Effective community engagement begins with thorough research into an area to properly understand its character and characters, but enablers must steer clear of patronising contributors or failing to engage with an important but often neglected group – the young.
Those were just a few of the tips to emerge from a breakfast session this morning on localism in action, held at NLA and co-hosted by L&Q.
Group Director of Development at L&Q Jerome Geoghegan introduced the topic, stressing the need to do a huge amount of due diligence on the areas it works in, including ‘community due diligence’, getting to know the key personalities and understanding the main local issues. ‘Try to find out who has a view and wants to make a difference’, he said, adding that expectations should be ‘guided’ rather than ‘managed’, as the latter implies you know what’s right for a site. Geoghegan showed schemes including one in Haggerston where there had been ‘lengthy and genuine consultation from 2008-12 and where residents helped design a corner to the project that helped win planning.
Strategic Director of Housing and Regeneration at City of Westminster Ben Denton said that the council had set up a housing renewal programme covering five neighbourhoods including Westbourne Green and involving residents voting for or against regeneration. The council spends some £400,000 on consultation and engagement per year. ‘It’s important to understand what makes the local leaders tick and support them in their ambitions.’
But there is a view, said Sarah Gaventa of RSH+P and Chair, E&C community forum, that ‘community engagement is the built environment equivalent of having a prostate examination’. Key to effective consultation, she said, relies on having the right attitude before you go in; investing time and commitment on both sides; and avoiding showing design ideas, other than as the result of the consultation (‘or you’ll get lynched’). Enablers should expect to be yelled at, she added, but it was important to avoid patronizing consultees. ‘See them as your allies, not your enemies’; never talk about removing all trees or having traffic movement as a priority and never talk of creating a ‘vibrant quarter, hub or centre’. Finally, it is important to use the same visual tools to sketch out ideas and to ensure that children and young people are allowed a voice in the process.
Open-City founding director Victoria Thornton expanded on that last theme, suggesting that young people are able to create a programme and as ‘ambassadors’ can quickly pass it on to perhaps 1000 people in local schools. ‘Young people can be incredible conduit to others’, she said. ‘Professionals need to listen to the community. It’s not them and us.’
Igloo Regeneration chief executive Chris Brown said that today it was much more about communities as the developer, and that the cutting edge is community-led development. ‘Communities are much more empowered these days’, he said. Examples included right to build chemes at Bermondsey’s Leathermarket Community Benefit Society and Brixton Green.
Director at Soundings Steve McAdam said it is imperative to do ‘homework’ on interesting people in an area and then go out and meet them. Young people, moreover, come to the process without an agenda and can, like others be brought on board through making a product. McAdam also recommends using pop up events to canvas residents, using cards to gauge their opinions and responses to simple and playful questions. But, he asked, should there be clearer standards for community engagement, and how could it be supported beyond the planning process?
Finally, HTA Design partner Lucy Smith, showed her Assemble and Join initiative, where a disused café in Lambeth was used for eight months as a wood workshop, allowing locals to create planters, ‘insect hotels’ and 190 bird boxes, all of which were used to ‘re-imagine public space and effect change’. ‘It got people together, thinking about public space’, she said, ‘and having fun’.
David Taylor, Editor, New London Quarterly