The Pecha Kucha That Never Was

I got some way through preparing to speak at Coventry’s most recent Pecha Kucha night, organised by the lovely Janet Vaughan of Talking Birds, before I realised it was in danger of turning into a rant about the future of the profession.

But I’m not one to waste something when I’ve put some work into it. These are the notes I made as I was preparing. They are unfinished, and very much written in the style that they would have been spoken to a room full of people. It’s a bit opinionated but I’m in the mood for taking a chance so I want to share it.

I’m what’s known as a practice manager – it’s like an office manager with added marketing and business development duties but I work with architectural practices. I’m interested in web-based technology and communication, new media and how this is creating a new social agenda in the work of an architect, and also across society.
I’m doing this talk because I’ve met some inspirational people, particularly over the last 3 or so years, and because I feel that architects and urban designers are often a little bit misunderstood. I hope to dispel some of the myths about what an architect actually does.

In 2009, the government called for local authorities to involve local people in decisions that affect them. This “Duty to Involve” which incorporated “Community-led design” was scrapped in 2011, and replaced with a new guidance document which formed part of the government’s Big Society agenda. The resulting neighbourhood planning element of the Localism Act gives planning powers to local communities and parishes allowing them to have a direct involvement with developments that affect where they live and work.

Well, this is all very nice and encouraging and positive and lovely and if it all works, David Cameron will have a nice warm feeling in his belly… but in actual fact, community-led design has been going on for a long time already. A really long time.

Where once architects were the master builder at the top construction family tree, now they find themselves at the grassroots of development. They don’t just sit down in front of the people with the money for development and tell them what it’s going to look like, they have a hands-on role from the very beginning. They consider how a place functions and what sort of a societal role that building or place will have.

Good architects are good listeners. They have to be because the role of architect has evolved into urban designer, community planner, communications expert, translator of ideas, social curator, sociologist and in some cases, councillor and therapist.

Architects and urban designers must listen first, then put ideas together, then they share those ideas and talk about them, and then they make changes, then they might think about what it looks like, then they come back again and talk to the local community about their ideas, and they might make some more changes, and listen a bit more, and tweak something and show their new ideas……. and eventually they get to the point where something might actually get built.

Out of that process comes a development, a public square, a community centre, some new houses, a new village, a new city…… it has evolved from the local people who use them, play in them, live in them, asking for what they want. Telling the architects and urban designers how they use their homes, what they like doing at the local community centre, what they don’t do enough of and what they’d like to do more of, what works and what doesn’t work where they live at the moment. They are constantly teaching architects about habits and lifestyles. Lifestyles are changing at such a rapid pace, this isn’t possibly something that can be taught at university.

This process hands the power to communities. They are involved in the process of design and planning, and they take pride in it.

This sense of ownership is of enormous value. If local people have been part of the process, they will care for that place, that community hall, their new house because they are proud of it. And from that spirit of involvement, new communities form, new activities start taking place. It’s exciting and wonderful and uplifting and bellywarming……

And it’s been going on for years.

I want to reference some examples of where architects have been working directly with communities. Some of them are architects I know, some are architects I have worked for and with, other schemes are ones that I’ve seen and admire. Some are recent and show how architecture has evolved (particularly in response to the current economic climate), some show architecture that has been led by a team of social entrepreneurs with assistance from architects – which illustrates how architects have to adapt their role.

Bromley by Bow in London is a fascinating scheme highligted to me in 00:/ architects’ Compendium for the Civic Economy.

Brandwood End in Kings Heath by Axis Design Architects. A scheme design that was very much led by the residents. Have a listen to this audioboo from Podnosh and you’ll get what its all about.

Electric Wharf in Coventry by Bryant Priest Newman Architects. Community consultations during very early design stages, and the role of artists in the process are key to its success. There’s a fascinating case study on the project at Public Art Online.

Other examples that were pointed out to me with the help of colleagues at Axis Design include the work by Walter Segal (a “community architect” who developed a simple timber-framed housing system allowing self-builders to create a home quickly and cheaply) and Ralph Erskine’s Byker Wall scheme in Newcastle (a scheme which was redeveloped with participatory support from residents – most of whom were able to remain on site whilst the work was carried out in several phases).

There are also a couple of young practices of note – recent graduates who are doing things a bit differently to traditional practice. Make:Good in London, and Icecream Architecture – the latter travel the country delivering an architectural service from an old ice cream van. Both are innovative, fun practices who are very much community-led in their approach.

Well… that wasn’t a rant. And now I’ve written it all down, it’s actually quite interesting. Funny how things work out.

I guess it’s just not as packed full of laughs as finding tenuous links to architecture in Starship’s 1985 hit single We Built This City.

Neighbourhood Planning – what’s next?

