55. Engaging communities in placemaking

The Government’s Housing White Paper made explicit an important association that periodically Government’s of all political persuasions come back to: that between design quality and the ‘positive’ engagement of communities in the development process (note the emphasis on positive). Thus the White paper argues: “Inadequate community involvement can fuel objections, cause delays and increase the risk of poor quality outcomes “ and “We [aka the Government] want to ensure that communities can influence the design of what gets built in their area”. They conclude that “To really feel involved in the process, we [aka us all] need to help local people to describe what good design and local character looks like in their view”.

So what do ‘we’ mean by good community involvement? This was the focus of the Place Alliance’s Big Meet 7 recently held at UCL which brought together interested parties from across built environment specialisms and beyond to debate these issues.

Undeniably there is lots of poor practice out there: the normal tokenistic consultations on development projects; public exhibitions that turn out to be little more than a sales pitch for an already designed project; “I have a new social networking tool and I am not afraid to use it” approaches; and, in some hard to develop locations, engagement overkill leading to inevitable fatigue and disillusionment. It is not always easy to get it right, and takes considerable time, resources and commitment to do so.

Urban Rooms

Discussion at Big Meet 7 began with Carolyn Butterworth, chair of the proceedings, arguing that token engagement will rarely get communities on side. Consequently, if we are serious about better involving communities in decisions relating to the built environment, we need to move beyond our normal practices to more fundamental, active and sustained forms of participation. Fortunately, whilst local authorities are increasingly strapped for cash and are finding it difficult to take the lead, others, including our universities, have been stepping into the gap and are attempting to transform the quality of participation in the process. In Sheffield, for example, Live Works (which Carolyn leads) is one of a new breed of urban rooms that have been springing up around the country, in this case at the instigation of the University of Sheffield.

Live Works
Live Works, Sheffield

The term Urban Room was coined by the Farrell Review, as a collective label for spaces such as The Lighthouse in Glasgow, the NLA in London, and the Architecture Centre in Bristol, where a town of city’s inhabitants can come together to debate the future of their urban area. Around twenty urban rooms, both permanent and temporary, are now coordinated through the auspices of the Place Alliance Urban Rooms Network which has argued that:

“Every town and city should have a physical space where people can go to understand, debate and get involved in the past, present and future of where they live, work and play. The purpose of these Urban Rooms is to foster meaningful connections between people and place, using creative methods of engagement to encourage active participation in the future of our buildings, streets and neighbourhoods”.

Creative engagement

Of course Urban Rooms are just one means to engage people in shaping the built environment, and Sophia de Sousa, drawing on the diverse work of her charity, The Glass-House Community Led Design, argued that it is not all about getting things built either; there is also great value in using engagement processes to empower communities. This can vary from community-led design (led by the community themselves), to participatory design (led by a project promoter), to collaborative placemaking (which mobilises collective interests, assets and creativity), to what Sophia describes as “casual moments of interaction” through an organised event or temporary use of a space focussed on building social networks and raising capacity in a particular community. All of this aims to give communities ‘agency’ (or the confidence) to actively participate in shaping places, not least in relation to the sorts of small scale incremental changes that happen all localities every day.

Agency at work

A great example of such agency is the work of STAMP or the Shad Thames Area Management Partnership. Begun in 2013 and led since then by Janet Morris, STAMP represents an area too small to have a neighbourhood plan, yet with a very distinct character and identity of its own and a redoubtable champion in the form of Janet. For her, the group was a positive means of bringing people together in a proactive and inclusive manner, not as a means to resist things but instead to represent a community voice in a part of London that has great historical value, but also faces significant pressure for change. The group quickly found that to be taken seriously by the local borough (Southwark) they needed a management plan and constitution (“the boring housekeeping”), but with those in place they have been able to engage with the powers that be (including local businesses) on everything from the Southwark plan to problems of dog poo on the streets! While reliant on volunteers rather than professionals, the group begin with one huge advantage, confidence in their own local knowledge and a willingness to simply get on and get things done, rather than waiting to be invited to do so. For Janet “Moaning is not a constructive way of resolving problems”, engagement is.

