Open lines of communication

FILL IN THE BLANK: A community communication/urban art project by Candy Chang uses large public blackboards and walls to encourage people to express their opinions.
FILL IN THE BLANK: A community communication/urban art project by Candy Chang uses large public blackboards and walls to encourage people to express their opinions.

I have just sat down to write a submission to the Nelson City Council about proposed changes in rules for where we can walk the dog. And I'm finding it difficult.

I know I have to read the whole proposal and refer to the right sections in order for my comments to be taken seriously but I'm very short of time and there's a risk it will slip off the radar.

Do others feel the same? Is lack of time the reason a lot of working people let important things slip and let others make decisions that they later wish they had opposed? Certainly the fact only 45 per cent of eligible New Zealanders actually voted in the last election indicates something is amiss; more than half the population seems to feel disempowered, apathetic or ill-equipped to express themselves.

At a recent Enviroschools event, we learnt about a campaign led by a group of teenage students in Northland where, apparently, hardly anyone makes council submissions. The students wanted young people to let their voice be heard and take an active part in shaping their future by making submissions.

The campaign was very successful, resulting in a far greater number of young people learning about local issues, interviewing people, generally thinking about the kind of world they want to live in and actually doing something about it – in short, being responsible citizens. It would be great to have a similar campaign here in Nelson.

The council's Framing our Future workshops were a great attempt to gather ideas and opinions from the wider community, but this kind of formal consultation process takes a lot of effort and money, and often the same people turn up.

The good news is that there are some truly innovative people making some real progress in the area of communication.

One of these is Candy Chang, an urban planner, artist and social activist, who aims to get people truly involved in their communities by helping people voice their opinions on-site and in real time.

Gaining a fellowship in Johannesburg, she was asked to create a means of getting communication going across the city in response to a missing child whose search was hampered by the lack of communication networks. Candy and her team set up large blackboards in high-traffic areas to act as news boards, publicise events and post jobs.

Her projects are now in place across the world, using unlikely canvases such as empty shop fronts, condemned buildings and walkways. She often uses large blackboards with words that will provoke people to freely express themselves publicly.

One such is a huge blackboard with the words "Before I die I want to ...".

Another says, "I want ... in my neighbourhood". "This would be a great place for a ...".

"Where better to shape our public spaces," she says, "than in the spaces themselves?"

Her website is really worth a visit: I am so inspired by the simplicity and effectiveness of her work that I hope to encourage schools to set up blackboards in their playgrounds to create schoolwide conversations.

Wouldn't it be great to have blackboards on the toilet block wall in Buxton Square, the huge wall at the Nelson Reuse and Recycle Centre, outside the council office, supermarkets and so on.

Maybe then we'll get real people talking real talk about issues that really concern them. (Oh and I'm pleased to say that I did manage to get a hasty submission in about the dog laws!)