As part of the Social Tapestries project (for which I'm doing some community development work in Southall, more soon) Proboscis organised a session yesterday to explore ways of mapping pollution at local level. Working in groups, participants set out across London Fields (technically a common, I'm told, but treated like a public park and well-maintained) - each group armed with a booklet for notes, a voice recorder and a camera.
And so we all noted the plastic bag in the branches, graffiti here and there, the split bags of household garbage and so on. We used post-its and pictures on a large-scale aerial photo to start plotting what we'd found. Among the issues that surfaced, it seemed to me that what constitutes environmental pollution could be far more contested than it tends to be: niceties of definition kept erupting. Dilapidated street furniture for example, disorderly eyesore to one person, might be unnoticed by another, and heralded as found art by a third. It was argued that the long-term closure of a public facility, a lido in this instance, constituted 'social pollution.' And so on. A few of us pondered the remains of a dismantled public water fountain - the authorities perhaps found it hard to guarantee the water quality, so if we want water in a public space now, we tend to buy it in a private space first - taking or failing to take the plastic bottle away afterwards.
It was noticeable how much richness could be added to our understanding of issues with a little local knowledge (about the industrial history of the area for instance) and an appreciation of the timetabled and seasonal use of the space. On a windy summer Saturday night, litter is a different prospect than it is on a still winter weekday morning.
Our discussion dwelt on an apparent tension between scientific data and official analysis, on the one hand, and ways of systematising local people's perception of what it's like to live here. Is it possible that the articulation of the latter is in the ascendant, in policy terms? Some of us seem to be discussing it a lot these days. The development by Social Tapestries, David Wilcox and others, of a set of tools and processes to help people articulate their everyday experience, is maybe part of a cultural shift in policy recognition of the validity of everyday life: the validity of narrative, of ordinary people telling the story of being where they are and doing what they do.