The Bordeaux of Qais and Sharif

On Friday 29th December an empathy walk was organised in Bordeaux with Qais and Sharif, two asylum seekers originally from Aghanistan.

Empathy Walks teamed up with the Diaconat de Bordeaux, a charity based organisation that provides moral, material, administrative support to asylum seekers. Morgane Raguenet-Pré, who works with the asylum seekers helped us with the organisation. The Diaconat, as well as providing French classes and preparation to navigate the French bureaucracy when it comes to accessing a refugee status, provides housing to asylum seekers.

An initial meeting was organised with Qais and Sharif at the Diaconat to talk about their personal stories, explore the way they feel a sense of belonging in Bordeaux, and point out the different everyday places that underpin that sense of belonging. A route was agreed on, traced on a map and an event with 10 participants organised two days later.

Qais and Sharif settled in Bordeaux about a year ago. The map below shows the journey they undertook to come to France. The journey took them through places associated with camps that are infamous for their difficult living conditions, such as the Island of Lesbos in Greece and the city of Calais in France.

Verso 3The map above shows the different locations where they have lived in Bordeaux. As accomodation is scarce, they have been moved around to four different locations in town. They currently live in the neighbourhood of La Benauge, on the east side of the river Garonne.

Carte marche

On the day walk participants where provided with Qais and Sharif’s personal map of Bordeaux. Each of the 6 stops along the route was punctuated by an introduction to the place and a story revealing their interest following spatial, social and emotional characteristics.

Stop 1: Place des Quinconces – This is one of Bordeaux’s main square, a vast area that once was occupied by a castle, demolished in the early 19th century. At the top of the square the landmark “the column of the Girondins” is a 50m tall, slender tower celebrating the Girondins victims of the Terror during the French Revolution. One of the reason Qais and Sharif chose the square as a starting point for their walk is for its spacious qualities as a vast and recognisable space in the middle of the town.

Photo Stella 2
Starting the walk from vast place des Quinconces

Stop 2: Apple Store. What could be an everyday quality provided by an Apple Store? From the street, the free wifi signal is good enough to access internet. Qais and Sharif explain that they use this wifi service to get in touch with their families. The Apple Store is an identified meeting point for people in their situation, as they explain having met other asylum seekers outside. Indirectly, the Apple Store provides a public, free service that isn’t currently provided by the town hall. A conversation can start around how our public spaces are layered and produced by public as well as private operators.

Stop 3: Quais. The waterfront of Bordeaux is a large public space, carefully designed and landscaped. It is a place where Qais and Sharif cycle and run to exercise. The two main bridges of the city, Pont de Pierre and Pont Chaban Delmas, connect to the other side of the river and create a 3km long traffic free, landscaped leisure loop.

Stop 4: Pont de Pierre. Napoléon himself ordered the construction of this historic bridge in 1807. For Qais and Sharif the bridge represents a symbolic and physical link between their home and the town centre. Everyday both of them cross the bridge using the tramway to attend French classes in the city, meet friends, or attend an administrative meeting.

Stop 5: Place Saint Michel. This square hosts a market everyday, whose variety is not equaled anywhere else in town: clothes, fresh fruits and vegetables, furniture, DIY tools, books… This space is a prime shopping location for Qais and Sharif. On top on that, the square is surrounded with north African cafés, whose terraces sprawl onto the square. We stop for a Morrocan mint tea.

Stop 6: Chicken Box. The street named “Cours de la Marne” is notorious for its numerous chicken shops and kebabs. We finally stopped for a meal in one of them. Qais and Sharif explained that this is where they enjoy a meal with friends once a week. These restaurants, that one would be tempted to label as junk food or unhealthy, are actual cheap and safe spaces that provide social networks for young men like Qais and Sharif. The walk ended up with a conversation in arabic between the shop owner and Qais and Sharif.

