For our first ever debate in Nottingham, held on Wednesday 3 February, we discussed the question: ‘Place: a shared responsibility?’. What are the rights and responsibilities that we have in shaping our places? Are there new models of collaboration that we can try?
Relationships in place shaping
Many people in the audience raised the importance of building, managing and evolving relationships between those who live in places, and those who play a role in design and management of them. “We don’t need looking after!”, said a member of a local neighbourhood forum (in Sneinton) who argued that the traditional paternalistic relationship between the local authority and its communities needs to change. With an increasing number of mechanisms for local people to influence decision-making about their places (such as those enabled by the Localism Act – neighbourhood planning, community rights etc.), the balance of power is changing.
Speaker Cllr Graham Chapman, Deputy City Leader of Nottingham City Council called for a refocus on the design of the banal in city making and shaping. He was critical of the tendency by the private (and often public) sectors to invest only in the ‘grand designs’ and to forget the edges, such as boundaries, shopping parades, car parking and open green spaces. Addressing the growth of privatised public space, speaker Robert Evans, Director of Evans Vettori Architects, told us of the challenges for him as a designer, to convince private developers to invest in the public good because it is not considered economically viable. But he argued: “Place becomes more attractive if you create a place for everyone”.
The improvement of these neglected places and spaces can also help improve people’s health and wellbeing, This point was highlighted by speaker Michelle Saxton, a senior mentor with BEST – Broxtowe Education, Skills and Training – a social enterprise working in the Broxtowe Estate in Nottingham that supports local people by helping to break down barriers to employment. She spoke of the transformation in outlook of the young people with whom she works, as they gain new skills (e.g. gardening and landscaping): they get out of the house, are motivated and want to actively contribute to improving the quality of their neighbourhood. However, Michelle cautioned of a confused sense of ownership experienced by tenants of local authority properties. Do I have permission to make changes? What are the consequences of a particular course of action? What is the thinking behind a certain set of rules?
Why don’t we plan our places with care? At least one audience member felt that those ‘professionals’ whose designs and decisions affect our neighbourhoods, should have to live in the places they shape. How else can they understand the consequences of their actions and make the best decisions for that place and the people who live there? A further obstacle to considered place leadership is the fact that successive governments have decreased funding for local authorities, leaving them with scant resources, particularly in the areas of design and planning leadership. Reflecting back to the days of the masterplanning of towns like Milton Keynes, another attendee called for a return to positive, forward-thinking planning, as opposed to what we have now: “planning has been reduced to a police force.”
The structures and funding of placemaking emerged as key inhibitors of more enlightened and inclusive decision-making and action. As one attendee pointed out, cities are messy, evolving entities where risk-taking should be encouraged. But inflexible processes such as procurement (highlighted in this think piece by Andrew King), are massive barriers to participation for smaller organisations like BEST, as told by their Chief Executive Anna Mimms. From the audience, Nick Murphy, CEO of Nottingham City Homes admitted that continuity of funding for shaping neighbourhoods can be a challenge when much of their work is done a project by project basis.
Learning and engagement
Conversations also tend to happen too late. Sitting in a newly-restored and extended university space, many wondered why there is not more of a dialogue between the universities and citizens, when these institutions have such an big impact on the physical and social environment of the places in which they are situated. Bringing people together, sharing resources and improved communication and engagement with local people, places and issues were all highlighted as ways to build understanding and awareness and to establish better partnerships, in order to improve places and lives.
Perhaps the most sensible question and comment came at the end of the debate, from nine year-old Henry, who asked us why are we not talking to and teaching kids from local schools about all of these things when they’re young, so that when they’re older they will be experienced and able to face the challenges?
Why not indeed.
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A Place for Everyone? The Glass-House Debate Series 2015/16 continues with the final debate, Place: who belongs here?, in London on 9 March 2016.
The Glass-House Nottingham Debate was supported by local partners Nottingham Trent University, the Creative Quarter and RIBA East Midlands.
Our 2015/16 Series is supported by national partners The Academy of Urbanism and the Open University.