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GLASS-HOUSE CHATS: Building relationships through design and placemaking

Posted on 22 March 2022

Written by:

Sophia de Sousa

The theme of this month’s Glass-House Chat, Building relationships through design and placemaking, has emerged as a recurring area of exploration in several of our previous Chats, and has previously been identified as one of the crucial pillars of successful engagement in design and placemaking. We were keen to explore this question in more detail, to unpick what ”authentic relationships” look like, and to share ideas and experiences on the conditions for achieving them.

Key themes

We began this Chat by asking participants to consider how we avoid relationship-building in placemaking feeling transactional, exploring the value that we place on people’s time, expertise and collaboration. We also explored the power of place as a conversation starter, as a way to bring people together through shared connections, interests and interactions within a geographical area.  We went on to consider how to bridge the gaps between the “hard” and the “soft” stuff: the built outcomes and social value and impact; the technical expertise and the lived experience; the formal officious processes and the informal conversations and stories that lead to meaningful change and to building authentic relationships. 

Being open and valuing contributors

Fundamentally, we agreed that a successful relationship begins with honesty and transparency. So often, engagement conversations in placemaking start with a background of tension and conflict, and one of the key messages from this Chat was that it’s important to step into this space not only being clear and open about the parameters and spheres of influence looking forward, but also to hold up one’s hands and recognise mistakes that have been made in the past. Can stepping into a space for collaboration with the willingness to acknowledge that some things (be they built outcomes, processes or services) might not have been done well in the past help us move towards doing things better in the future? It is an essential step for engagement to move from the starting point of “What can I do for you?” to “What can we do together?”, and acknowledging past issues can be the first stepping stone in moving towards collaboration.

There was also some discussion around clarity of roles, whether we are asking people to step into this space as volunteers, and/or whether they should be compensated in some way. Should that compensation take the form of a monetary reward, or are there other ways to reward people for their contribution? One participant quoted someone she had met recently, “I don’t want to be paid, I want to be valued”. While perhaps not all would agree that they don’t want to be paid for their time, I think everyone in the process would agree that they want to feel valued by the others involved. Should we perhaps move from a notion of exchanging goods (views, time, skills, power) to sharing our collective assets for the benefit of our places? If we can achieve that, these enduring relationships could then help support a sharing economy in the long-term.

We also touched on the importance of removing power dynamics that can emerge within engagement spaces by leaving titles and baggage at the door, and stepping into such spaces with parity and mutual respect for each other as people, not just as institutions.

The power of a place-based conversation

Every place holds a complex mix of people and interests and in some way, place can be a frame or pathway to bringing these together. It can be a route to forging relationships across socio-economic and cultural boundaries and across sectors. More often than not, engagement in design and placemaking invites dialogue around a particular scheme or project, which is delineated by red lines on an OS map, and which has a clear start and end date and journey through a planning timetable. This is not how relationships are naturally formed. Relationships take time to develop, and people and organisations dip in and out of contact, tending to find different points of shared interest at different times in a person or relationship’s life cycle.  So does a shift to a more holistic, ongoing dialogue that is place-based rather than project-based naturally offer greater opportunity to build and maintain relationships?

Could this approach help us move from a reactive, confrontational space to a more collaborative one, allowing us to better respond to opportunities and challenges? As one of our participants put it, this would allow conversations about individual schemes and projects to start from a different position, from a network of relationships these projects could tap into and expand, rather than having to convene a brand new conversation with a new set of players for each new red line project.

Bringing together the hard and the soft

Placemaking always carries with it tensions between the built outcomes, and processes to get there, and the more intangible legacy and impact of change. The journey itself also tends to place people and their skills into categories of hard and soft skills, generally placing taught (and accredited) technical expertise on a different plane from lived experience and experiential knowledge. However, how we bring these things together relies on processes that create space for both to shine and interact. 

We also touched on the hard and soft skills required to support networking and relationship-building through placemaking. The roles leading engagement processes quite  often focus on one at the expense of the other (often linked to departments and job titles), which also leads to challenges in creating authentic relationships. We all wear many hats, but professionals tend to be pigeon-holed into roles of technical specialists, communication managers or community development roles in placemaking, and the fact is that we need all of these. Individuals may carry all of these hard and soft skills, but collaboration across departments and project teams can certainly help support and nurture a joined-up conversation and a space to develop authentic relationships as part of a sharing economy within placemaking.  

As always, our Chat left us with much to ponder, and some practical ideas that we could all take into our work. From the first human settlements, it has been the decision to come together to shape places to live, work and play that has bound us together as communities. How we relate to each other within those settlements has played, and continues to play, a fundamental role in determining how they operate, how they look and how they feel. Perhaps we need to give a bit more time and thought to the significance of building relationships, and not just the built outcomes.

You can view our past Chat takeaways here.

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