Thursday, 21 March 2013

"People, place and value: the golden triangle" - A Glasshouse and Academy of Urbanism Debate

Last night I was privledged to attend the fourth in a series of debates held around the Uk organised by Glasshouse and the Academy of Urbanism (AoU) at the new Central St Martin's College in the Granary Building in the Argent development at Kings X in central London. The subject was "People, place and value: the golden triangle? The panel consisted of Kevin Murray, director of Kevin Murray Associates and current president of the AoU, Cllr Josef Ransley Chair of Kidford Parish Neighbourhood Plan, Pam Alexander non-executive director at Crest Nicholson and Sophia de Sousa Chief Executive of Glasshouse. The panel was chaired by Tom Dyckhoff, writer and broadcaster.

This was the fourth of a series of debates held at various venues around the UK, all with a common aim of getting people talking about placemaking and exploring the changing relationship between people, place and value.

In opening the debate Tom Dyckhoff suggested that we were at a moment of great opportunity to change the way people get involved in placemaking, how they operated, communicated with each other and worked with each other - politicians, built environment professionals and the people who live in the communities that they work in. The economic downturn had raised fundamental questions about the need for  better ways of designing spaces and places.

Kevin Murray spoke first about how great places create different kinds of value for local people - not just hard monetary value - such as new sources of revenue for community development,  but also softer value - such as amenity, culture, beauty, jobs and recreation facilities, and he emphasised that to be successful new places need long term income streams. Great places are those which are viable and enable a quality of life. Kevin argued that that a key element of successful place identity and value is the creation of positive social and community cohesion that lasts for generations, giving them an ability to cope with change over time. This is not just about the design of buildings and the spaces in between; it is about legitimate and meaningful community involvement in the placemaking process, in a purposeful dialogue with environmental professionals and local authorities, where the community is an equal if not primary partner, where local authorities adopt an enabling role rather than being  prescriptive, where the professionals engage with the community and each other in a clear and common language and become far better listeners.

Josef Ransley spoke about the need to understand the different ways in which people in communities think about place in different ways and their different definition of place, which are determined by their interests and anxieties, their access to transport, and their mixed knowledge of formal processes and practices of placemaking, and the confusion they experience with much of the formal and professional language of many placemaking professionals. Josef believes that local authority leaders should be facilitators of discussions on proposals for places rather than determining solutions; that it is impossible for planners to define what is good for people; that placemaking needs to be highly interactive and participative; and that the new proposals for and interest in "localism" offers the opportunity for community participation in creating places that will work. He argued that value needs to be redefined and that there needs to be a move a way from process driven targets (for new housing numbers for example) and a new focus on the qualitative aspects of place and design. He concluded his remarks by stating that the new challenge at the local level is to make the new Panels - a mixture of lay local people and environmental professionals - work in a creative, meaningful way by fusing the skills and knowledge of local people with those of the professionals to define and agree on what the community needs, what will be good for it and effective and lasting ways of delivering it.

Pam Alexander opened by stating what many in the audience knew to be obvious - that involving local people in the design and development of placemaking proposals is good business sense. She rightly believes that the community brings value in its ideas, in its knowledge and has an important role to play in the provision of market research and market testing of development proposals. Community involvement is, she argued, critical to the long term success of placemaking. More sharply she observed that we must stop regarding respect for the community as a weakness.She shared a great story about a comment from a construction industry worker at the previous Liverpool debate who had said that if you want successful places you need to build as though you were doing so for the people that you love - your family and loved ones. She also remarked that we need to engage the powerful - the leaders of the corporate world, in the process of placemaking, in the creation of socially positive legacies and not just focus on the success of their enterprises; the success of the communities that they draw their workers from should be just as important to them and they have a role in making them successful.

Sophia de Sousa opened with her call to arms, one that I am wholly at one with - that place matters! To illustrate this salvo she told the story of the remarks of a participant in the Glasgow debate who pointed out that the poor quality of the place he lived in meant that life expectancy was noticeably lower than in other parts of the city. She also reminded the audience of how poor the commonplace image of property developers is, instanced by how they are usually portrayed in television dramas as grasping and without principle or scruple, interested only in a quick profit. No wonder many in communities don't trust them.And she reminded us not to underestimate the power of local people to positively and creatively affect places and proposals for their improvement and asked us all to think about one thing that we, as individuals, can do to bring about change in the way we make places. In my case its to
recognise the worth and added value of time spent in dialogue with a community throughout the placemaking process and to positively challenge developers and local authorities who doubt this.

