The National Urban Design Awards 2014 were recently held here in the UK, and an overview of the winners and finalists can be found here
. I decided to take a look and see how far we have come in planning and designing new developments with regard to community participation.
Christopher Alexander, the famous urban designer and author of the acclaimed book A Pattern Language, said in a recent talk to the Urban Design Group in London, "A child could be an urban designer." Though this comment was surely a self-deprecating remark, there is some truth in it. After all, everyone has a stake in our environment -- and in certain areas, such as park design and even housing design, a child's perspective may be welcomed as much as anyone else's.
It is with this open-minded approach that contemporary urban designers and planners are beginning to pay more than just lip service to the concept of participatory design.
One such development team -- which won the Public Sector award at the 2014 National Urban Design Awards -- is the Know Your Place initiative. This set of tools set up by Bristol City Council encourages participation in the designing and redesigning of neighbourhoods.
Bristol's revolutionary approach to community development looks to the past as well as the future. By utilising old maps and overlaying contemporary aerial imagery of the city, users can see how an area has changed over time. This web-based platform is supported by "mapping events." Local groups -- including school groups -- create character maps of different areas by outlining graphically the distinctive qualities of their area. This makes it easier to see how new development can fit in or how an area can change for the better.
What makes this so exciting to me is that it's effectively planning via crowdsourcing. The maps resemble orienteering maps, full of imagery and symbols. These are put online and embedded with links and photos uploaded by users to tell the story of the neighbourhood.
No character study done by a lone urban designer walking around a town can match the synthesised knowledge and creativity of thousands of community members.
This initiative reminded me of another very prominent, community-led regeneration scheme in the UK that was the subject of a unique 2008 Channel 4 documentary series called The Big Town Plan. It centred on a planning project for Castleford, a down-on-its-luck former mining town in Yorkshire that was to be given new life.
The series showed the trials and triumphs achieved by throwing developers, designers, and residents into the heart of major regeneration meetings and community-led design workshops. One amusing episode documents the dismay of Martha Schwartz, an American landscape architect, at the local hatred of her contemporary park design. Community members did not feel they had been given a say in this alien park that landed on their doorstep, and the designer was labelled by many as a prima donna.
Interestingly, other Castleford projects that had community backing were more successful, including the award-winning footbridge over the River Aire, which became the focal point of the development. Community champions pressured committee members to approve the bridge, and its subsequently iconic status in the town was in part thanks to the amount of local support it had from day one.
Blueprint Regeneration, another 2014 Urban Design Awards finalist, showed that simply involving community members in new residential developments created a sense of neighbourhood before the first foundations were laid, thereby sowing seeds of cohesion that could grow stronger with time.
With the homogenisation of much international development, maybe the missing piece is indeed the people who will actually live the reality penned by an urban designer's slick master plan. The community really can be the designer's biggest asset. After all, no one wants to build a neighbourhood where people won't want to live.