In this month’s Chat, Future-proofing the Design of Places, we wanted to explore how we can collectively design for the evolving socio-economic and cultural landscape, and the role that inclusive and user-led design can play in the future management, maintenance and enlivenment of the places we shape. We were joined by a slightly smaller cohort In this month’s Chat, Future-proofing the Design of Places, we wanted to explore how we can collectively design for the evolving socio-economic and cultural landscape, and the role that inclusive and user-led design can play in the future management, maintenance and enlivenment of the places we shape. We were joined by a slightly smaller cohort than usual, who hailed from across the UK and brought rich dialogue from community activism circles and a more industry-focused perspective. A key driving force behind participants’ presence in this Chat space was the passion to improve places for people, and the realisation that although Covid-19 has brought uncertainty, it has also brought clarity on what is important in placemaking. In contrast to this relatively negative context of the pandemic, our conversation was full of hope and positive thinking about the future, and we focused not on the failings of yesterday but how we (as citizens and professionals) could work as a collective to improve the future for everyone.
Key Themes explored
We opened the conversation by asking our participants what had drawn them to the topic of future-proofing our places, through which we quickly unravelled interests in intergenerational (as well as cross and multigenerational) We opened the conversation by asking our participants what had drawn them to the topic of future-proofing our places, through which we quickly unravelled interests in intergenerational (as well as cross and multigenerational) placemaking, how the future is looking harder for younger generations and the need to address the burgeoning climate crisis. A key shared value of our discussion was that we all felt a responsibility to future-proof places, and throughout the Chat we addressed ideas of siloed knowledge bases and how link and expand them (both in and outside of industries), the need to promote experimentation and the importance of empirical data in creative placemaking.
Breaking through knowledge silos by promoting open exchange
Musing on the idea of intergenerational cities, one of our participants pointed out the clear link between child-friendly and age-friendly strategies and initiatives, and how they share many of the same base principles and ideas. Often, childhood and adulthood are considered very separate elements of our life, and in turn we parcel our urban spaces up to reflect this – why create a playground when the whole city could be play-friendly? We discussed how this linked-up thinking could not only bring cohesion to the idea of child and age-friendly cities, but also between other aspects of industry and community knowledge. Our places are not isolated individual areas, but a rich patchwork whole and this should be reflected in the design and implementation of them. We mused on the idea that Covid-19 has blurred lines between nature and urban spaces, and in turn has brought about a more holistic view of the world to many.
By facilitating clear and open dialogue (a common theme in our Chat spaces), knowledge and resources can be shared to mutually benefit all parties, but it was pointed out that in order for this to happen, people need to be open to finding mutual spaces for collaboration. A facet of this openness (and therefore of future-proofing our places) needs to be a shared language. Whilst it was acknowledged that specialist terms have their place in speaking about specific concepts, we all felt that creating avenues for everyone to understand concepts was a key consideration in making sure everyone felt welcome at the placemaking table.
On the idea of industry silos, we noted particularly how engineering is often not considered a creative industry and how engineering teams are often brought in later within a project timeline, but that there is great added value to bringing them into initial project stages. It struck us that often people label themselves very easily as ‘uncreative’, when in actuality we all have creative sides to us that should be valued whether in or outside of project spaces.
Improving practice through experimentation
Another topic we see recurring in our Chat spaces is the need for experimentation in placemaking, and the want of many to bring a creative, iterative approach which values the journey as a learning space as much as the final product or output. It was noted that current project and planning frameworks can make this approach difficult, as often professionals within placemaking are commissioned for a specific role or outcome, but all our participants agreed that there is value to be found beyond monetary outcomes in many projects. We spoke about the difficulty of communicating this in certain spaces, and that the scope for this experimentation and iteration within projects and placemaking is often heavily influenced by a client’s viewpoint.
The importance of empirical data and applying this to creative placemaking
Expanding on our previous point of siloed knowledge and practices, we discussed how often the client in placemaking projects is not the end user, and therefore end users are neither influencing nor benefiting from project work. We explored how, by involving people who live and work in areas and receiving direct input from them, as well as by creating opportunities to collaborate with local people and organisations through the design process, we could improve placemaking, as well as the lifespan of buildings and shared spaces.
This evolved into a discussion about not just the longevity of buildings, but the longevity of our design thinking and how places and buildings will be managed at the end of their lifecycle. Ideas around this have changed drastically in the last few decades, and the end of a building no longer means just throwing away materials. There is a greater focus on reuse and retrofitting, valuing the materials and resources already put into places. This goes hand-in-hand with the previous ideas of collecting empirical data but also sharing this empirical data more freely, which would allow us to prepare better for this end of life by understanding the composition of buildings as well as how well certain elements have performed. By collecting and sharing data in this way, we can build better evidence bases for more sustainable building methods and share learning between individuals and industries more fluidly.
We left the discussion, as often is the case in our Chat spaces, with much more to say, but with the key idea that placemaking at its core is problem solving in response to both opportunities and challenges, and that no one person has the answer to any one problem. There are a thousand different solutions, but by bringing people to the table and valuing their knowledge, whether professional or lived experience, we can build more equitable and successful places. We felt we all had work to do in promoting spaces for exploration within our individual specialisms, but that in the context of future-proofing places, ideas of nature and built environment are coming together in narratives about placemaking in a way they haven’t before.
You can view our past chat takeaways here.
This was the first Chat in our latest series, but we are always open to your input. Please email Deborah@theglasshouse.org.uk with your suggestions for new Chat topics.