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To a More Ambitious Place: Is our view of place too short-sighted? Think piece #1

Posted on 6 February 2015

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Guest Author

By Katy Hawkins

Today we continue to see a trend of one mega structure replaced by another; we go from one quick-fix to the next. This is an approach quite visible in London today, when rather than attempt to rehabilitate what we already have, demolition is often the favoured response; this has been the source of the recent protests in the city.

Projects with predetermined fixed time lines also dominate – they are unflinching and inflexible – with still not enough (sincere) focus on process, or on trying to coax out the pre-existing qualities of place.

Why is this the case

Is this political? Are these quick-fixes, or big solutions in an attempt to simplistically demonstrate that ‘we’ are taking action – attempting to tackle whatever problem or need resulted in the then response?

Or perhaps our short-sighted tendencies are the result of institutional constraints? This can be seen in the way in which we are forced to compromisingly quantify projects and development plans – with a focus on product rather than process – in order to secure funding. 

Or is this in fact the ego of the master planner – the council, the architect – wanting to oversee the project from start to finish; leaving their own branded mark?

In order to truly collaborate it is necessary to rid oneself of the human desire to wholly control or possess. We must cultivate instead a culture of sharing, of open-source. We must push towards more transparency and better ways of communicating. For this to occur, we must establish a common language that transcends disciplines and professions. This is necessary for true collaboration – between councils, developers, architects and community groups. We must come out of our silos and see ourselves as contributing collaborators in a long-term process, with citizens at the core.

We should go to those inherently in possession of a long-sighted vision – communities – after all they will remain once the project is ‘complete’.

For communities ‘legacy’ is as important as the planning and delivery, and their involvement in a project can work to foster a collective sense of ownership and responsibility for the long-term stewardship of place. When developments are top-down, the funding and wages tend to go, in the large part, to the delivery, and to the ‘product’, rather than to legacy – this is essentially a ‘short-sighted vision’. 

Providing a point of comparison to the approach taken in the UK are progressive Netherlands projects, such as the Kleiburg apartment block in the Bijlmer Estate, Amsterdam. Planner-strategist Martijn Blom, partnering with NL Architects’ Kamiel  Klaasse, devised a DIY self-build strategy to rejuvenate the building and assign it a new lease of life. This was steered by the people living within. They combined re-use with participatory processes.

Indeed creative ‘re-use’ or ‘renovation’ is an exemplary form of long-sighted thinking. It looks to the past and present, and attempts to mimic an organic, evolutionary process in the built environment fostering a sense of the evolving identity of place. Characteristic architectural features remain, whilst updating enables present-day demands to be met. This is not only the source of much local character, but also works to reassuringly provide a sense of stability to citizens, that is most welcome when everything else around is changing at such a rapid rate.
An alternate long-sighted approach is to attempt to build in flexibility into a plan – so that the plan is able to adapt with changing needs or societal fluctuations. This is visible, for example, in the urban development process for the de-funct Berlin airfield Tempelhof that now exists as a public park.

The time-phased nature of the redevelopment process – responsive and flexible as it endeavours to be – allows interim creative activities and uses. These have in turn been assigned the agency to influence the long-term planning process and future development of the park.

For long-sighted approaches to be able to flourish, we need our structures reassessed. ‘Process’ must be put on par with ‘product’. This is about a fine-tuning of a long term process, one that is continually updated in accordance to feedback and interventions. This is the mindset that can then enable a number of long-sighted approaches.

Katy Hawkins completed a Master of Research in Inter-Disciplinary Urban Design in 2014, where she conducted research into community participation in Peckham, South London. She is an Associate at Something Good, Something Useful and is Events Executive at The Academy of Urbanism.

All images © Katy Hawkins

Is our view of place too short-sighted? The Bristol Debate takes place on 11 February from 6-7.30pm.