It was no surprise that a very lively debate ensued with lots of examples of challenges, projects, successes and new ways of working being shared. Here is a small sample and flavour:

  • The worth and power of bringing planners, developers and communities together and challenging them to find better ways of working together.
  • The attractions and benefits of using Community Land Trusts as a vehicle for place making.
  • The need to plan for desired benefits rather than hoping they will materialise.
  • The need for developers to retain an interest in their developments for longer periods of time in order to ensure a lasting positive legacy.
  • The need for a simpler, clearer shared language to conduct the discourse on placemaking.
  • Environmental professionals need to rediscover the skill of positive listening and stop preaching to lay men and women.
  • The need to create space for these conversations in the Neighbourhood Planning process.
  • But let's not beat up on Local Authorities - they have a difficult role to play and if we want them to behave in a different way we need to be in dialogue with them.
  • And let's recognise the dangers of the proposed bedroom tax - it could lead to a loss of social housing.
  • This is not just about the creation of better places to live in the form of well designed housing, its as much about the creation of lasting cohesive social networks and strong communities.
Tom conclude the debate by remarking that we know what makes a good place and we know how to make them work but we need to share this knowledge with and among local communities and involve them actively in the process.

In conclusion I left St Martin's feeling that this debate on placemaking and the central and vital role of local people within it needs a wider platform so that many more people in the built environment professions can engage with it, participate in it, change their behaviours and the need for serious communication to local authorities and the development community so that they can understand that existing and tired models of public engagement no longer work and are still resulting in places that do not work. There was plenty of proof in the debate, as if it was needed, that serious and meaningful consultation with local people results in places that work, places that are valued by people and which are profitable for developers.

Note: I am wholly responsible for any misinterpretations of speakers and participants remarks in this debate.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

The Importance of Quality Space to Place

Today I was privileged to be part of a line-up put together by Mike Roberts of HAB (Happiness, Architecture, Beauty) Housing for a session in the Green Building Council's tent at EcoBuild in London's Excel exhibition centre in Docklands. The subject under discussion was the importance of place to residential development and my personal take was on the importance of space to place.

Place matters to me and I think that it matters to all of us and that's why I called my company "Placematters". For me one of the key determinants of place is space and by space I do not limit the word to open space. It covers the spaces we live in and how well they are designed, the spaces we pass through to get to where we live – the lobbies and stair wells, the entrance spaces to buildings, the spaces between buildings, the spaces on top of buildings, the private spaces associated with our houses and apartments, and the shared spaces in the heart of housing developments, whether they be public or like the private (residents only) Victorian squares in central and inner west London.

And for me all of those spaces need to be actively and well managed by a landlord if my flat or house is being rented, one that is committed to the community that they are housing, not managed as an afterthought or, even worse, managed by benign neglect. And managed in partnership with the tenants - not against their wishes. The whole feel of the space needs to be one that I am comfortable with in all its living elements.

In this context one of the purposes of my presentation was to highlight the work of a new organisation in the UK housing field - UK Regeneration, a company that is pioneering a new approach to the provision of high quality housing for rent.

My vehicle for doing so was an improvisation, sharing a story with my audience about a future visit to the first of UKR's new developments in the Sandfields area of Nottingham, a city in the English East Midlands.Here it is:

"So come with me to visit a very special place, one that’s very dear to my heart as its been designed to be my kind of place, a place that I would be happy to rent if I lived and worked in this city.

It’s a place that I wish had existed when I first came to work in London after I had graduated and had to suffer, for too many years, the vagaries of private renting, always putting up with something that was not quite right, something poorly maintained, something too expensive for what it was worth, and sharing a space that was never designed for sharing and so poorly equipped I had to furnish the furnished space myself, …and that in the days before Ikea!; I had to depend on “Trendy Styles” secondhand furniture shop on Kingsland High Road. Sustainable it was not! And cheap it was not…being full of copycat Terence Conran designs.

But enough of the nightmares of private renting thirty years ago…..come with me into the heart of England to a new place - housing with space that’s my kind of place and imagine me as a young recent graduate (yes I know it’s hard looking at me now) with a decent job, fed up with the indignities of student living, and wanting somewhere decent to live and hang out.
Let me first park the car (a hybrid I hope you note) and we can get out and take a shufftie at the place.

The Lenton Area of Nottingham

That’s it over there on the other side of Lenton Boulevard, at the cross roads. Looks interesting don’t you think, modern design with clues in the brickwork about the traditional architectural vernacular of the area, and clearly committed to sustainability if those rooftop panels are anything to go by.

You know for me any residential development that’s going to capture my heart, to be my kind of place, has to be a space that I want to spend time in, has to look good, to look well designed, to have design features that interest and intrigue, with buildings that frame spaces for private contemplation, that offer spaces to meet and greet, to encounter strangers, to party and celebrate, for kids to play and people to catch up on the local gossip.

It’ may sound strange but I want to feel proud of the place where I live, not in a show-off way, but in a way that says this is a sensible place to be for my circumstances and a place that just right for my lifestyle at this time of my life. A place that gives me both privacy and a shared life with mates and family.

In short, I like my living space to be a mix of the private and the public, to be contemplative and to be animated, to be quiet in part and to be active outside, to provide opportunities for encounters, with neighbours and people passing by and through.

But before we look at the shared public space let’s pop in here to this two person flat to see what’s on offer.  Because this place is designed for private renting, for the younger sharing market, it’s got two bedrooms, each with its own bath/shower/toilet space and space in the bedroom for a sofa and table for private entertaining. That alleviates any problems with sharing with someone whose personal hygiene habits might be, well…. uncivilised. 

