Placemaking policy & how to maximise the creative potential of a community

By 17:45:00

Tips for tapping the latent creativity in a community, by Chris Mackenzie

Current UK placemaking policy is primarily about development control: it is more reactive than proactive. There may be various top-down agendas and targets provided for delivery of homes, employment faclities and infrastructure, but the point at which the wider community gets involved is usually when it is too late. By this time, the discussion is about specific development proposals, rather than ideas, when a draft written by local authority planning departments has been approved and issued for consultation. Inevitably the people who have the time, energy and motivation to become involved in responding to such consultations are people with a particular interest. Professional respondents are usually doing so on behalf of a client with a vested interest, or a single issue amenity group with a singular perspective. Lay people are more often than not working to prevent any form of development in their particular back yard. 

This means the normal placemaking process is certainly not a wide-ranging and imaginative discussion driven by vision, imagination and innovation. Local authorities are potentially overlooking a big opportunity to exploit the potential of the creative forces within their own community to offer up breakthrough ideas. There are many creative individuals and companies who will have brilliant ideas, but which never see the light of day. Many of these creative types fear becoming involved with local government, as it is seen as such a dead hand, the graveyard of all ambition. That, combined with the fact that there is never a public "call for ideas", leads those creatives to conclude that ideas will fall on deaf ears, so why waste their time. But vision, imagination and innovation are certainly out there, they just need an opportunity to come forward.

In a recent competition orgnanised by the architectural community in our home city of Bath, a call for imaginative ideas for the city produced a total of 92 entries. These included a really wide range of proposals, from a wide range of people – not just architects by any means – from the mega scheme to the micro. Not all were necessarily development projects either, but all of them put forward creative ideas that would change the city for the better.

Various other schemes for engaging the wider community exist. There is no right or wrong way of doing this, but unless we try to tap into the potential that is clearly there, our communities will miss out and be the poorer for it.
I would suggest some key principles:

  • Call for public involvement early - not just inviting comment on top down proposals.
  • Engage the creative people who live in our communities at the earliest stage - and ask people with ideas to put them up for consideration.
  • Engage the people who will be the users of whatever developments may emerge - rather than just the people who are already in a particular place who mostly want to keep things as they are.
Momentum is key too. The amazing response from Bath’s creative community will not be gathering dust: an online gallery of the entries alongside a public exhibition will soon be launched to keep the conversation going.  Local architects have started discussions with the local authority about a ‘Dragon’s Den’ style pitch event, where an expert panel will award funding for a feasibility study for the most persuasive schemes. Hopefully the best ideas will eventually start to find their way into future placemaking plans.

While Bath’s history is one of radical stylistic revolutions - from Roman to Medieval, to Georgian and then Victorian/Industrial – it has been stuck in a swamp of its own heritage where fear of trying to do something good has choked placemaking ambition. It doesn’t take much to unlock the latent vision of the people – to contribute in a positive way about their surroundings. If it can happen here, then it could happen anywhere.

Chris Mackenzie
Director at Designscape Architects

Published 18/02/2015

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