Over the summer I was working with Slider Studio on a StickyWorld R&D project. The TSB funded a feasibility study to investigate how the web could enable Neighbourhood Planning as part of the new Localism Bill. We learned a huge amount about the tools that could help a community group develop a plan and it gave us chance to develop StickyWorld a little further. So now we’re at the point where we’re talking to local authorities, sharing our knowledge and looking for further support for web-enabled neighbourhood planning.

Last week I went along to an event organised by Urban Vision North Staffordshire and RIBA. They brought Architects together with four local community groups to talk about how to write and develop a Neighbourhood Plan. There were useful overviews of the current status of the localism bill and changes to the planning system, as well as a step-by-step guide to Neighbourhood Planning from Dave Chetwyn. I made some (very!) rough notes during the talks which can be found here. The afternoon session was a workshop with each of the community groups discussing their neighbourhood and sharing ideas and aspirations for how their area could be improved.

It was great to see StickyWorld and other web-based tools in action thanks to Rob Annable from Axis Design who led a workshop with representatives from Burslem. Although the session was a discussion based around a printed aerial photograph, Rob was keen to transfer the ideas and (real life) sticky notes to a virtual environment to enable the conversation to continue and develop after the event. Some of the results of that workshop can be found in this dedicated StickyRoom. Rob also made good use of Bookleteer’s Story Cubes to give the discussion some structure.

If you are part of a community group and are wondering how you can get some funding to develop a neighbourhood plan to improve your area, get in touch and I’ll point you in right direction. If you’ve no idea what Neighbourhood Planning is, have a look at this post that I wrote earlier this year.

Neighbourhood Planning

If you haven’t yet heard about the changes to the planning system as a result of the Government’s new Localism Bill (have you been living under a rock?), then allow me to refer to the plain english guide published on The Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG)’s website. The Bill includes, amongst other things, “reform to make the planning system more democratic and more effective”.

The word ‘democratic’ is the operative one in that particular description. To expand a little further, the main change is that regional planning strategies are being scrapped.

“These regional strategies created in 2004 set out where new development needs to take place in each part of the country. They include housing targets for different areas, set by central government.”

So the Localism Bill turns this on its head and aims to make a major change in the way that local communities can influence development in their area.

“Instead of local people being told what to do, the Government thinks that local communities should have genuine opportunities to influence the future of the places where they live. The Bill will introduce a new right for communities to draw up a “neighbourhood development plan”.

That’s it in a nutshell. Local people can come together to create their own neighbourhood plan which, when approved in a local referendum, can then passed on to developers, thus ensuring that local people are getting exactly what they want. Sounds good, huh?

(If you were to ask anyone who works in Planning and the Built Environment about it, they would probably tell you that it has numerous flaws, but those particular clauses and revisions are being thrashed out in the House of Lords this very afternoon as I write this blog post. Latest news here.)

So what’s next? Well, the Bill is due to be passed and since it was introduced, the DCLG have already shared a pot of cash across 40 forward-thinking community groups to act as ‘Front Runners’ in drawing up a their Neighbourhood Plan – and there are more to come. The Government also understand that drawing up a plan is quite a task, and have appointed 4 support organisations. These are the people to go to to provide free guidance and support to communities when they are drawing up their plans

Previously, a developer might draw up plans with an architect, a planning consultant and an urban designer (and a whole host of other consultants too no doubt). They’d produce something that they deemed to be viable in terms of its context, design, commercial value, environmental impact etc. The plans would go to to the planning authority and local communities would be consulted as part of the planning process, however, as this system is essentially being reversed it means that those of us working in the built environment have to change tack.

This is where my current freelance project comes in.

I’m doing some work with Slider Studio. They have been successful in obtaining funding from the Government’s Technology Strategy Board to carry out a feasibility study into the use of digital platforms for Neighbourhood Planning. Slider Studio are a multi-disciplinary practice for architecture, software and digital media and this feasibility study will involve working with regional architecture centres, local authorities and community groups to develop ideas for web-based platforms that support the opportunities given to communities through the Bill.

We have spent the last few weeks investigating online tools that already exist to help enhance communication within community groups, and support consultation events so they reach as wide an audience as possible. As part of our research we are organising some workshops with community groups, planners and local authority represenatives, housing associations, the organisations who support neighbourhood planning and professional consultants. The workshops are taking place at MADE in Birmingham and we are encouraging anyone with any interest in Neighbourhood Planning to come along and talk to us about the process, their role and how a dedicated online platform could enhance and support a community group.

If you have an interest, do please sign up, come along and join in the conversation.

If you can’t make it along to the workshops, we’re going to be holding an event at the end of July to share what we’ve learned along the way.

[update: we are also holding a London-based workshop on 15th July at Urban Design London. Book your place now:]