This summer the Exhibit Change team got really excited to throw a ball pit event. Yes, you read that correctly. An event with a ball pit. Why? Well, where to begin…
If you live anywhere in Toronto, it would almost be impossible to have never seen the development proposal white boards announcing a potential new development project and spelling out details for upcoming community consultation meetings.
If you have ever dared to venture into one of these community consultation meetings, it is arguably an alienating experience that is a mix of posturing and politics set up in a conference room somewhere. You will soon discover that any opportunity to participate in the decision making process in your neighbourhood has been diminished to reading presentation slides and filling out feedback forms.
Which begs the question: why is the standard for community consultation in Toronto not anywhere close to authentic engagement?
Community engagement is a catchy phrase to throw around, and at its essence requires a culture where citizens have greater decision making powers beyond the occasional opportunity to cast a vote. If we, as a city, want community engagement then we very much need to start building this culture of participation.
So how do we begin to create a culture of community engagement? We at Exhibit Change decided that it might start with a ball pit.
If we want to build a culture of citizen participation, we need to start learning who we share this community with on a daily basis. Which, naturally, is uncomfortable. We all have our circle of family, friends and co-workers, but when it comes to the people we share a building with, wait at the same TTC stop every morning, or buy vegetables at the same market, it’s easier to keep a distance.
The Ball Pit project seeks to challenge that, if only for an afternoon. For our first event, we set up shop in a park and asked perfect strangers to jump into the pit and to start a conversation with someone they have never met. Sounds challenging? At first, yes. But the results were amazing.
As with our other work in design-driven community engagement, we know that true learning begins once you get people a little uncomfortable and then helping them move beyond that. On that sunny summer Saturday, we met enterprising cheese salesmen who connected with a stranger in ball pit about growing up in New Brunswick. Another set of strangers talked in length about whether coyotes were cool animals to have in the city or a real problem. Most people we met call Toronto their second home.
As we explore this new venture, we want to give props to the Soul Pancake team who inspired us to do something awesome with a ball pit. Thanks!