Tuesday, 22 July 2014

The Big Meet: Addressing the National Place Leadership Gap

Last Thursday (17th July) I spent several exceedingly hot and sweaty hours in a big tent in the quad at UCL discussing the findings of the Farrell Review of Architecture and the Built Environment, "Our Future in Place". The conversation was focussed on two key questiones posed in the Farrell Review: Do we need a 'Place Alliance'? and would 'National Place Leadership' be beneficial?

To see tweets from the event search for the hashtag #bigmeet. There are some good ones, and there were some very interesting conversations on Twitter relating to conversations in the room. The findings will also be published later as part of the Evaluating the Governance of Design UCL research project.

"As a follow-up to the Farrell Review, The Bartlett School of Planning is holding a high level ‘Big Meet’ of cross-sector organisations with an interest in place design at UCL’s Bloomsbury campus on Thursday 17th July.

Drawing on current AHRC funded UCL research into questions of design governance and Professor Matthew Carmona’s recently published suggestions for how to build on the place leadership recommendations of the Farrell Review, the Big Meet will take forward this aspect of the review and seek to formulate a common manifesto or set of principles for advancing this agenda at the national level. The Big Meet will be followed by a meeting with the Minister for Culture, Ed Vaizy MP."

We were organised around tables of 8-12 people, arranged rather like we were at a giant wedding (the white marquee added to this effect). To promote discussion, Carmona had authored a short discussion paper, entitled 'National place leadership: three steps to filling the gap in England' suggesting a route to promoting the importance of place in the husbandry of our built environment. First, the 'Big Meet' with cross-sector discussion about the desirability and viability of a politically sanctioned emphasis on place. Second, the formation of a Place Alliance to bring together 'key players' to speak with one voice for the built environment. Third, the establishment of a cross party, politically independent Place Council for England led jointly by government and industry with its own non-governmental funding and objectives. This would be something a bit like a more independent version of government-funded CABE (which existed between 1999 and 2011, and UCL research suggests did a good job at improving the built environment, but didn't make many friends in the process).

What is the Farrell Review?

The Farrell Review, predominantly funded by Farrells, and commissioned by the Dept. for Culture, Media and Sport, examines the way the built environment is planned and designed, across agencies and stakeholders. It then makes recommendations for ways this could be improved. Primarily, it concludes that "...the built environment is extremely complex and that this complexity must be recognised within all our education systems, within the broadest professional life and within government at all levels." Astutely, the report recognises that what brings together this complexity into one arena is place - which is a combination of topography (buildings and streets) and society (people, their lives and interrelationships) as well as invisible institutional, legal and administrative structures tied to specific locations.

The heat is not apparent in this picture. It was, however, very hot.
Towards a Place Alliance

It was generally agreed that a Place Alliance (PA) has the potential to  advocate for places, above the competing interests of organisations and institutions who have a stake in them (ie. everyone). In terms of what the Place Alliance might actually do, this was as far as consensus was reached. How and where this advocacy ought to occur, by whom (are members of the PA invited, appointed or voluntary?) to whom (the public, government, industry?) and how the outcomes should be measured (in money, in 'well-being', in participation?) and then enshrined in what kind of policy (planning? economic? how do we control what developers build?) all remained up for grabs. This seems to be a taster for what is to come in such an organisation - the prospect of getting so many competing interests to speak with 'one voice' seems nigh on impossible, and also undesirable. It seems to me that rather than discussing the administration of such an organisation we would be better to begin with ethical questions, such as those asked at the London For All afternoon by Rachel Laurence of the NEF: what are places - who and what do they serve.

In the Review, as well as place being an ordinary word, place is also converted into an acronym: Planning, Landscape, Architecture, Conservation, Engineering, as the outline structure of a 'method', or a toolkit, for understanding and dealing with place. Alternatively, encompassing the 'concept' of place, the acronym Politics, Life, Advocacy, Community, Environment is suggested. As pointed out by Matthew Carmona, the possibilities for acronyms are almost endless: Particular, Location, Area, Conversations, Economy to name just one example. I fundamentally disagree with the abstraction of the word 'place'  because in its deepest essence, a place is not a concept. A place a concrete thing, rather than an abstraction, within which concepts can be accommodated, but which are always specifically connected to a particular location and geography. To frame it as such means the conversations around it get conceptual and abstract, rather than concrete and specific. This was a problem with much of the discussion, from which places themselves were wholly absent.

National place leadership

Introducing the second session, Carmona made some excellent points about the lack of collaboration at present in the highly fragmented built environment 'sector' (I would argue that it is not a 'sector', it is the underlying foundations of everything - in a very real way -  but let's put that aside for the moment and proceed with the jargon). He argued that the fetishisation of design, the tyranny of the market vs. regulation the NIMBYs and the BANANAs (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone - I love it) compete in an unfruitful way, to the detriment of actual places. Rather like the first session, the second was dominated by questions of governance, funding etc. and studiously avoided questions of what the purpose and approach of the Place Council for England could actually be.


According to Farrel in his opening address, the Review seeks cultural change, focussed on well-being as an indicator of success. This is an oft-repeated trope and fails to address the key finding of the review: that places are complex, while 'well-being' is so simple as to be almost meaningless. The complexity of places is so deep that it seems rather grandiose to suggest that they can be managed and advocated through a single council. It also promotes the spectre of some kind of pattern book for good places, divorced form the real-life negotiation of civic conflict.

A successful urban structure of adaptability is the cause, not the symptom, of an apparently 'good' place. This is not something which can be achieved through aesthetically-focused design. Instead, it is the capability of the urban structure to moderate and organise the inevitable competition between the different interests of groups and individuals in civic society. It is tempting (as occurred at London for All) to focus on civic questions solely on the economy - particularly at the small scale. But urban structure is also composed of other kinds of institutions which contribute to the negotiation of conflict. The civic city depends on the people, their relationships with each other (embedded in place), sometimes more than on the organisations, particularly the global-scale organisations who are frequently those with the biggest financial stake in the creation or improvement of place.

The initial purpose of the Place Alliance should therefore be to establish an agreed ethical basis which would guide the activities of the Place Council for England, so it does not become the flagship for the present leader's personal aesthetic or BANANA based whims. Measuring the non-economic value of places is difficult or impossible, so success should focus on the extent to which a place enables the participation and commitment-to-place of the people who inhabit it. In order to do this, I propose that the organisation should be embedded in a network of actual places - in the dirt, the bin-collections, the piss on the street and the physically located conflict between councils, churches, clubs, SMEs and internaional corporations.

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