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.