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A Letter to Future Placemakers from Sophia de Sousa

Posted on 12 January 2022

Written by:

Sophia de Sousa

For our new blog series ‘A Letter to Future Placemakers’, we’re showcasing letters that thoughtfully share learning points from your lived and/or professional experience with the placemakers of the future. Through this open call, we are asking you to define your audience and place to call your future placemakers to action. Who will shape the future of our towns and cities, and what do you want them to know?

Dear placemakers, present and future,

I’ve been doing this placemaking thing for a while now, and consider myself extremely lucky. My role at The Glass-House affords me the privilege of working with a broad spectrum of great people from communities, practice, academia and government around the UK. I have met people within all of these environments who wield enormous power and influence, and others who feel utterly devoid of agency. All are people with their own frustrations, but each also with considerable talents and “assets” to contribute to placemaking.

My job, in very simple terms, is to help people and organisations work together through design to shape the places where they live, work and play, and to help shape practice and policy to support more collaborative and inclusive design and placemaking. I step into every room as the person who asks challenging questions, poses countless “What if…?” scenarios, and encourages people to develop and test new ways of working together to identify and achieve shared objectives for their local places.

An important aspect of my work is making design feel relevant, accessible and inclusive. It is to help draw out the design thinking and creativity in people, and to help them recognise and value their own expertise (be it lived, professional, technical, experiential, sectoral), alongside the expertise of others, as crucial to shaping great places.

This work relies on people being willing to take a leap of faith with me and with each other and to find ways to work together, to contribute with confidence and to both celebrate and benefit from what others bring to the table. We ask people to step out of their comfort zone, to experiment and learn from each other and from experience.

In all of this there is another ingredient that I think is absolutely crucial, but have previously found difficult to define in a single word. Then, the other day I came across a term that struck me as a way to help articulate what I see as this foundational principle of collaborative design and placemaking. In a recent moving interview (1), broadcaster George Alaghia spoke of a term he had encountered in South Africa which I immediately felt was one which resonated with me in the context of placemaking. Alaghia said,

“In South Africa they have a word: ubuntu. It’s the idea that I’m only human if I recognise the humanity in you. There’s this collective notion of life which I think we have lost.”

At The Glass-House, we have always spoken a great deal about the importance of mutual respect and empathy in our work, but this term ubunto feels infinitely more powerful to me. It is about not only feeling respect and empathy, but recognising that there is something that binds us all.

It also made me think of another voice that emerged at one of our Glass-House events, nearly a decade ago, which has always stayed with me. A builder stood up and asked the room, “Shouldn’t we be building everything as if we were building it for someone we love?”

So my message to future placemakers is this: 

Learn from and continue to iterate and innovate the practical approaches and methodologies to support collaborative design and placemaking. The more tools in the box the better. Invest in the infrastructure for collaboration that unearths, values and mobilises what each of us can bring to placemaking.

However, never forget the essential ingredients of love, and of the wonderfully evocative ubunto. Without them we are simply building stuff, and cannot possibly shape shared places for collectives of people and creatures of all types, while in harmony with our natural environment.

I also encourage you to pause for reflection now and then, and to share the voices and stories of others that have touched you and shaped you along the way. There are so many who have made me the placemaker, and the design enabler I am today, and this letter is also a thank you to all of you who have contributed to my own ongoing journey. 

(1) Interview with George Alaghia by Jessica Murray, The Guardian, 3 January 2022 []