Place: designed for sharing? A round-up of our recent Edinburgh debate

Last Wednesday in Edinburgh, we held the first debate in our 2015/16 Series, A Place for Everyone?, which explores the common elements in place that bring us together and our role in shaping them, as communities and as individuals.

Exploring the question ‘Place: designed for sharing?’, we prompted our audience with questions such as: is it possible to design places that everyone can use and thrive in? What are the compromises we make to be able to share spaces successfully?

Our three invited speakers and many of the attendees shared stories, advice, confessions and apologies. The summary below draws together some of the key themes of the conversation. Alternatively, you can listen to the whole discussion on our podcast.

Placeful Belonging
What is it that makes you feel like you belong in a place and how does how we create and shape our places contribute to this? Cat Macaulay (Head of User Research and Engagement at the Scottish Government), our first speaker, introduced the idea of a search for placeful belonging to the debate. Cat talked to us about growing up in a small town in Scotland, and as a gay woman, feeling a sense of isolation that drove her to Edinburgh to find a sense of belonging. However, in the Edinburgh of the 1980s the spaces for her community were shady and on the fringes. In response, Cat and friends set up the Blue Moon Café to provide a place for meeting, for support and comfort, and it became an important social shared space for Cat and countless others in the city.

From the audience, a woman lamented the decline of inner city communities, pushed out by rising prices. Places like the local corner shop once provided an important social function as a place of friendship and support and people felt they belonged in their street or neighbourhood. What do we lose when these local, shared spaces disappear?

The Rulebook
Should we throw the rulebook out? Does it have any value or does it just make things worse? Speaker Riccardo Marini, a Director with Gehl Architects, a practice that promotes a people-centred approach to design, was critical of himself and his profession, wondering: “when we try to make things better, why do we make them worse?”. In our attempts to create places that are inclusive, where we can all feel a sense of belonging, Riccardo argued that we often destroy other qualities that make a place loved and well-used. We have created so many rules and regulations to make the world a better place, but if you truly put people at the centre you get closer to creating a great place, we were told.

Speaking from the audience our host, John Ennis, founder of Gayfield Creative Spaces, spoke up in defence of the rulebook. Like laws that provide equal rights of marriage to all couples, John argued that we need to legislate to properly embed approaches in our psyche. John also defended local authority staff who are trying to do their best with their roles. The structures of local authorities are too big to be adaptable.

Another audience member, Stuart Watson, an architect with the Scottish Government, advocated the introduction of a rule to involve communities in decision-making as early as possible. Stuart also shared his government’s new Place Standard tool which aims to help communities to capture local needs and ideas for their places, to inform more inclusive placemaking.

Forget your theories – ask!
Our third speaker, Sandra Sutton, who manages a community centre and action trust in Twechar village outside Glasgow, is a woman passionate about the place she lives in. Sandra and her community decided to act beacuse of decisions being made that didn’t involve or consider the people at the heart of them. As in many other places, Sandra’s village was provided with a community space that didn’t meet the needs of the local community: “we were sick of hearing about what we needed”. Reclaiming the recreation centre provided by the local authority, the community have created a centre that has flexible spaces, that works collaboratively with different service providers and hosts a range of activities catering for the diverse needs of people in the area. Sandra’s advice was clear: “just ask people, what is it you want and what do you need?”.

Trust, however, between different players involved in shaping our places, is still not easy to achieve. Ross McEwan of community trust Granton Improvement Society shared his experience of trying to bring into community ownership a number of local buildings and open spaces in his neighbourhood, and his frustration that despite having a community membership that contains a vast array of skills and abilities, the local council doesn’t believe that they can capably deliver the project.

Other groups, such as Fountainbridge Canalside Initiative are pursuing their placemaking efforts through meanwhile/temporary uses of space. One of their members, shared the story of their recent self build project – a community Wikihouse – where 75 people came along to contribute to a neighbourhood where the proposed private sector-led development is yet to take place. Their ability to achieve ownership in that place, like many other places is dictated by a financial and political power that doesn’t usually favour the community in that place. Linda Gillespie (of DTA Scotland) and Sandra both argued that sharing stories that show the value of community ownership and leadership is the way to drive a change in how we create and shape our places.

Respect
Cat’s second story, about the hostile spaces of the EU headquarters in Brussels (hostile to someone traversing the space on two crutches), reminded us of the lack of respect we show for some people in the spaces we design. Common sense, kindness and generosity were all qualities that were advocated by the room throughout the discussion.

Perhaps we should demand more of these qualities and actions from ourselves and from those who are responsible for shaping our places?

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We invite you to continue this conversation by adding your comments below, or on Twitter using our hashtag #GHdebate. Or join one of our future debates:

Manchester / 11 November 2015 / Place: the sum of parts?
Nottingham / 3 February 2016 / Place: a shared responsibility?
London / 9 March 2016 / Place: who belongs here?