Does involving local people in placemaking make business sense?

“We’ve got to stop talking and start listening’, declared Guy Butler, Projects Director, Grosvenor as he opened the third debate in our national series Putting People in their Place held in Liverpool on Tuesday 5 February 2013 at The Foundation for Art and Creative Technology (FACT).

Guy and fellow speakers Andrew Teage, Planning Director, BDP and Iona Horsburgh, Executive Director, FACT were exploring the question ‘Does involving local people in placemaking make good business sense?’

Echoing Guy, Andrew told us that when it comes to local community engagement you should: “Pay now or, pay later and pay more.” But what does listening to communities mean? Discussions quickly took us to the lexicon of community engagement – are we engaging? Consulting? Is it participation? Or information?

Iona was keen to talk terms too, explaining that when the FACT building was initiated they had focused on their community of interest, on artists, to help them achieve their vision. But the effect of this focus was that they “had to work extremely hard to get buy in and it took a long time to get local ownership.” She added: “If we were doing it now, it would be extremely different. And having not consulted ourselves, we now want to be consulted [about local changes].”

When it comes to defining community, one member of the audience struck a chord with the room: “the definition of community is that they love a place.’” And how can we make better places? Our commentator had the answer: “Imagine you are building for someone you love.”

Generosity was also a key theme. In Guy’s view, engaging the community was ‘free market testing’, but success relied upon being “ingrained in a place” and this took investment and time. From the floor came the echo that financial generosity is also key in supporting individual local interests.

What of the value of the community in design? Andrew wasn’t sure it was a necessary component: “A strong design concept without involvement can enthuse people.” The general response for the audience to this was that communities have much creativity to offer but often needed permission to be creative.

Democracy and ownership (of both process and place itself) featured heavily in the discussion. While the localism agenda was admirable in its intent, one audience member stated that planning laws “were not very local”. And Andrew suggested that the fact that the dialogue and process still rested with the professionals was inhibiting. Other questions from the floor challenged how in the pursuit of financial value and gain, could we still protect public interest? Do the public and our public bodies need to decide if they want ‘the deal enough’ to give up something in exchange?

One audience member highlighted the plight of urban areas of ‘static poverty’ – exclaiming that high-profile city centre developments like Liverpool One were “the cherry on the cupcake, but where’s the cupcake?” How can we create value in these places? And at a time when “90% of regeneration has stopped or stalled”, the audience wanted to see the sector interrogate what we’ve learned and consider different models as ways of placemaking, placeshaping and placekeeping.

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One thing all of us in the room could agree on was that the same old models cannot deliver success for many places. The question is, going forward, can they deliver success for places at all and how are we going to find new ones? The search begins for the new normal….any ideas out there?

Many thanks to our local partner FACT.

The Glass-House Debate Series 2012/13 in partnership with The Academy of Urbanism continues in London on 20 March 2013.