Beyond Small Talk: Lisa Howard chats about Edinburgh’s Public Living Room as a space for flourishing

Interview and article by Binks Hub student intern Brigid McCormack as part of our series on human flourishing, following our human flourishing symposium in June 2023.

How can small actions lead to big change? How is our future shaped by everyday encounters? To find the answers to these questions, Lisa Howard recommends talking to strangers. 

Alongside her academic work in eco parenting and sustainability, Lisa facilitates an initiative in Edinburgh called Public Living Room. Every Thursday from 2:30 to 4:30, people gather at the Fountainbridge Library to drink coffee, eat biscuits, and chat about nothing in particular.

Connection through quiet activism

 Social circumstances, opportunities, and family ties complicate our relationship with others and the environment. This complexity can then obscure our understanding of sustainability and activism and can interrupt connection with others. 

Quiet and everyday activism, found in spaces like the Public Living Room, can facilitate community, change, and human flourishing, says Lisa. 

“I just wanted to do something different and get involved with the community,” Lisa shares. And it took a while for the Public Living Room to catch on. “But then I started getting a regular kind of turn out, which was so fascinating because that then structures so much of the group.”

Lisa describes the regulars often found in the Public Living Room: a homeless man who is seeking companionship, a Chinese woman wanting to improve her English, and a smattering of students looking to connect to locals are just a few who frequent the space. 

Amongst the regulars is a stream of strangers that pop in and out. “I’ve met people from all backgrounds and ages, and it’s been really enriching, I’ve really enjoyed it.”

Talking to strangers

Lisa herself is a constant presence in the group. “Everyone’s got a need.” Lisa laughs and says, “My own need is to connect with people and sometimes talk about things that aren’t to do with a PhD.” The need that connects everyone in the Public Living Room is a craving for connection with other people and wanting to be heard. 

Small acts cause great change, Lisa explains, as she shares the conversations about governmental responsibility, death, and health that have been discussed at the Public Living Room. Lisa notes how this form of quiet activism is often overlooked. “Most of what we think and see about activism is protest and direct actions, but these are small acts of intentional and purposeful change.” 

There is no agenda, no fee, no facilitator, and no commitment needed to participate in the Public Living Room. “And there’s no expectation to even talk; you can just sit there and listen if you want,” Lisa adds. This leads to an even playing field where the conversations can organically flow and topics of all kinds can be discussed. 

Those who attend often lean into the nonstructural nature of the Living Room. “Often, connections are made between people’s problems, and they open it up to a conversation more widely about politics or austerity.” Attendees of the Public Living Room invite others to discuss and provide input on their problems, and Lisa recalls conversations surrounding climate change, health, and poverty. 

Inviting someone in to listen and doing the same for others creates an open dialogue about change and action. 

“It’s all about social change. It’s all about making these kind of little political acts on a micro-level that have meaning on wider systems and processes.”

Flourishing through small actions

Connection and shared understanding between people leads toward a bigger social change.  Flourishing is not an individual act but rather a communal one. Similarly, quiet activism is not an individual endeavor; it is about talking with someone and not at someone. 

In her research surrounding eco parenting and climate change, Lisa finds that conversation with others and small actions are extremely effective in furthering sustainability. “The parents I spoke to saw change happening really only through building relationships with people, trying to get other people to think about the world where they were, but in a way that didn’t further polarize.” 

Finding community with others and building common ground over simple conversations and shared tea and biscuits builds a strong foundation for change and potential flourishing, as evidenced in places such as the Public Living Room.


The Binks Hub will work with communities to co-produce a programme of research and knowledge exchange that promotes social justice, relational research methods and human flourishing.

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