From the concrete jungle on arrival in Bristol to the thriving regenerated docklands and to the home of our hosts and partner Architecture Centre Bristol, we gathered in the ground floor gallery for the second debate of the 2011/2012 Glass-House Debate Series. A tightly packed group of thirty community led design enthusiasts ready to hear and discuss the practice and realities of community led design in the UK today.
The four enlightening presentations had a common heart – people. None more so than Sandra Manson, a Youth Media Coordinator from Knowle West Media Centre who spoke of how a group of young people became the fearless drivers of a new community facility for their local area. Sandra demonstrated to us how the process of community led design brings far more transformative effects than the designed outcome. Her stories revealed that these young people developed a confidence from their engagement in this process that has propelled them in their personal and professional lives, while the wider community developed a pride of place that has had an impact far beyond the boundaries of the new building.
As a design professional Greg White admitted that the designer doesn’t always know best, as he has been shown on many occasions of involvement in community led design projects. Embedding a sense of ownership and pride in one’s area was key to the success of a project and Greg included an evocative example from Glasgow, where two parks were linked by a series of trees, each one planted with a ceremony of its own in memory of a young person who had died in that community.
Oona Goldsworthy, CEO of Bristol Community Housing Federation gave her reflections on community led design after over thirty years of being involved in such processes. She insisted that honesty, feedback, respect and listening be at the heart of any process, while she cautioned design professionals to be cognisant of scale and function, to ensure that the smallest details are considered and that every space designed has a function (the latter point relating to ongoing issues of management which cause problems long after the built project is completed).
Cleo Newcombe-Jones from Bath & North East Somerset Council revealed the changing nature of community engagement by local authorities, which has seen planners become involved more and more in enabling work. And the tide is turning for the local action groups as Cleo revealed how groups once set up to oppose the decisions of the local authority were now working in partnership with them, and with other groups who they may have been (or still are!) ideologically opposed to.
This theme of shared support pervaded the experience of all of the speakers and many of the audience members who discussed their own experiences of community engagement in the built environment. Community led design is a collective responsibility – to be inclusive, accessible, to communicate clearly and constantly. As put simply by Oona Goldsworthy, “It’s not ‘other’, it’s us”.
A clear definition of ‘community led design’ may once again have eluded us in Bristol but it was an audience member who reminded us of our ultimate responsibility to all in society – to inspire.