Better approaches to masterplanning practice

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Overcoming Obstacles to Place

The BEFS event on 28 May 2014 in Edinburgh, hosted by the BEFS Chair Emeritus Professor Cliff Hague, noted that ‘place’ has become an important theme in the built environment but it is elusive and difficult to define. Three speakers provided initial thoughts on ‘overcoming obstacles to place’:

John McNairney (Scottish Government Chief Planner) described that ‘Place’ is an established commitment of the Scottish Government which launched Designing Places in 2001 followed by a series of related policy (e.g. Housing, Masterplanning, etc). Place is embedded in the Creating Places policy and forthcoming Scottish Planning Policy. Policy seeks to tackle car based developments and overcome single use allocations to create places that are attractive and well connected.

Place is a corporate and core agenda which, post Christie Review, links economic, environmental and health agendas (i.e. place is at the heart of policies). John spoke about how an intensive, inclusive ‘charrette lite’ approach is relevant to community planning and development planning. Plans should be short map based visions for communities’ aspirations, but have tended to be wordy, difficult to access, and dominated by numbers.

John cited Polnoon as a project where different disciplines worked towards delivering a shared outcome by overcoming rules; we need to tackle rules and regulations which may be a barrier, and to make it easier for good designers to do the right thing. Good design needs to be embraced and facilitated through the planning system.

The Commonwealth Games project further demonstrated the importance of cross sector working to deliver longer term objectives, and the importance of community consultation and engagement. Partnership working is also evident in measures to deliver town centre improvements, and further considerations included: skills enhancement and communicating good practice.

Karen Anderson (Chair of Architecture + Design Scotland) agreed that the Scottish Government has created a strong policy base to make good places, and noted the importance of putting people at the heart of placemaking, along with a distinction between place ‘mending’ and place ‘making’.

Place provides the opportunity to galvanise energy and capture multi dimensional aspects; results from charretes have revealed both hard/physical and soft/less tangible issues and aims. Place is a chance to integrate physical land use planning with community planning ambitions, and to focus on investment in the future rather than short term development returns.

There is a need to persuade and inspire wider popular desire to demand that we get the kind of places we all want. We need mixed use places that are not car dependant, and avoid single use ghettoes. We need to challenge the notion that ‘it’s what the market wants’ and provide what people want by thinking about investment rather than development.

The place-mending agenda links with community empowerment and asset transfer, and Scotland has a chance to be ground breaking partly – due to the strong policy context, and also issues of scale.

Craig Stirrat (Director of Housing at Fife Housing Association, standing in at short notice for Alan Lundmark of HfS) reinforced the message of putting people at the heart of placemaking. Craig questioned why we still have pockets of deprivation and inequality, and said we need to tackle social ills, poor environments and poor infrastructure as these factors hinder the economic success of our nation. Communities don’t feel empowered and this has a material impact on health and wellbeing.

A specific consideration is the challenge to make places that cater for the ageing population and encourage fit, healthy and independent lifestyles. We need to make social places that invite human interaction and ensure that places cater for everyone including the aged in our society.

Prior to inviting audience comments, Cliff noted that certain points (i.e. places for people, walkable, friendly, mixed use, etc) weren’t original and sought to interrogate what’s new and different about the ‘place’ agenda. The panellists agreed that holistic, partnership working is essential and that place isn’t limited to narrow professional interests. Other factors considered included: density, scale, activity, vibrancy and other qualities of Designing Places.

Cliff enquired further about the tension between professional aspirations (e.g. fewer cars) and the democratic life choices that people make. Panellists agreed that people should have choice, and that public money should not be spent on remedying mistakes arising from poor choice; sometimes we need to generate the right outcomes.

Questions and comments from the audience covered a range of topics including:

  • finance and value systems inhibit good placemaking – e.g. houses are valued from an economic investment perspective rather than as a community or place assets
  • a stronger role is required from the public sector (e.g. European models) in land assembly, infrastructure investment and leadership
  • the importance of listening and working with people, rather than doing things to people
  • the charrete /community engagement model is not new in Scotland as there is a legacy of working with communities e.g. community based housing and development trust initiatives
  • we need to be clear about what we want and the type of change we need to initiate
  • we may need charrettes, but there is also a role for site briefs
  • ambitions need to be brought together in a viable vision for the future of place – we will make it happen where there is a perceived benefit; houses and places will remain after developers have left
  • the language of planning has become increasingly incomprehensible – we mustn’t hide behind policy and words
  • scale – it may be easier in smaller communities to identify what is valued
  • we already have places; should we not be talking about place mending or place management, rather than place making? Placemaking suggests new places; we need to make existing places work better

A final panel reflection identified that, in overcoming obstacles to place, we need to move on from semantics and policy to focus on producing good outcomes. Key concluding themes were: multi disciplinary collaborative working; placemaking as corporate ambition; working towards common shared objectives; investing rather than developing; stop being so removed – get more involved!

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