‘Ignore the value of local residents at your peril’

Wednesday 8 June 2016

Architects must work harder to truly engage with local communities in a bid to better understand the areas they are designing for and the people who will live there.

But they must understand that an ability to ‘get things done’ is often more useful than design in community architecture, and although developers and boroughs can use a whole series of new engagement techniques, there is no substitute for face-to-face meetings and hard work.

Those were some of the main views to emerge from Listening to Londoners – Community engagement in development, an NLA breakfast talk held on Friday morning.

Former RIBA president Dr Rod Hackney said that he had worked on a scheme where a condition of contract was that designers had to live within the community they were designing for, for a period of between five and 10 years. ‘If that doesn’t change your life, I don’t know what will’, he said. But key to becoming a ‘proper community architect’, Hackney went on, was to develop the qualities of learning how to ‘survive’ and being ‘available’ to communities. This could involve ‘fighting the system’ to get approvals, even capitalising on the fact that many local authorities don’t work at weekends to build during that time and submitting a retrospective planning application when the council rings on the Monday. ‘It’s cheaper, faster, and you get their attention very quickly’, said Hackney. Survival must come before the ‘niceties’, and architecture should not be reduced to door handles but be about providing secure shelter, Hackney added. ‘Architects are naive enough to have a dream. Keep that dream – don’t lose it’ said Hackney. ‘Architects believe that they can see the future. They can if they see it through the eyes of the residents and act as the enabler and not the person who designs something. Community architecture is not about design. It’s about getting things done the way that residents want.’

Roger Madelin CBE, Head of Canada Water Development at British Land said he was quite optimistic about democracy and the planning system and that without the judicial review process King’s Cross would not have happened, and neither would he now be involved at Canada Water. But, asked in Japan recently why the public and private sectors work so well together in the UK, Madelin cited Margaret Thatcher as the one who made the two so far apart that things could not get done, before Sir John Major forced public and private sectors to talk together and Tony Blair accepted it and accelerated it. Madelin related how he gave one of his many talks to the community at King’s Cross – some 703 meetings in four years – to point out how wealth is created in the UK, by the private sector. ‘There is no such thing as public money’, he said, and development now has to pay for more and more that the public sector used to provide. At Brindleyplace in Birmingham a meeting with MP Clare Short revealed that she felt that the jobs being created were not the right ones for the area. And a similar charge was leveled at former London Mayor Ken Livingstone over Canary Wharf by a ‘ranter’ at a public meeting, who claimed that the development had never done anything for London or the boroughs. ’85,000 jobs ain’t a bad start’ had been Livingstone’s response. But at King’s Cross Madelin said he had decided to spend time on learning from the failures of previous schemes, and discovered that there is not one but many communities to deal with and reach out to. ‘I made a statement that I would go anywhere any place any time to listen and learn and discuss and debate – and I did.’ This engagement needs to be not just with the ‘usual suspects’ but also the hard-to reach stakeholders, he said, although dealing with single interest groups who spread ‘misinformation about a project can be difficult’.

‘The message is listen and get out to as many people as possible because there are some wise words out there and at the end of the day we’re in a democratic society. Long may it last, and we will get there in the end.’

The conference also heard from Rheanne Holm, Delivery Coordinator, London Borough of Lambeth, particularly regarding her work in West Norwood and Tulse Hill, where she said she had a head start as a former resident. The council is using a wide range of techniques to engage, including community researchers, sponsorship of local events, Twitter, and Commonplace, an engagement tool combined with a mapping device that has attracted 570 comments inside two months. But, said Levitt Bernstein director Jo McCafferty in discussion, ‘there may well be toolkits out there but it’s about understanding what’s appropriate for every project and really getting to know a site – its geography and the people who live there’, she said. ‘You ignore the value of what local residents can tell you at your peril.’ 


By David Taylor, Editor, NLQ

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