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Glass-House Chats: The Right to Shape Places

Posted on 3 July 2024

Written by:

Jake Stephenson-Bartley

For our last chat of the series, the topic of discussion was The Right to Shape Places. Our discussion explored the challenges different groups of people face, feeling they can or cannot shape the city around them, from policy to practise to placemaking. How can we ensure we share the agency to shape places so that it reflects the diversity of those around us?

Key Themes

Opening up the discussion we asked, “Do you feel you can shape the places around you?” The short answer was yes, as individuals we can – particularly when reflecting on our professional backgrounds and our inclination towards wanting to make great places a reality for everyone. However there are marginalised groups that don’t have the same privilege and are less able to engage, be that because of mental health, confidence, background, knowledge or funding. We discussed how inequitable the right to shape places is across cities, countries and how starkly the contrast can be between one and another. Finally we shared both provocations and examples of nurturing a community’s agency to shape their place.

Without Value and Without Agency

Many people often feel disconnected from local community decision-making processes, whether these decisions are small or large. It’s challenging to engage when there is a lack of support or clear pathways to expressing your views, especially if you’re struggling with your well-being or health (both physical and mental).

When there are no clear avenues for participation, or when people’s opinions are discredited, it can lead to feelings of being undervalued. This sense of undervaluation diminishes the passion and drive necessary to exercise our right to shape our communities.

So, how can we foster a sense of being valued? With dwindling resources and an inability to rejuvenate ourselves as a community—comprising local authorities, neighbourhoods, friends, family, and all those involved in shaping our spaces—how can less empowered groups seize their agency and shape environments that reflect their needs and values?

One of our group shared a positive example from Edinburgh, where a community fought to save a Victorian council-owned building for community use. They collaborated with Planning Aid Scotland, who understood the planning processes and effectively communicated with the council, and negotiated a community asset transfer. The result was the transformation of the Victorian building into a community-owned intergenerational hub.

While this story highlights a positive outcome, it also underscores that successful regeneration often requires certain conditions: an engaged community, expertise in planning and its language, a receptive local authority, and adequate funding. Without these elements, areas may be shaped predominantly by a privileged demographic with power, leaving others marginalised.

Enhancing Community Agency in Placemaking

We should all feel a sense of agency, and share the right to shape our places, but there are often barriers that hinder people’s initiative and ability to engage in placemaking. We discussed the delicate balance between local authority decision-making and community participation. When dealing with policy or planning issues, local authorities often act as gatekeepers, preventing progress beyond certain thresholds. Conversely, in some cases, local authorities are highly proactive and supportive, eager to assist in shaping cities and communities.

This dichotomy creates a significant imbalance of power and agency, where some communities are well-supported while others are left behind. The challenge, then, is how to address this imbalance. How can we share effective infrastructure and resources across different communities, cities, and spaces to ensure equitable support for all?

Help Us Shape our Places

One suggestion was to find a champion—someone within the local authority or community who has successfully navigated relevant processes. This person can share their knowledge, making it easier for others to follow similar paths.

We discussed the need for more training among built environment professionals, particularly those in positions of power or who control access. Training in empathy, collaboration, and co-design processes is essential to support and encourage equitable participation in shaping our places.

We recognise that changing entrenched beliefs and processes takes time. These have been perpetuated over long periods, leading to a lack of belief in people’s ability to shape their surroundings.

We talked about the importance of breaking down silos within councils and fostering more integrated conversations. Such dialogues can create more opportunities for diverse demographics to see themselves reflected in the places they use. It’s about promoting collaboration over competition.

One participant mentioned how being able to easily contact her councillor has made decision-making processes much simpler. Is this how the system is supposed to work?

Ultimately, we agreed that more opportunities are needed for open discussion, to provide different perspectives and enrich our experience of the city. We must ensure that we don’t lose resources that allow us to come together, using various mechanisms—online, in-person, formal, and informal—to bring diverse groups together.

As humans, we have the capacity to feel a sense of collective belonging to our city, alongside its flora and fauna. We just need to ensure that the right infrastructures are nurtured and spread across different areas to create a city that is shaped for everyone.

Wrapping up

In an ideal world, we should all feel a shared sense of agency, but barriers often prevent people from engaging in placemaking. Local authorities can either act as gatekeepers or supportive allies, creating an imbalance of power across communities. To address this, we need more empathetic and collaborative training for professionals, better integration within councils, and more opportunities for diverse perspectives. Success stories, like easy access to our local councillor, show how systems can work more effectively. Ultimately, fostering a sense of collective belonging and ensuring equitable infrastructure can help everyone contribute to shaping their cities and communities for the better..