The Expressing Vibrancy project arose out of the work of cultural planning, a formal process of identifying and leveraging a community’s cultural assets. Through CoBALT Connects’ own work in cultural planning, a pattern was noted. Within cultural planning documents, the term vibrant appeared over and over again, used to describe the characteristics of cultural planning outcomes.
"Vibrant neighbourhoods and communities."
"A vibrant hub, and destination for culture."
“Vibrant” had become the catch-all term that described why people seem to form a sense of cultural identity and attachment to the features of certain neighbourhoods and communities.
What was missing from the process, however, was a working definition of the term vibrant as it relates to specific communities, or how to meaningfully implement plans to help realize the goal of “vibrant communities.” Also missing is the recognition that vibrant can mean different things to different people, so there is a need to adequately capture a range of impressions from the members of a community.
Cultural planning is meant to make communities more vital places in which culture is a driving force of positive economic and social change. Considering that, it is important that each term contained in planning documents have meaning, and that those meanings be fully understandable, actionable, and measurable.
In its simplest form, Expressing Vibrancy’s aim is to answer the question of what makes a community culturally vibrant, and to whom. The study forms a big-picture understanding of neighbourhoods by examining them through a cultural lens.
Working with key partners from an array of academic disciplines whose additional networks of knowledge, expertise, and equipment will mean the most robust study can take place. By completing the work in eight diverse test neighbourhoods in the City of Hamilton, the study will become a cultural planning tool in and of itself, replicable in any place, with a focus on implementation strategies.
Beginning in early June 2013, Expressing Vibrancy staff developed the tools to complete the first stage of data collection – the inventory of tombstone data, or, those characteristics and features of a neighbourhood that tend not to change over time. Things like trees, public art, parking spaces and signage were counted to record street-level details.
This inventory of tangible elements was rounded out by data from the City of Hamilton’s cultural planning process, which identified the cultural spaces, organizations and businesses in each area. Further statistical data including population demographics, heritage property information, festivals and events, and other cultural assets were collected by the Centre for Community Study to provide a beyond-street level understanding of each neighbourhood.
A second stage of data collection, which commenced in early August 2013, focused on qualitative data to capture individuals’ perceptions in each neighbourhood. The streetscapes were explored on consistent days of the week and times of the day to ensure comparable experiences were recorded. Two hundred volunteers representing a diversity of socio-economic brackets, ages, and ethnic backgrounds toured each neighbourhood at the pedestrian level. Observations were limited to what could be experienced from that vantage.
This layer of data collection noted the diversity of responses to elements in the urban environment, with particular attention given to how members of various demographic groups related to certain elements, and how that influenced their sense of the space.
In the spring of 2014, each neighbourhood was captured in a 360-degree audiovisual format. Using highly advanced technology created by Canadian company Immersive Media, recording equipment was attached to a vehicle, and a rare view of each location was be collected to simulate the experience of a person moving through the neighbourhood.
The sights and sounds obtained from this unique vantage point documented each area as an interactive moment in time, allowing an understanding of its typical states, as well as the ability to revisit the information to corroborate data and experiences throughout the study.
By May 2014, the collected data was ready for viewing by an audience in order to verify its relationship to cultural vibrancy. Using McMaster University’s LIVE (large interactive virtual environment) Lab, a one-of-a-kind, research facility combining technology and psychology, the physiological responses such as heart rate, breathing, skin responses and brain activity of a volunteer audience were measured as they viewed the street-level footage.
During five sessions, 100 volunteers at a time experienced the video footage of each neighbourhood captured in the previous stages of data collection. Tablets were used to record additional thoughts, feelings, and perceptions through interactive surveying techniques.
The long-term plans for the uses of Expressing Vibrancy’s findings include the development of tools and platforms that provide guidelines, references, and, ultimately, a working definition of the term vibrant as it relates to cultural planning.
While finding a working definition of the term “culturally vibrant” is certainly a goal of Expressing Vibrancy, to leave it there is simplistic.
More than just recommendations and to-do lists, Expressing Vibrancy’s results uncover both the qualitative and quantitative features and aspects of an area that contribute to its economic and social vitality, lead to a sense of community cohesiveness, and a collective cultural expression that considers the many interpretations of vibrancy.
With more than 60 communities across the province completing the cultural planning process, developing tools for accurate assessment and expression of cultural development is taking on more significance. Expressing Vibrancy’s outcomes focus on creating communication-based tools that can be accessed by many communities as they move past the process of cultural planning, and the into implementation stages.
Travelling Interactive Exhibition