All in all, this walk gave participants a fresh perspective on their city. The small group gave an opportunity to everyone to interact, listen and share stories. Most participants were surprised by the Apple Store stops and the story behind it.

In urban design terms the walk highlighted the importance of inclusive, free public spaces where interaction is encouraged. The provision of services such as internet and sport facilities help create that cohesion.

justMap: mapping community assets in London

Last October we met with Nicolas Fonty from justMap at a community event around Kennington, in the London Borough of Lambeth. Nicolas Fonty and justMap were commissioned by Kennington and Walworth Neighbourhood Forum.

DSC_3215DSC_3216justMap is a collaborative mapping tool for community led planning.

Nicolas Fonty organises public workshops at community events or festivals. A large aerial map of the area is available. Nicolas starts a conversation with residents and other members of the local community by presenting how the map identifies community assets. As he explains, the mapping is an ongoing process. People are invited to point out where they work or live, and which places they identify as important for their everyday life.

The process values local knowledge and highlights places of quotidianity.

One of the merits of the method is to be inclusive: the different categories of community assets are easy to understand and to pin on the map. With a colour and illustrative code, community assets are categorised: sport, transport, heritage, religion, culture, food growing etc. Participants, as they tell their stories, pin up the corresponding category of asset on the maps, while Nicolas writes down more qualitative details about the asset. Afterwards  the results are transfered onto interactive online maps which then serve as evidence base to inform community-led planning proposals. Visualising assets on cartographies is also a way to make them more visible. It also generates curiosity and local knowledge as communities become more aware of the diversity of assets in a neighbourhood.

You can visit justMap and read more about the project on their website:


Written by: Julie

City Systems Thinking Workshop at the Service Design Fringe Festival


On Saturday 23rd September Empathy Walks partnered with urbanists Matthew Carreau and Kavita Tailor to organise a City Systems Thinking workshop at the London Service Design Fringe Festival. The workshop was all about experimenting with creative tools and methods to help people think holistically about complex urban issues, visualise relationships and connections, and uncover hidden opportunities.

Matthew wrote an excellent piece about the workshop, which you can also discover below, with some photos.

There were three key motivations for organising the workshop:

  • The first was to bring together urban planners with the service design community to explore ‘design thinking’ in the context of cities. I see a lot of opportunity for these communities to collaborate and share methods.
  • The second motivation was to create a space where people could practice and strengthen their holistic or systems thinking skills. The ability to think about issues in a joined-up and cross-cutting way is something that needs practicing. What are the tools and methods that designers need to help them think about and address complex and systemic urban challenges?
  • The third motivation was to actually test and pilot a specific methodology for facilitating discussions about complex urban issues. This method involved building a physical ‘system web’ to stimulate discussion, document conversations and visually map out connections and relationships.

A Disclaimer About Theory and Practice

The workshop opened with a disclaimer that we were NOT experts in systems thinking or theory. The spirit of the workshop was about experimentation, inquiry through dialogue, and learning-by-doing. Our starting point was the simple recognition that cities face complex challenges, and that citizens and designers who want to create positive change need tools to help them visualise and untangle this complexity. In this context, systems thinking is about four fundamental things:

– Thinking holistically about issues
– Visualising complex relationships
– Making unexpected connections
– Uncovering hidden opportunities

Our belief is that creative solutions can be found to complex urban scale challenges when we think about issues in a holistic and intersectional way. The workshop was created as a means to experiment and begin developing the creative tools to help people do that very thing.

After a warm up activity about system thinking, we asked participants to divide themselves into six teams of 4–5 people. Each team was assigned a specific urban ‘systems lens’ (food and waste, housing, water, mobility and transit, energy, and culture), and were sent out into the city to investigate their respective system.

system web activity

We defined a 10 minute walking radius around the the workshop space, and gave the teams 75 minutes to explore and document interesting information related to their particular system lens in that area. Teams were challenged to not only observe, but also to talk to people, take pictures, and to bring back an object / artefact from the city that could be shared with the wider group.