Shad Thames, an area of distinct character

Engaging through arts and culture

The power of the motivated, determined individual was a theme of the discussions, and in the area of community engagement this seems to be a key feature. Lewis Biggs and Diane Dever certainly showed this in relation to their key roles in the Folkestone Triennial and related Folkestone Fringe, both of which utilise art and culture to (re)engage people in the town. This emphasis was instigated by the sizable entrepreneurial / philanthropic investments of Roger De Haan in Folkestone following the closure of its cross-channel ferry service in 2000 which impacted further on the declining local economy. Whilst at first these strategies, based on the arts, were not well understood amongst the economically challenged working class communities of Folkestone, the regeneration of 90 buildings for creative activities, the location of artistic interventions across the town every three years for the Triennial, and the opening up of areas that were previously off limits to the community (e.g. the Harbour Arm) have all helped to turn perceptions around. As part of this, the location of a temporary urban room in shipping containers during the Folkestone Fringe has helped to inspire conversations about the future of Folkestone and has actively and positively engaged the community in the old town once again.

Back to the future

In Blackburn, a similarly challenging post-industrial context and the hollowing out of local authority funding, led Claire Tymon (on behalf of Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council) to apply and secure £80,000 of Arts Council funding to launch Blackburn is Open. Blackburn is Open is an urban room (this time in a vacant shop) from where Claire has directed over a three year period an impressive series of creative engagement exercises aimed as getting people (and investors) interested, once again, in the town. A feature of the initiative has been the continual testing of ideas and trying out different ways of engaging the local population in the knowledge that not all will work, but that some ideas will stick.   Key amongst these, and the biggest legacy of the project, has been the development of Blackburn as a centre for making with the establishment in 2016 of a permanent Fab Lab – The Making Rooms – in the town centre. This is being followed in 2017 by the launch of the first ever National Festival of Making, further imprinting a new identity for the town; one that references positively back to the town’s industrial past.

Key lessons from the Blackburn experience include:

  • Involving students wherever possible to inject energy and enthusiasm (and graphic acumen)
  • Identifying a champion at a senior level within the local authority to ensure commitment to the process and any outcomes
  • Engaging a high profile mentor (in Blackburn this was Wayne Hemmingway) in order to provide support and add gravitas to the initiative
  • Being the conduit and enabler for other peoples’ ideas, rather than trying to deliver everything yourself
  • Drawing up a succession plan early on in the process with a focus on long-term impact once the funding runs out.

Thinking differently

In our age of austerity, and as the examples suggest, local authorities are increasingly looking to others to deliver on the engagement agenda. This, arguably, opens up opportunities for more innovative processes of engagement delivered by a wider range of actors, including the community themselves, and to a wider range of funding sources. Crowd funding, for example, whilst unlikely to fund large scale physical projects, can help to fund the processes of engagement that in turn make the case for the larger investment, as happened with the Peckham Coal line.

The Peckham Coal Line

Ultimately those involved will need to think about what is the right tool for the job; and that will depend, in part, on what the aspirations are. As an ideal, Urban Rooms can provide a permanent venue for on-going engagement in a town or city and a locus for many forms of creative engagement. Equally, as was the case in Folkestone and Blackburn, such spaces can be temporary, designed to help kick off a larger initiative or project. Suggestions at Big Meet 7 ranged from pop up spaces that could fit in a van and move from place to place to turning a whole street into a temporary urban room.

Whichever approach is chosen, at the heart of all such initiatives is always (it seems) a creative individual or small group who provides the energy and drive to excite others and ultimately make things happen. The Carolyns, Sophias, Janets, Dianes, Lewis’, Rogers, and Claires, of this world. We are indebted to them.

Matthew Carmona

Professor of Planning & Urban Design

Bartlett School of Planning, UCL


May 2017