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Newcastle academic wins national research award


A research project which uses theatre to explore how local communities interact with the planning process has helped a Newcastle University academic win a national award for Research Excellence.

‘The Town Meeting’, created by Dr Paul Cowie (pictured) from Newcastle University’s School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape and Newcastle-based theatre company, Cap-a-Pie, has been awarded the Sir Peter Hall Award for Wider Engagement by the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI).

The innovative play is set in the fictional town of Little Rikjord. A town in crisis, much of Little Rikjord’s prosperity has come from the nearby open cast iron ore mine. But the seam is close to exhaustion and the town’s residents – played by the audience – must come up with a plan for Little Rikjord’s future, assisted only by a shambolic junior planning officer, played by Brad McCormick. 

The play builds on research carried out by Dr Cowie which highlighted how neighbourhoods try to represent themselves in the planning process. At the end of each performance researchers and the audience debate the dramatised representation of the planning process, real life issues of neighbourhood planning itself and where fiction ends and reality begins. The award recognises the play’s success in making academic research more accessible and relevant to local communities.

Dr Cowie said: “It’s great for the play and the research to be recognised in this way. Working with Cap-a-Pie has been a great experience both for me, and more importantly, the communities we have collaborated with in the research.

“The reaction to the play has surprised both myself and Cap-a-Pie. Communities are really enthusiastic about having these types of debates about their future. Hopefully the play and project will continue to offer opportunities for communities to do that and perhaps stimulate them to have these debates for themselves.”

The Town Meeting is supported using public funding from the National Lottery through Arts Council England as well as funding from Newcastle University - including support from the Newcastle Institute of Creative Arts Practice and Newcastle University’s Institute for Social Renewal. It was performed in seven communities across the North East earlier this year and will be starting a tour of other towns and cities across the north of England this autumn.

Brad McCormick, Artistic Director, Cap-a-Pie, said: “Creating and touring ‘The Town Meeting’ is one of the most interesting projects Cap-a-Pie has been part of and we are very pleased it has won this award.

“So much of the story of ‘The Town Meeting’ depends on how the audience engages with the situation and we were pleasantly surprised by the extent that audiences took ownership over Little Rikjord and the problems the fictional town was facing. Our tour took place around the general election in May 2015 and it seemed we were giving communities a much needed space to explore issues of representation.”

Mike Harris, RTPI’s Deputy Head of Policy and Research said: “Planning affects places but it is also a very personal issue. As this project demonstrates, theatre is a unique and powerful way to tap into and communicate the human responses and passions embedded within the planning process. Far from sidestepping the emotions generated by decisions, the play puts a valuable spotlight on the tensions that sometimes arise in the planning system, and the planners who need to mediate between different interests.

“This is a truly exciting research project for its ability to give eloquent expression to the human aspects of planning and for its inventive way of reaching out to a wide audience. It is fitting that this research won the award for wider engagement named after, Sir Peter Hall, a planning academic who spent his career engaging with the public about planning.”  

The play highlights how the role of town planner has changed, moving away from an expert to more of a facilitator or mediator in the planning process. For new planners, having these skills will be just as important as the technical knowledge of the planning system and legislation. Later this year, planning officers from across the North of England will take part in a special performance of ‘The Town Meeting’ where they will take on the role of the Little Rikjord community. A version of the play has also been developed to be used as part of the MSc Town Planning degree at Newcastle University to give prospective planners a first-hand insight into community engagement. 


published on: 9 September 2015