Mapping Nottingham’s identity: a bottom-up engagement with local heritage

The project “Mapping Nottingham’s Identity” started as an initiative that brought together all those involved with the public space in Nottingham.



The focus was on encouraging public engagement activities, exchanges and conversations in three different areas: Carrington, Sneinton and West Bridgford. Research was conducted in close collaboration between Nottingham Trent University (Architecture Subject Group), city authorities (Nottingham Heritage Strategy), local communities and key stakeholders including Sneinton Alchemy, Carrington Tenants’ and Residents’ Association, West Bridgford Infant School and Carrington Primary School, alongside volunteers and members of the general public who, very generously, contributed with their time, expertise, skills and good will. The interactive exhibition in Nottingham Central Library (03/09 – 01/10/2016) showcased the beginnings of a collaboration between the university, neighbourhoods and the general public,  providing the chance to create a platform for dialogues between communities across Nottingham.

dscf6819The main purpose of this project was to start a bottom-up approach to Heritage, which matches the recently published five principles of networked heritage (RSA website. Networked Heritage Essential for Places to Succeed in Devolved UK, 2016, updated 7 November 2016 [cited 19 November 2016]). Our main focus was on the first principle: “start with people”, getting to understand their needs and motivations by following the existing channels of communication. It was important for the project to acknowledge as well the second principle highlighted by the RSA: “heritage is what people choose to make it”: art, design and other creative approaches and participatory methods were used to emphasize the importance of subjective perspectives and perceptions. Our focus was and will be in the next few years, to facilitate finding solutions within the communities, imagining future scenarios, negotiating personal points of view. In these processes artists/designers/architects become mediators not only between different stakeholders, but also mediators of different ways of doing things, of highlighting the social relevance of education, of connecting theory and practice, reality and desired futures.

A participatory methods’ Toolkit:

This research project is based on the premises of co-production of knowledge and co-design, and as a result, it has no further agenda than to facilitate a dialogue that questions issues of identity and belonging in Nottingham. The content is determined by the people who choose to be involved, and consequently, the results are emotional, subjective, and personal.

The main tools we used to promote this community conversation were:

  1. carrington_imaginary-map_-colour-a0-02“Resident-guided” tours: to learn what people in the community want to share, what they believe is relevant, etc.
  2. Personal Mapping: what is the perception of the users of a particular place, how do they use the area and with whom are they connected?
  3. Coding the map: to identify places people usually spend time and the places they would like to dwell in.
  4. Museum of the present: A selection of objects that showcase the present time of the neighbourhood, which in the future will become references of the past. This collection was created in order to raise questions about the importance of our everyday actions and routines. Moreover, we wanted to question the idea of selection in museums: who decides what is worth being exhibited? Who should be the main curator?
  5. Semi-structured interviews: with main stakeholders in the community.
  6. Workshops: as a method for stimulating a conversation between different actors about issues that the project wanted to tackle. For each workshop, a set of material prompts was prepared, depending on the questions that the workshop tried to answer. Material prompts served to guide the workshop and to enable all participants to be active and to have their say.
  7. Public experiments: One of the material outcomes of the public consultation process was a design for community furniture kNott. We took part in a very popular local festival (Sneinton Festival) to present this idea and to test the concept in communication with the wider public. The stall at the festival was designed to describe the process of making kNott, and to test the furniture units.
  8. Focus group: Public consultation. The project team developed five different designs proposals. They were represented in the form of models made of recycled MDF: “crafty” objects were made with a purpose to provoke interaction.
  9. Communicating with children: “Discovering your identity” and “Little monuments”. On the one hand, children were asked to bring ideas and pictures relating to five different themes: their favourite games, stories, celebrations, places and family. This exercise has helped us to define what it means to be a child in Nottingham, which has become the foundation for a “cultural survival kit” for those kids who are new to Nottingham. On the other hand, children from different age groups were asked to select one object from their school which is important for them and for the school itself, as an exercise to think about identity and its representation.pr34

Impact of Mapping Nottingham’s Identity

  1. The idea of empowering the role of the audience is at the core of this project. Everybody should be able to question the role of the built environment in shaping their identity. The project goes beyond this idea and encourages actions to strengthen a sense of belonging, pride and responsibility. Moreover, it also introduces a debate about authorship and ownership with co-production of knowledge and co-design. If we all take part, there is no individual outcome (one author) but a communities’ perception and emotional one.
  2. Mapping Nottingham’s Identity approach aligns with the recently published Five Principles of Networked Heritage, using a bottom up connection between the local community and heritage. This appreciation of place, acknowledging individual perceptions and emotional responses, will encourage a stronger sense of belonging, as well as an improvement of health and wellbeing. The Foresight Project’s Five Ways to Well-Being includes five steps to fortify mental health, as well as a more productive and fulfilling life:
    1. Connect: developing relationships enriches life and brings support.
    2. Be active: sports and active hobbies make individuals feel good and maintain mobility.
    3. Be curious: noting everyday moments helps foster appreciation of what matters.
    4. Learn: gives satisfaction and boosts confidence.
    5. Give: helping others links individual happiness to the wider community and is very rewarding.
      (Chief Cultural & Leisure Officers Association, The role of culture and leisure in improving health and wellbeing, page 6).

Mapping Nottingham’s identity is based on volunteering, individuals are encouraged to participate, connect, be curious, learn, and help each other in this community effort.

  1. dscf8013There is also evidence that ownership also features as an important element in the conservation of heritage and general care for one’s own built environment. The Heritage 2020: strategic priorities for England’s historic environment 2015-2020 underlines “Everyone in England is entitled to define, engage with, and make decisions about the historic environment and how it is cared for” […] “community involvement is about participation, responsibility and a greater sense of ‘ownership’” (p.9).
  2. Improving networking and collaborations: Mapping Nottingham’s Identity has helped us to encourage further connections in the localities that we were involved with during the summer. Moreover, we have been able to translate one of the participatory methods to an international approach: mapping as a tool to explore identity has been used as well in Johannesburg, with a more focused group connected with the Outreach Foundation, based in Hillbrow. The workshop was adapted to the timeframe and context, but the result was another map based on emotional perceptions as a group effort.

This is just the beginning of Mapping Nottingham’s identity… we will keep you updated!


Dr Ana Souto Dasha Spasojevic
Dr Ana Souto is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Architecture Design and the Built Environment at Nottingham Trent University. Ana’s research interest lies in architecture as a cultural manifestation of national identity. In this context she dealt with the search for national identity in post-revolutionary Mexico, and the 1929 Iberoamerican Exhibition in Seville. More recently she has been working on the connections between memory, identity and architecture, with an especial interest in Germany, where memory (both history and collective memory) plays an important role in the construction of a new German identity. Ana is currently experimenting with participatory methods leading to co-production of knowledge, focused on both local and international case studies (Nottingham, Johannesburg). Ana actively contributes to journals, publications and conferences. Dasha Spasojevic graduated architecture in Belgrade (Serbia), a post-socialist city in transition facing informal building, rapid privatisation and misuse of public property. After being involved with a myriad of projects and initiatives consistently focused on the environmental and social responsibilities of architecture, she moved to Europe for a Masters in environmental policy and society studies. Working in the UK, Netherlands, Brussels and Eastern Europe made her understand the importance of communicating habits and actions in built environment and the value of innovation in civil society sector. She engaged with Mapping Nottingham’s Identity project as a Research Fellow at Nottingham Trent University.