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How to build places that work

Words:
Clare Richards

Community involvement in planning has a golden opportunity as London struggles to emerge from the pandemic. A cross-professional group has got together a radical set of proposals to make genuine involvement easier

Northfields CLG meeting.
Northfields CLG meeting. Credit: Soundings.

Trust in developers and planning is low, yet local buy-in is key to creating thriving neighbourhoods. Those responsible for our built environment need to recognise that those who inhabit it represent its character and capacity for growth. But can we create the necessary culture change?

Collective Community Action (CCA) has been established by a diverse group of individuals who would not normally sit down together – active citizens, developers, social entrepreneurs, architects, community organisers and engagement specialists. Aiming to break down barriers and ‘galvanize change’, it believes that: ‘Great places are created when they involve the communities that use them… [yet] they are often paid lip service and considered a tactical impediment rather than a force for enlightened and equitable change’.

In January, CCA called for London’s next mayor to commit to a mayoral statement of community involvement. This was promptly taken up by London's dedicated think tank, Centre for London, which produced a manifesto demanding the mayor ‘champion community involvement in the way our city is built and managed’, because it ‘improves the quality of what gets built… is a democratic right… and boosts wellbeing, motivation and a sense of agency’.

Contributors to the manifesto explain how its five steps can achieve this.

 

Establish a knowledge base, with place-based audits and engagement processes that value local experience

Eileen Conn, co-ordinator, Peckham Vision

Places grow over time and people live and grow with them; they shape each other. This develops their patterns and processes of living there – the social infrastructure of the place. Buildings and spaces acquire familiarity. Over generations this accumulates as heritage. In the present, the inhabitants know the particularity. Socio-economic arrangements are part of this living system which is a symbiosis of the people and the physical place.

Development inevitably changes this delicate living system. For change to be beneficial, there must be sound knowledge and understanding of the place before any development is designed and agreed – the place-based audit. The community’s trust can only be achieved by working collaboratively with all stakeholders to establish a published statement of the facts on the ground. This local knowledge – often a missing vital ingredient in neighbourhood plan making – will provide both a sound baseline for future monitoring and also a cohort of local stakeholders for continuing engagement.

 

Fund and build skills, with a multidisciplinary training programme for those involved in the development process, from community champions to planning officers and developers

Steve McAdam, founding director, Soundings + Fluid

Building places, not just structures, requires skills often absent from masterplanning and design teams. Change in the way architects, planners and engineers are taught is slow, with cursory attention to social and cultural context. Let’s borrow from initiatives like ‘Year Here’, acclaimed by Nesta as one of Britain’s ‘50 New Radicals’. Attracting motivated graduates, it uses paid placements to test innovative ‘products’ that tackle social issues from homelessness to mental health, while building entrepreneurial skills for positive, equitable outcomes. Meanwhile the School for Social Entrepreneurs (SSE) has equipped thousands more to start or strengthen organisations to tackle society’s biggest problems.

These inter-disciplinary programmes fast-track professional development – working in-situ, not in professional silos. Couldn’t we use this approach to prevent ‘ills’, proactively procuring pieces of city that are supportive, equitable and for all citizens?

  

Create incentives, with an accreditation scheme for London developers to set new standards of good practice

Simon Donovan, CEO Manor House Development Trust 

Examples of good practice in community development and stewardship in regeneration are concentrated among too few developers, with little consistency across schemes. An accreditation scheme and kite mark backed by the mayor of London and GLA would celebrate best practice and instigate a drive from the sector to create sustainable and happy communities. Developers who already pay attention to stewardship and community would be rewarded and able to lead by example.

A trusted kitemark also gives those making decisions at tendering and planning stages assurance of a prospective developer’s commitment to social sustainability. It creates an even playing field allowing the social impact of housing developments in different areas to be compared like for like. Above all, it provides a framework to put best practice at the centre of neighbourhoods as we build them.

Royal Docks Floating Ideas.
Royal Docks Floating Ideas. Credit: Soundings.

Provide scrutiny, with a scorecard that measures effective community collaboration and the impact of development on communities

Matt Bell, Grosvenor Britain & Ireland 

Scrutiny matters for transparency and because it drives behaviour change. Knowing that an issue will be raised pre-app and at committee stage creates an incentive for developers to ensure it is addressed seriously. Part of the problem is that community engagement doesn’t get challenged in this way. Provided your consultant writes a half decent Statement of Community Involvement, you can get away with a pretty meaningless consultation.

That's why we need a scorecard: a mechanism for planning committees to test whether there has been proper dialogue. It would normalise scrutiny; help councillors ask the right questions and answer them with hard evidence; and use them to compare the quality of engagement on different sites. That way, the good guys will get the credit while the bad guys struggle. 

If we help committees to apply proper scrutiny, the development industry will soon respond, not least because the costs of good engagement are not high and doing it well then de-risks the process.

 

Demonstrate leadership and democracy, with a Mayoral Statement of Community Involvement and mayoral community advocates

Iashia John, OPDC Community Review Group

Each borough needs a task force – part of the regular infrastructure – focused exclusively on communities and working in partnership with them to deliver a vision that’s sustainable and we can all build upon. Mayoral community advocates must be part of this commitment, holding the mayor and boroughs to account and upholding the expectation of ongoing community involvement. But it’s got to be someone who’s independent and really well informed about local issues – and they must be given skills training and paid for their time. A voluntary role just cuts out so many people because they can’t afford it.

As for leadership, I want to see actions on the ground not more words from the mayor. Come and get your hands dirty!

 

Building back differently: why now is the time to draw on the above and instil a culture change

Lara Kinneir, design cities leader, London School of Architecture

The key is enabling the culture change. Now is a golden opportunity – with a mayoral election, a new London Plan and obvious need following the social and economic ramifications of the pandemic. 

A just and vibrant city has many faces, and that must be reflected in those that shape it. We need new ways of working collaboratively, with a diversity of voices from across public and private sectors, and in terms of participants’ social situations, ethnicity and professional disciplines. We need to go far beyond the usual built environment disciplines and familiar silo working to a place of interdisciplinary, cross-community collaboration.

This way we can address the societal and spatial issues Londoners face and achieve the culture change needed to build back differently, not just better than what we had.


Clare Richards is an architect and founder of ftwork

Community groups from across London are invited to ask mayoral candidates how they will act to increase participation of local communities in the planning of their neighbourhoods, and create inclusive development London at the Local Community Hustings on 12 April

 

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