Community Planning for Regeneration Professionals

I was invited by Christine Murray, the impressive editor of the Architects Journal, to speak to their quarterly breakfast for the AJ100 (the largest 100 architects practices in the UK) at Claridges this week.

Putting aside my many qualms (Claridges in an age of austerity?), the large number of poor quality buildings some of these firms have been responsible for (together with their equally culpable clients) and the idea that being big as an architecture firm was something to celebrate (rather than making great places – although both would be great), I jumped at the chance.

I talked a bit about the market signals I was picking up as I went round the country. The palpably growing north-south divide, the emerging behaviour of the Scottish and Irish bad banks (continuing to work with the developers who lost us all that money – many of them clients of the big architects), the new financial tools in the hands of the public sector (Tax Increment Financing, prudential borrowing, the Regional Growth Fund, New Homes Bonus etc) and so on.

And then I turned to what I hoped would be an optimistic story. I had been inspired by John Morefield and his new firm, architecture five cents – http://architecture5cents.com/. A great true story about an architect in Seattle who faced up to unemployment by setting up a market stall offering architectural consultations for five cents. He made 35 cents (and found seven potential clients). Both a public good and a great way of marketing and making a living.

I wondered if this could apply to community planning (which by the way is now rumoured to be hitting the streets this Thursday in the Localism Bill despite rumours from senior sources at CLG at the begining of the week that it might not be until January now that they had missed their 22 November parliamentary time slot).

What, I asked the assembled leaders of the architecture profession, were the chances of them encouraging their people to engage in the community planning process in their local communities? I explained that they wouldn’t be paid, but that I thought they would meet a lot of prospective clients, would learn much about what real people (rather than greedy developers) thought made a good building or place and would help create local plans that made the getting of planning permission much easier in the future (because the plans would be owned by the local citizens).

I recognised the difficulty that there might not be an immediate direct benefit to their bottom line from their activities but that overall and in the medium term, their firms, their clients and society would benefit.

I wouldn’t want to prejudge their reaction as I think that for some it wasn’t a question that they had really considered. However I think it is fair to say the reaction was mixed. There was a bit of ‘we couldn’t afford to do it for free’ and some professional concerns – ‘our young architects can’t be let out on their own’ – but there was also some enthusiasm and two firms, Bell Phillips and breakfast sponsors Hilson Moran, who happen to be based in the neighbourhood I live in, offered their services on the spot. Thanks guys, you are an example to us all.

This reaction will be repeated across the regeneration professions and across the country. As they learn about the community planning process from the publication of the Localism Bill and the media commentary that accompanies its passage through Parliament over the next 12 months, they will be thinking about how they might respond. Their willingness, or not, to role up their sleeves, even in these difficult times, and spend time using their professional skills in helping their neighbours create community plans will be a big indicator of the likelihood of success for the Big Society.

6 Responses

  1. In response to the question you raised: ‘I asked the assembled leaders of the architecture profession, were the chances of them encouraging their people to engage in the community planning process in their local communities?’
    I vaguely recollect responding to this question in my Masters dissertation of 2001, where I concluded a resounding: Yes!
    If there is such a thing as ‘planning aid’, why is there not such a thing as ‘design aid’? Not that I am advocating that the government should pay for this approach, rather the architecture profession should look to itself to create such a service as part of its continuous professional development programmes. If the cost of engagement with the community was under the heading of ‘education’, or as you imply, ‘marketing’, then this could well be a way forward to create far better places and enable the community to respond to statutory plans in the language of the design profession, with the added benefit of educating the design community in real local issues.
    Good luck with the campaign (if it is a campaign) and let us hope that the design profession rise to the challenge and that such a response to the community planning process will help address the negative perceptions of architects’ and the value they bring to all of our urban experiences.
    Count me in.

    • There is no such thing as Planning Aid, the government just killed it as from March next year.

      Volunteers are essential and have been around for many years but if you don’t fund the basic infrastructure, you get a completely piecemeal approach that ignores the communities with less time, money and resources.

  2. Hi Chris, I am glad you had some positive responses to your question and I rather suspect that the others will soon fall into line when they see that it will in fact be the shape of things to come whether they like it or not. If the rumours and speculative Localism Bill chat is to be believed (and I suspect it is) Communities are being shoved into the driving seat both willingly and unwillingly.

    This means that there will be decisions made, ideas sprung and plans drawn up by local people for their local areas and this will still require underpinning by technical expertise. It is unlikely that community and neighbourhood groups will be able to afford to pay for consultants. So are we saying as a built environment profession that we are going to turn a blind eye and let them get on with it or are we going to recognise that we are not divorced from the rest of society, that we are members of communities and neighbourhoods too and get stuck in?

    We can see this as an opportunity to up-skill our local neighbours in the planning and design process so that when faced with a neighbourhood planning or indeed a consultation exrecise, instead of being turned off or intimidated by design speak, it becomes a common language and the dialogue can be a rich one instead of a jerky adversarial one.

    Heck, we might even learn something ourselves about what it means to live with our designs and plans once we have drawn them up for “other people” and then walked away or stuck an artificial red line around them?

    So yes it might not impact on bottom line but as community capital it is very valuable for a business. Local people are the experts on their local area not us so let’s get off our pedestals and start seeing our local communities and neighbours as a valuable resource.

  3. Why should architects give advice to local groups for free? Do planners give their advice for free to local authorities? Do solicitors?

    If good design is so valuable then surely society, who presumably will benefit from it, should pay for it. That would be a clear demonstration of how much we value good design. I suggest your call for free design advice, Chris, demonstrates how little you actually value good design.

    • Adam, planners along with solicitors and many other professions including accountants volunteer advice to community groups on a pro-bono basis and have done for decades, centuries even. It is not a new thing and is a much encouraged practice, which not only demonstrates good will but also recognises the value that community groups have to deliver local results and services. Why shouldn’t architects and designers do the same? What makes you so special?

      I would say that your comments actually massively undermine the value of community groups and serve to only reinforce the stereotype of architects and designers being on a pedestal above us all.

      You are not outside the community and society but part of it I am afraid.

      • Liane, what arrogant and sanctimonious rubbish. I am not nor have I claimed to be at all special.
        Architects, including me, do volunteer their time and advice to community groups, just as much as community engagement practioners and the other professionals you mention.
        My point is that architects, just as much as any other professional, ought as a rule to be paid properly for their advice, because good design advice is valuable. Suggesting, as Chris and you seem to, that architects ought to give advice for free, as a principle, serves only to devalue that advice and frankly is just rude.
        If community planning is one of the ways this society wishes to write planning policy, then, as a society, we should be prepared to pay properly for the necessary technical advice, not exhort professionals to deliver it for free on the off chance that they might feel good about themselves.

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