And here is the shared living space which is fully wired for the “Generation Now” lifestyle providing opportunities to share and stream music and video to every room, always-on high capacity broadband. 

And just look at the kitchen – a bit upmarket from Wickes but with enough design features to look like a Sunday supplement advert; I can almost taste the Jamie Oliver 120 minute meals that will be created here.

This is no accident of design; the developers UKR, who are also the landlords and managers, are in it for the long haul, and have really learned about and understand the lifestyles of their target tenant group and their requirements in terms of the design of their personal, intimate and shared apartment space, and what they need by way of associated external space and associated facilities.

I also want convenience in my place so that I do not have to schlepp all the way in to the Victoria Centre in the middle of town for my provisions or to the large Tesco out by the University. I like my place of life to help meet my needs – for convenience foods when I run out of tea, Pringles or Sauvignon, or toothpaste and mouthwash, for medicines to deal with my lifestyle (hangovers, moi?); so look here, around the central space, are a convenience store, a dry cleaners, a chemists, a doctors surgery and a great little independent caff – where Cuban Coffee meets the Bacon Bap with great “me-duck” service" in the fine traditions of the local Goose Fair.

If you want to know more about this most innovative and ground breaking of UK housing developers contact Jackie Sadek on

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Visiting Lagos in "Nigerian" Time

I've recently returned from Lagos in Nigeria where I've been working on a major destination development and brand strategy project (of which more anon). I've never been to Nigeria before   and despite having previously worked in Botswana, Kenya, Tanzania and  Uganda, I was unprepared for the sheer frenetic energy, creativity, movement, noise and mayhem that is Lagos. It could so easily have been overwhelming had it not been for my friend Eje and her miraculous driver Moses who together acted as protectors, guides and translators of language, symbols, culture, fashion, music and culinary delights. 

There were echoes of India in the many and massive traffic jams that we joined and partook of in Nigerian time in that being slow and stationary gives you more time to consider the delights on offer from the jam vendors who gather around stationary cars like bees around a honey pot who will attempt to sell you a cornucopia of things you may or may not need, may or may not like - fruit, flip flops, computer accessories, chewing gum, sweets, drinks, sandwiches, name badge holders, socks, underpants, towels, handkerchiefs, CD's, lottery tickets, ciggies, lighters,  and more that I have forgotten in the blur of purchase opportunities.  And there is entertainment aplenty in every traffic jam as you observe the constantly changing occupants of the small yellow three wheeler taxis and the larger taxi buses whose conductors are constantly touting for passengers and shouting out their otherwise unadvertised routes and destinations, and the antics of the many traffic policemen in many styles and colours of uniform who take great delight in waving at traffic whether moving or stationary.

And if you don't fancy buying anything from the traffic jam markets there is always the roadside, street stall, of which there are tens of thousands in the city. Few kerbside or pavement spaces are left to go to waste; a few square feet or meters are quickly put to productive retail use as a form of street theatre. This culture makes our recent attempts at pop-up retail look a little slow and jaded.

But nowhere else on earth have I experienced driving like this (and that may be down to me being less well traveled than others). At first it was scary, even at slow speeds in jammed traffic, there is no lane discipline - there is constant jostling for position,to capture a temporary almost ephemeral advantage of any gap that opens up which can get you momentarily past the cars beside you or in front of you or ahead of those in your rear. And there is a constant, jarring, but almost musical, honking of car horns by drivers announcing they are behind you, beside you or about to overtake you or cut you up, to let you know they are there.This is driving with all your senses on high alert. But, despite seeing many cars, buses and trucks with bumps and dents, I did not see or experience a single crash or bump,and Moses, true to his name, always managed to part the walls of traffic and find us a way through; miraculous!

I was equally unprepared for the sheer variety and scale of the buildings in the landscape - the makeshift towns of the poor on the Lagos waterfront, their camps on the edge of roads and streets, the decaying buildings of the country's brief Colonial period, the modern international hotels that could be anywhere because they lack any visual language identifying them with the symbols of their host locations, the new commercial office blocks that are neighbours to low cost and slum housing. 

Much of the original coastline has disappeared from Lagos and there is little European style waterfront development with much of it blocked off by the floating wooden housing made from every type of available scrap but just outside the city you can still get a glimpse of what it was originally like at its Botanic gardens where there are still crocs and snakes in the water.

Very ambitious plans are being implemented for a major new waterfront development at the end of Victoria island in the city on the Atlantic waterfront - the EKO Atlantic City, which will completely change the image of this part of the city, and on whats called Banana Island where major investment is being made in new high density residential development that would not look out of place in Manhattan or London's Docklands, as it also lacks any discernible visual symbols or patterns of Nigerian identity.

Many parts of the city looked the same with similar mixes of seemingly unplanned combinations of residential and commercial development, with a chaotic mix of different styles of architecture. If there truly is a identifiable European style city centre I failed to see or find it. No plazas, squares or gathering points; but every street seems to be a gathering point, a place of arrival and departure, a place of exchange, a place of meetings and farewells, loud, colourful and sometimes exotic; a place of energy and a place striving for improvement and new clothes in which to dress its chaotic image.