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How DSDHA designs spaces users will want – collaborators that work with communities

Words:
Deborah Saunt and Tom Greenall

DSDHA’s contacts book reveals its prioritising of local engagement, with collaborators who enable active input from under-represented groups such as women and young people

Working with young people as part of LSE Cities ‘Seen and Heard’ workshops.
Working with young people as part of LSE Cities ‘Seen and Heard’ workshops. Credit: Julia King

Julia King, policy fellow at LSE Cities and director of Julia King & Associates

We’ve been working with Julia at White Horse Square, a new public space we’re designing in Wembley for Quintain. We already knew about her from her amazing work at LSE Cities, where she leads the Apprenticeship Programme in City Design which Quintain supports.

The new public square has to function as both a residential amenity and a passageway for thousands of people going to events at Wembley. We have already finished the first phase of the square. As part of the soon-to-be delivered second phase, a new youth space is proposed, for which Julia ran co-design workshops with young people from the local area aged 16 to 19, bringing in Akil Scafe-Smith, the co-founder of RESOLVE (see also below) who had collaborated with her previously.

These young people were able to provide valuable insights from their first-hand experience of feeling unwelcome in the area’s public spaces (too old to gather in playgrounds without being accused of antisocial behaviour yet too young to gather around coffee shops without being perceived as loitering), which informed both the brief for the new space and the subsequent design. They wanted a space for socialising, a playable landscape that could include a swing, for example, but one that, through carefully chosen materials and colours, communicated clearly that it was a space was clearly intended for people of their age.

  • Julia King, Policy Fellow at LSE Cities, working with school children.
    Julia King, Policy Fellow at LSE Cities, working with school children. Credit: Julia King
  • Co-design workshop with young people for DSDHA’s White Horse Square in Wembley.
    Co-design workshop with young people for DSDHA’s White Horse Square in Wembley. Credit: Julia King
  • Co-design workshop with young people at DSDHA’s White Horse Square in Wembley.
    Co-design workshop with young people at DSDHA’s White Horse Square in Wembley. Credit: Julia King
  • Towards Spatial Justice, a co-design research project by DSDHA.
    Towards Spatial Justice, a co-design research project by DSDHA.
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Julia has a wonderful way of talking about public space and its design, particularly to people who are more used to being patronised in this respect. She has a great ability to generate a genuine trust in people that they’re contributing something important. She empowers young people, facilitating their involvement in design processes and demonstrating the added social value that co-design processes can achieve.   

We’re about to start Stage 4 and will be working with her again as we get on site so that the young people can see how what they’ve designed is being built.

Julia has also contributed to our co-design research project Towards Spatial Justice – a guide for achieving meaningful participation in co-design processes.

RESOLVE team photo. DSDHA collaborated with the interdisciplinary design collective as part of the masterplan for the renewal of Tustin Estate in Southwark, London.
RESOLVE team photo. DSDHA collaborated with the interdisciplinary design collective as part of the masterplan for the renewal of Tustin Estate in Southwark, London. Credit: Vishnu Jayarajan

RESOLVE Collective

RESOLVE is an inter-disciplinary design collective that combines architecture, engineering, technology and art to address social challenges. We were initially introduced by Pooja Agrawal of Public Practice, and first worked together when we invited them to join our team on the masterplan for the Tustin Estate renewal in Southwark, one of the most diverse boroughs in the country. Their expertise in inclusive and meaningful community engagement here was invaluable. They’ve gone on to contribute to our teaching at the London School of Architecture and at Yale University, and we have included the Tustin Estate co-design as a case study in our Towards Spatial Justice research.

  • Tustin coffee cart, part of the co-design process led by Resolve (with Kennedy Woods), at the Tustin Estate renewal.
    Tustin coffee cart, part of the co-design process led by Resolve (with Kennedy Woods), at the Tustin Estate renewal. Credit: RESOLVE
  • RESOLVE community engagement at Tustin Estate, part of the co-design process (with Kennedy Woods).
    RESOLVE community engagement at Tustin Estate, part of the co-design process (with Kennedy Woods). Credit: Kennedy Woods
  • RESOLVE community garden interventions at Tustin Estate with Yes Make.
    RESOLVE community garden interventions at Tustin Estate with Yes Make. Credit: RESOLVE
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At Tustin, RESOLVE set out to find residents to collaborate with rather than just waiting to see who might turn up. They’re able to quickly build a lot of trust and value from the process they use when working with people on the estate. They’re very good at instigating and developing conversations, using these to uncover the hidden stories of areas that may otherwise have been extinguished, with clues only remaining in the street names.

