To a More Ambitious Place: looking back to look forward

As we warm up for this year’s Glass-House Debate Series, let’s take a final look at where we ended the last Series, in March this year:

‘To a More Ambitious Place’ gave us ample scope to delve into our what we want for our places, bringing forward a range of voices and views, in four cities:

  • Glasgow / Does practice make perfect in place?
  • Sheffield / Do the right people have power in place?
  • Bristol / Is our view of place too short-sighted?
  • London / Do we accept the status quo in place?

The Series saw some strong advocacy for the need for experimentation and risk in placemaking. Academician and Bristol Strategic Director of Place, Barra MacRuairí told us that an over reliance on rules curbed creativity and innovation, with the audience reminding us that ‘buildings are for life, not just the planning process.’ It was suggested that a more value-based approach could unlock value in place. In London we heard that policy sometimes drives out innovation and experimentation.

Consensus formed across the debates when the topic turned to collaboration. Audiences shared their experiences of the failure of infrastructure to value participation by local communities – with structures that ignored it and sometimes worked against it. Leslie Barson of London Community Housing Co-operative reminded us that ‘community leadership makes power disperse and diffuse.’ And at the Bristol debate we were reminded of the recipe for success: An inclusive conversation = a good brief = good design.

Can communities lead a process? Pauline Gallacher, Convener of the Scottish Community Alliance, declared ‘We have proven we can do it [lead process]’. Also on the Glasgow panel was Head of Mackintosh School of Architecture, Chris Platt, who lauded the ‘heroes’ like Pauline who can speak the different languages necessary to make things happen in different places (community, local government, private sector…). In Bristol the panel and audience discussed the value of the ‘pop up’ concept as a way to answer the call to innovation and enable greater participation.

Moving to the barriers to participation, the Sheffield debate suggested there is a need for civic governance to support diversity in community leadership: ‘people struggling to earn a living are further disadvantaged by not even being able to contemplate participating’. In London, we heard about the ‘emotional toll’ that leading projects takes on volunteers and how unrewarding processes can feel. We also talked policy and democracy – with Leslie Barson telling us that cities were not for people, but ‘for investment’, with all the impact this has on communities and projects.

Many felt the systems in place didn’t enable communities – and that the solution was more openness, collaboration and creativity. Some also lauded the value of rules and regulation in supporting the creation of great places and advocated starting from the top to change outcomes. Barra MacRuairí questioned whether the public really trusted the people in power to be experimental and innovate.

Other speakers and audiences felt that we need not rely on local government – that they could enable processes without doing them. And in Sheffield, our speaker Tony Stacey, Chief Executive of South Yorkshire Housing Association and Chair of Placeshapers, argued for the need for local organisations that support communities and understand what makes a particular place unique and special.

A hum of agreement rippled through the room in our London debate when an audience member told us that deferring to the state, not taking up the mantle of community-led work undermined our capacity to function as real communities. And Andrew Carter, of the Centre for Cities, left us with a question to challenge the placemaker in all of us: ‘Who is going to be the maker of change?’

A version of this article recently appeared in the spring edition of the Academy of Urbanism Journal, Here & Now.

The Glass-House Debate Series ‘A Place for Everyone?’ 2015/16 will take us to Edinburgh, Manchester, Nottingham and London, and starts in October 2015. Contact our Marketing and Events Manager, Lucia for more information or to get involved.