We also introduced the AEIOU framework for field research. Developed in 1991 at Doblin, the framework is a useful mnemonic for coding and structuring observational research into the following categories:

  • Activities include actions with specific goals in mind, and the processes performed to achieve them.
  • Environments detail the context and characteristics of the space where activities are being observed.
  • Interactions include both interpersonal and person-artefact interactions.
  • Objects describe the items within the environment and how they are used.
  • Users include the people within the environment that are being observed, including their values, behaviours, and motivations.IMG_9416IMG_9418

Part Three: Building a System Web / Visualising Relationships

The central activity in this workshop was essentially a ‘show-and-tell’ and group discussion about about each team’s field research findings and the connections and relationships between different urban systems. To help structure the conversation and visually document the connections, we created a physical ‘system web’ with rainbow coloured rope!


The instructions for this activity were simple:

  1. The team that holds the ball of rope gets 5 minutes to present the most interesting / revealing aspects of their field research.
  2. The ball of rope is then thrown to another team who then get 5 minutes to present their research findings AND talk about the connections and relationships they see between their system and the one that came before.
  3. The conversation about connections is open for everyone in the room to contribute to and written on cards that are then pinned to the relevant length of rope connecting the two related teams / themes.
  4. The ball of rope is tossed around the room for several more rounds, allowing each team to present their research and facilitating a discussion about the connections between various issues and systems.

The system web activity was useful for a few reasons. First, it gave each team an equal chance to share their research without interruption. Second, it kept the discussion about connections and relationships focused on two systems (e.g. Water + Energy, or Mobility + Culture) rather than an all encompassing conversation about every single possible connection. Third, the activity was spontaneous and challenged people to think on their toes and come up with connections that might not seem immediately obvious (e.g. what are the connections and issues at the intersection of food and public transit). Fourth, the activity was interactive and left a visual record of the conversation. This last point was critical because the connections and insights that were made in this activity formed the basis for the final exercise.

Part Four: “What If…” Activity / Defining the Opportunity Space

The culminating activity of this workshop was about defining the ‘opportunity space’ between different systems where new ways of thinking and creative solutions might exists. The objective was not to come up with the solutions but simply to define the opportunity. Building on conversations from the previous activity, we asked participants to pair up with someone from a different team and come up with “What If…” questions to help frame future design challenges.

The conversations and creative ideas that emerged out of this activity were really interesting. In my group for example, we looked at Water and Energy systems. We talked about ways that water could be used as a source for energy creation in London, but we also explored the inverse and asked how energy infrastructure / creation / policy / etc., could be put into the service of water needs. Because we were primed to think about the issues in a more holistic way, we were able to make the leap beyond thinking simply about water as a means to create energy, but also possible ways that water could be used to help with the storage and distribution of energy — two of the greatest challenges facing the emerging renewables energy market.

What ifswhat if 2

What if… we used the city’s water spaces to support more sustainable transport?

What if… we made citizens part of the system? Food waste, energy and food production plots in communities that citizens are responsible for and feed power back into the grid?

What if… we created gamified schemes for people to create and save energy in their everyday lives? (e.g. capture and storage of lost kinetic energy)

What if… the canal maintenance becomes a chance to get people involved and feel they belong to the bigger community?

What if… we used food packaging to generate energy to power food delivery system on the water?


Text by Matt Carreau, first published on

Architects for Social Housing at ICA, as it happened

Between Monday 14th and Sunday 20th Architects for Social Housing (ASH) took over the upper gallery of the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London and transformed it into a collaborative workspace animated by talks and activities.

The different boards and activities highlighted the crude reality of the disappearance of social housing in London, the accelerated gentrification, all under the banner of ‘regeneration’. It is a painful but liberating experience to discover the work exhibited.


