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Debate round-up: How can great places create value for local people?

Posted on 18 September 2012

Written by:

Louise Dredge

‘How can great places create value for local people?’ was the question posed at the first debate in our national series Putting People in their Place in partnership with The Academy of Urbanism, held in Glasgow on Wednesday 10 October 2012.

The setting was an old covered market in Glasgow’s Barras area (Barras Art & Design Centre), a “magical”, if unexpectedly chilly environment in which our loyal audience and speakers persevered for over two hours!

Perhaps the simplest statement of the evening was in the end the most impactful: “The crap places kill people”.

Speaker Christopher Rowe of Love Milton, who is a Church of Scotland Minister and resident of one of Glasgow’s most impoverished suburbs, Milton, found it much easier to sum up the effect of bad places on people rather than the value great places can bring. Picking up on Christopher Rowe’s assertion that “crap places kill people”, Brian Evans introduced what he called “a very powerful medicine” for engaging communities, in the form of public health research by US expert Howard Frumkin, who has shown that 7 out of 10 of the biggest killers today are directly related the built environment.

The definition of ‘value’, the key theme of this year’s debate series, was first tackled by speaker Brian Evans, an urban designer with over 40 years experience, who separated ‘value’ into two dependent parts: hard value (measured in money) and soft value (measured in benefit). Brian was quick to assert that ‘value’ is “second only to ‘masterplan’ as the most misunderstood word in the lexicon of place.”

But in what ways can great places create value? By bringing beauty, culture, education, activity and amenity, jobs and recreation, and more, according to Christopher Rowe. Rowe emphasised the importance of considering the long term impact of places, , “in every aspect: conception, creation, use and disuse they must serve life/by being aware in every step of their journey of their impact and role.”, a point echoed by many others in the room. Like Rowe, speaker Christopher Breslin, Design and Regeneration Manager with ISIS emphasised the value of beauty and interest to people’s enjoyment of place and space.

What are the necessary conditions for great placemaking? Brian Evans summarised them as: capability, engagement and leadership. The majority of those who contributed their voices to the discussion were committed to the belief that community engagement in the development process brings a real value that can enhance not only the process, but the legacy of a project. Christopher Breslin admitted that his company had learned and changed their practice as a result of “painful, expensive experience of not involving people” in the development processes. He shared hard evidence when he spoke of a £1.5 million loss by ISIS from the rejection of a development proposal opposed by a local community (who had not been engaged or consulted in any way). However a member of the audience was more cynical about community involvement in the development process when he exclaimed: “What expertise does the community have? Not a lot.”

Financial investment can often be a major obstacle the built environment projects and there was some cynicism towards an assertion that community passion could be the basis of finance, with others in the audience arguing from their personal experiences that passion can indeed be transformed into empowerment and investment! One commentator asked us to ponder on what our places and spaces would look and feel like if we were not bound by development and profit, but by responsibility and duty to the environment?

The regional context was understandably, at the heart of comments from the audience and in particular the tiers of governance and local democracy in Scotland were questioned repeatedly. And in the debate on scale and reach, is as Brian Evans claimed, ‘local people’ political contamination of a perfectly good phrase (people)?

“It’s lovely to be invited to come into The Glass-House and throw stones,” uttered one of our speakers on that cold evening. We invite you to contribute your thoughts below, and continue to explore the themes above, with friends, colleagues and neighbours.