There is a growing interest in more inclusive design, and with this a recognition that who we invite into the conversation, and who we don’t, shapes the places in which we live, work and play. This question gets even more interesting when we look at the influences (and those missing) that shape the forgotten spaces within our towns and cities, those often awkward, in-between spaces that can become problem areas within our neighbourhoods.
We explored these themes at our event Cultural Influences: Exploring who is missing in Architecture on Thursday 10 March, the third event in our 2021/22 WEdesign series Local Places Global Issues. Working in partnership with the Glasgow School of Art’s (GSA) Mackintosh School of Architecture and Missing in Architecture, we held this hybrid event at the university’s design studios working alongside students and tutors from GSA, with participants joining us online.
This event was conceived through a series of conversations with our collaborators Isabel Deakin, Post-Graduate Programme Leader, and Miranda Webster, Stage 5 Leader and tutor at the Mackintosh School of Architecture, who together are Co-founders of Missing in Architecture. The event was further developed with a number of post-graduate students, who helped to shape the co-design task. We were particularly interested in exploring these forgotten spaces in our cities, and how more inclusive design and placemaking could both activate and transform the sites, as well as empower those who are so often left out of decision-making about our places.
Focusing on the forgotten spaces under M74 motorway, which wends its way through and above the city of Glasgow, the students shared films they had made of these leftover spaces. The videos revealed the poor state of these environments, and evocatively illustrated the feelings that these derelict sites provoke. They also showed that so often these spaces form real or perceived barriers to accessibility and movement through our cities.
We divided event participants into four groups, each tackling these themes through a different lens of either policy, practice, education or community. We tasked the groups with co-designing propositions for how we could activate spaces like this in Glasgow and beyond, and to explore the opportunities this could offer local people to shape their environments.
Our student collaborators facilitated and captured the discussions. We then regrouped to share what each group had produced. Here is a brief summary of each.
The policy group began with an exploration of how policy relates to our forgotten spaces, and quickly agreed that just as these spaces fall through the cracks of city life, they also very often reveal gaps in policy, and a disconnect between the policies that shape our built environment and the people who use it. They also highlighted that it is often unclear who owns and who is responsible for such spaces.
So what could policy do to tackle this? Should it make the land owners more visible and accountable? And what could policy do to empower local people with the agency to transform such spaces? Should we place greater emphasis on creating clearer pathways for decision-making, or simply removing barriers to action?
The group also spoke about engaging people in shaping policy at a very local level as well as setting national standards around place quality and place equity.
This group began with defining practice as “what humans engage with”, stressing that practice was about making connections and seeing opportunities.
They felt that design practitioners in particular have a crucial role in analysing a space, considering what is there now and what was there in the past, the space’s potential and exploring what could be brought into the space to activate it.
They stressed the importance of a user-led design approach, and the use of mapping and engagement tools that explore what and who is around and connects with these spaces, what the spaces are like at different times of day or night, the ownership of the land and the dominant cultural influences that have led it to becoming the place that it is. They also highlighted the importance of the space’s context, what is next to the space in question and how has this shaped what happens there now – as well as what might happen in the future.
The group thought that the very act of bringing a design conversation into a disused space could also serve to activate local people to explore these things together, and that this process could help shift the cultural influences that inform the future of that place.
The Education group saw these forgotten spaces as opportunities for learning and sharing. They proposed that through an exploration of how people use a particular unloved space, their spatial and emotional experience of it, we could bring people together to explore local history and heritage, as well as understanding what is happening in the wider neighbourhood around the space.
A space such as the one under the motorway could also spark an interesting conversation about the use of cars, and how they impact our places and environment. Creating a kind of living lab, with facilitated sessions and educational prompts, could help people learn more about materials and construction, their carbon footprint and impact on the environment.
The group also considered the use of temporary installations to help activate the space and kick-start conversations and collaborative action.
This group explored the potential role of these overlooked spaces to “create community” (and whether they can do so without devaluing any existing ones), which prompted discussion around the themes of trust, bias and agency in placemaking. They considered the tensions that catalytic actions within a space might create, whether instigated by a certain element of any given community or through an “outsider” coming in with the best intentions of helping to improve that space. Does any action in transforming a space naturally also carry with it an element of self-interest? Questions around ownership and agency also emerged.
Further discussion around catalytic actions also touched on the potential of temporary changes to spaces to explore their potential and reveal what is possible, rather than simply aiming to solve an immediate problem. What could this do not just to reveal what is possible, but also help create the conditions for change? Could this also create a space for sharing stories and exploring commonality around why a space is not being used, and in doing so, build a sense of community?
Drawing together the key threads
All of the groups explored questions around the ownership and associated responsibility and accountability for these forgotten spaces. What can policy, practice, community and education do to hold those who create and manage these spaces (or fail to) do to hold them to account? Where are the lines drawn between public and private, and how can communities be empowered with the agency to transform these spaces? Just as we have seen children and young people lead the charge on the climate emergency, both taking and demanding action, what will it take for people and communities to take action in transforming these forgotten spaces? Do we need guerrilla urbanism as well as guerrilla gardening?
We also spoke about the power of the temporary and of experimental catalytic action. What role can this play in raising awareness, drawing attention to the potential of these spaces and activating both landowners and local people to work together to weave these spaces back into the city’s fabric? And how might this create room for various cultural influences to filter into decision-making?
This event allowed us time for only a relatively brief, fast-paced discussion on the theme of cultural Influences and who is missing in placemaking, but it became clear that there are many ways to both explore this further and drive forward positive change through activating underused space. The forgotten spaces of our towns and cities, which indeed seem to lack their own voice and influence in our urban fabric, might just offer an interesting opportunity to bring these questions together. It is up to all of us to seize it.
We would like to extend an enormous thank you to the staff and students at The Glasgow School of Art and to all of those who joined us online from different parts of the UK and abroad. As well as creating much for us all to go away and think about, the observations and ideas that emerged will help shape the work of the students involved in live projects working within and with communities in Glasgow.