Often co-design is an extractive process – a one-way conversation intended to build support for a planning application. But RESOLVE's dedication to trust-building and conversation leads to an exchange. They learn from the people they’re working with, while those people gain an understanding of how their lives are affected by their environment and come away feeling empowered because they’ve acquired new knowledge.

Axonometric drawing by Edit of Purchese Street Open Space at Central Somers Town, 2023.
Axonometric drawing by Edit of Purchese Street Open Space at Central Somers Town, 2023. Credit: Edit

Edit

Edit is a feminist design collective that carries out a range of projects from research to exhibitions, architecture and public realm design.

We recommended Edit to our client, Camden Council, as collaborators for our project in Somers Town, which lies between Euston and St Pancras stations and is one of the most disadvantaged parts of Camden. Here, DSDHA is creating a landscape-led masterplan for its rejuvenation, which provides a new park at its centre, bounded by a new primary school, community centre, affordable housing, allotments and play facilities.

When it came to the detailed design of the play areas of the Central Somers Town regeneration, we wanted to use a co-design process to ensure that local young people were engaged in developing both the brief and the design for their future space. Edit seemed the perfect collaborators to ensure that the space that was developed would be inclusive of the needs, wants and safety concerns of girls and young women.

  • Edit members, 2023.
    Edit members, 2023. Credit: Phineas Harper
  • Photograph from a Purchese Street Open Space workshop at Central Somers Town, 2023.
    Photograph from a Purchese Street Open Space workshop at Central Somers Town, 2023. Credit: Edit
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Edit had previously carried out research projects on domestic labour, specifically around laundry. This struck a chord with us as Somers Town has a rich history of communal laundries and maypole-like drying structures topped with Royal Doulton ceramic finials.

Edit ran co-design workshops with us to design the new social and play space for teenagers. In place of the previous enclosed Multi Use Games Area, this space will have an open basketball half-court and a continuous curving and sloping wall that forms new seating areas for larger and smaller groups, new areas of planting, and space for a hammock swing bench. This range of social and activity spaces of different characters and atmospheres is reflective of the aspirations of the young co-designers who worked with Edit, to have good places to congregate with their friends outside.

The project really benefited from Edit’s talent for collaborative site analysis and design work with young people. For the final co-design workshop, the design used engaging drawings and mock ups, including a digital model on a projector that could be panned around to give the effect of being in the new space, and 1:1 mock-ups of the seating areas to test how their scale would work for comfortable places to sit and spend time together.

We like Edit’s critical eye and activist energy – it feels as if they’re working in the tradition of pioneering women’s design organisations such as Matrix.

Yes Make workshop at the Paper Garden, a meanwhile space at Canada Water, where it is leading the construction of a community building/education space.
Yes Make workshop at the Paper Garden, a meanwhile space at Canada Water, where it is leading the construction of a community building/education space. Credit: Yes Make

Yes Make

Yes Make works with communities to deliver socially beneficial projects, whether shelters, playground equipment or buildings for schools. It works with low carbon and/or recycled materials and help educate people about sustainable building processes and circular economy principles.

We’ve been in discussions with Yes Make recently on a DSDHA arts and education retrofit using recycled timber and are always looking for opportunities to work with them.

Founder Joel De Mowbray ran the construction of a community building/education space at the Paper Garden, a meanwhile space at Canada Water in south London, where he led workshops with volunteers to build the walls using low-tech, recycled materials such as chunks of cordwood timber and lime mortar.

Members of the DSDHA team volunteering with Yes Make on the construction of a community building at the Paper Garden meanwhile space at Canada Water.
Members of the DSDHA team volunteering with Yes Make on the construction of a community building at the Paper Garden meanwhile space at Canada Water. Credit: DSDHA

We like his commitment to genuinely circular economy principles. Paper Garden challenged sacrosanct things in the construction industry. Rather than sacrificing principles for a swift end-result, it was only built when there were enough materials and volunteers to do it – a group of us from the studio spent a day there volunteering to build the walls.

Yes Make’s ambition is admirable. It is increasingly upscaling, going from small-scale structures and sculptural installations to large-scale community buildings, which we included in our Towards Spatial Justice research. It will soon be launching an entrepreneurship programme where young people use batches of reclaimed materials to design, make and market their own consumer facing products.

As told to Pamela Buxton. Deborah Saunt and Tom Greenall are founding director and director of DSDHA

Towards Spatial Justice – a guide for achieving meaningful participation in co-design processes by Tom Greenall, Jane Wong and Lydia Toohey of DSDHA (main authors) is available from DSDHA

 

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