The work of ASH is politically engaged and highlights how both mainstream political parties – Labour and Conservatives – have abandoned the protection of social housing and let down social tenants. Over the past two years ASH has designed alternatives to demolition for the Knight’s Walk, West Kensington and Gibbs Green, Central Hill and Northwoldestates, and is currently working with the Patmore estate Co-operative.


The work of ASH is also a rich source of proposals. ASH has produced numerous plans to retrofit, densify and infill various council estates under threat of demolition, highlighting that creative solutions can increase density while retaining the existing. In that sense, ASH works in finding viable alternatives to estate demolition.


This approach minimises community displacement, safeguards social housing while producing new homes. ASH’s plans always seem so sensible, ethical and realistic that one cannot help but wonder: ‘why isn’t this the approach taken by councils across London?’.


Nicolas Fonty from JustMap ( was also around, to deliver an excellent mapping exercise, inviting participants to find council estates that are under threat of demolition, pinning them directly on the map. According to the political party in charge, pins would be either red for Labour or blue for Conservatives. The map then showed the puzzling consistency of the demolition trend throughout London, regardless of the council political colour.


The unfortunate and chilling conclusion is that in the context of austerity little political bodies actually have the means to defend social housing as a pillar to a fairer society. ‘Regenerating’ estates currently goes hand in hand with demolishing social housing and the ideals of post-war social justice.


The work exhibited at the residency also humanises social housing, presents a portrait of the affected communities and helps sharing alternative beautiful stories about places that are presented negatively to justify demolition.


Written by: Julie


Discovering King’s Cross industrial history


Christian Davies led a group of ’empathy walkers’ to discover the almost hidden industrial history of Kings Cross on the second Empathy Walk that took place on Saturday 20th of July. Behind cranes, newly built iconic architectures and lively public spaces that are part of the regeneration process of Kings Cross, another scenario exists. This is what was unveiled by Christian, who works as an architectural model maker and is based on the area amidst the industrial heritage that is ‘threatened’ by the new development.

Behind cranes, newly built iconic architectures and lively public spaces that are part of the regeneration process of Kings Cross, another very different scenario exists. This is what was unveiled by Christian, who works as an architectural model maker and is based on the area amidst the industrial heritage that is ‘threatened’ by new development.

Like many others areas in London and other cities worldwide, industrial uses are being pushed outside of central urban areas. This has its pros and cons since new development can regenerate central areas, but nonetheless, pushing industrial businesses aside can impact on social, economic and environmental sustainability. It is important to identify ways in which redevelopment and industrial uses can exist side by side, and this is what has been explored by an alternative Neighbourhood Plan in Kings Cross. Proposals for regenerating the area while keeping the industrial uses on ground floor aim to maintain the history of the area as an ‘industrial hub’ and safeguard related jobs while allowing the new to emerge. Further information about the Neighbourhood Plan can be found on:





Empathy Walks at Reclaim Our Spaces, London

On Wednesday 15th March in London we discovered a new community coalition called Reclaim Our Spaces (RoS), which purpose is to enhance community engagement in London.

Born in June 2016, RoS is focused on the protection of public space in its wide and diverse definition, including different populations with their different needs, temporalities and identities.

RoS is a coalition, meaning that it is organised horizontally with different communities. It offers a space to build communities, in a London context where forces such as land pressure, privatisation and gentrification hinder them.

Ordinary citizens are coming together to hold City Hall accountable to the community. Beyond classic Planning consultations already implemented, we talked about co-designing the city, making it a more horizontal process rather than a top-down product. Many citizens keep being excluded from the planning process, which seems increasingly driven by economic forces.

RoS offers a platform where ordinary citizens can challenge the way the city is produced, by empowering less visible communities and highlight the importance. RoS is a tool to hold public bodies accountable to properly engage with communities.

As Empathy Walks we are by such initiative and wish to work collaboratively with coalitions such as Reclaim Our Spaces. We hope that our project will support, outreach and make more visible London’s diversity.