people were no longer able to gather as before. For example, interviewees mentioned more frequent and longer phone calls to community members. Some organisations reported going from 2-minute phone calls to schedule a parcel delivery, to 45 minutes to have a chat about life. This informal pastoral care is another way for people to feel connected.

When thinking about how people are able to engage with a space, we need to consider who is allowed to enter it.  Some organisations are reviewing their relationship with the formal referral system. This is the system which determines whether or not someone is eligible to emergency food. Some organisations are either joining it, dropping it, or using a combination of both.

The referral system was created for a reason: accountability and building trust. It can be used as a signposting and support mechanism, including ‘early catching’. It may encourage people to approach services earlier than they normally would have. However, the referral system is increasingly challenged as simply a gatekeeper. It can be a barrier to many and reinforces of stigma.

The referral system raises many questions around judgment: who decides who is allowed to access emergency food, to the community space or the individuals within in? Is it social services, emergency food organisations, individuals themselves, or a combination of them? Equally though, rather than thinking about where judgment comes from, can we do without it altogether and simply welcome anyone?

Ultimately, it is important to remember that how people come to the space has a deep impact on them.