Professions, placemaking and the public – what next?

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See attached resource for the final report of the event.

A video of the event is available at

The University of Dundee Geddes Institute held a Symposium with partners on ‘Professions, Place-Making, and the Public: What Next?’ to explore the changing nature of the professional in place-making. Participants considered whether there is a need for a wider examination of the developing nature of professional engagement with the public and the professional’s role in society, and if a re-orientation of the professional practice of place making is necessary?

The opening address by Barbara Illsley and Dr Husam Al Waer welcomed delegates to the fourth symposium building upon outcomes of previous events which questioned changing roles in making of places: Creating sustainable communities – better approaches to masterplanning practice; The Practice of Community Charrettes Design in the UK; Masterplanning in current conditions. At the heart of the series is a desire to question What story are we trying to create? What works and why?

Prof. Ian Cooper, Eclipse Research Consultants, opened with a provocation on Professionalism, place making and the public in times of change which sought a clearer definition of the nature of placemaking, and noted how meanings have shifted as demonstrated through changes in working practices. There is a problem of [un]shared meaning where terms such as ‘placemaking’ or ‘design’ become ‘false friends’ – commonly used but with differing interpretations. We need to be more explicit about what is meant by ‘placemaking’.

The notion of ‘place’ has changed: a 1960s ‘Lynch’ focus on hard / tangible /physical has now moved to softer considerations such as identity or wellbeing, plus more performance related delivery measures along with stronger assessment relationships. This was illustrated through reference to Biedler’s ‘Sense of Place Framework’ which showed how ‘place’ differs across a spectrum of meaning: physical setting > activities and experiences within the setting > meaning associated with the setting. Professional interest/expertise applies and varies across this spectrum.

The term ‘public’ encompasses a broad range of stakeholders involved in placemaking: those who influence, and those who are influenced; differing communities of place, interest and practitioners. This raises considerable challenges in identifying and engaging with ‘the public’.

Contemporary placemaking practice requires the formation of broad strategic alliances and coalitions of interests. Professions which grew from protecting divisions of knowledge now operate in shared knowledge domains. Lay people are (and are invited to become) more engaged in decision making affecting their lives. Placemaking professionals need to be more inclusive; they owe a responsibility to civil society and need to engage effectively.

Prof. Ian Gilzean, Scottish Government, drew on personal experience in his presentation on ‘Delivering sustainable places – finding common ground’ and reflected on how ideas can shape and influence outcomes; noting a challenge of working between two worlds: a ‘real’ world, and an imaginary world full of possibilities.

The national policy statement on Creating Places needs a shared vision and collaborative processes to make it work. Ideas are linked to who we are; we need to engage communities and the public. A significant percentage (80%) of Scotland’s population lives in urban areas and we need to invite a new debate about the urban agenda and quality of life. The 1970s community led tenement renewal (e.g. ASSIST) programme offered an alternative to large scale housing redevelopment. Today, the Designing Streets document offers a key policy shift in how we think about making places.

Good things don’t happen by chance; we need to seize opportunities when they appear, and work hard to deliver them. This was recognised by Barcelona’s Mayor, Pasqual Maragall, and in a shift in focus from delivering big works to initiating small projects which can enable more community self-organised action and participation. Dublin’s Temple Bar illustrated how local resistance to its redevelopment as a bus terminus led to the regeneration of the area as a cultural quarter.

In Melbourne, efforts to reactivate a former lifeless core identified and incentivised people to inhabit the centre. Converting commercial property brought life, footfall and activity back to opened-up lanes; public realm improvement, street planting, and other initiatives has made Melbourne’s centre an attractive and desirable living environment.

The Scottish Government has supported a variety of initiatives that promote wider engagement and participation, and which challenge silo professional working; e.g. the charrette programme, drawing skills programme, the A+DS Design Skills Symposium; supporting younger practices at the Venice Biennale (‘self-made city’). The 2016 Year of Innovation, Architecture and Design presents an opportunity to bring the public together to engage in an interactive debate about where to go next.

Craig McLaren, Director of RTPI Scotland, started his presentation on ‘Breaking out of silo thinking’ by highlighting four themes:

  • Focus on outcomes – evident in bringing together spatial and community planning (and Single Outcome Agreements); this can help in managing complex issues; the National Performance Framework provides a useful framework to work with.
  • Challenge perceptions – the planning system is seen as regulatory instead of positive; planners help to provide vision – of the 80/20 split between Development Management and Development Planning, which adds the most value?
  • Systems – are both statutory and non-statutory; think beyond the statutory; aim for proactive rather than reactive.
  • Competencies and skills – planning is seen as a homogeneous lump! In fact there are many different roles and different skillsets; planning looks to deliver long term holistic objectives.

Four challenges / opportunities were offered:

  1. Grasp the corporate government agenda – Planners want to work across silos, and need to get better at demonstrating and articulating how and why this adds value. Presently Heads of Planning tend to operate at the 3rd tier and need to push up to 2nd tier; we need to get the message over that planning is helpful and central.
  2. Spatial thinking – Structures are set up to think in terms of programmes and funding streams instead of working across silos (political committees perpetuate silos!). We need to move to corporate management that considers the spatial contexts of decision making (i.e. link spatial and community planning); could the development plan be the spatial articulation of the community plan? We need to better link up engagement processes and join things up. A focus on outcomes and spatial based thinking can assist this.
  3. Culture change – We need to get better at: enabling; solutions focussed working; a can-do positive attitude that makes things work; collaborative, creative working; certainty; early engagement. A recent RICS report observed that the role of planning is changing. This is evident in: support for continuous improvement; the Planning Development Programme; the work of Improvement Service; works by individuals and organisations.
  4. Measure success – There are a range of different indicators in the Planning Performance Framework that are indicative measures of success: Holistic – working across sectors; Open for business; High quality development; Certainty; Customer service; Decision making; Management structures; Finance and governance; Continuous improvement.

In conclusion planning needs to: show where it adds value; how it works with others; put in place systems that allow for creative cultures. Whilst the Scottish Government can help to create the context for this to happen, we all have responsibilities to take forward this agenda. As a footnote, the Coupland novel, Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, notes: “You must choose between pain or drudgery”. Planning needs to choose ‘pain’ and avoid ‘drudgery’!

Prof. Tara J. Fenwick, Stirling University presented on ‘Professionals’ responsibility to collaborate with civil society’ and noted a challenge for contemporary professions is how to manage dynamic complexity and uncertainty (e.g. evident in demographics changes / technological advances / resource cuts) whilst guaranteeing quality and continuity of service. Today’s generation are born into different ways of understanding knowledge; they understand social media and are network oriented; they are accustomed to interactivity and used to having their say.

A definition of professionalism as ‘a contract of trust between society and occupation group in exchange for a guarantee of service’ faces many challenges: Conflicting demands; Fast changing knowledge (evidence of what works); Digital technology; Partnership working (falling between the cracks); Increased audit (handcuffing regulatory versus visionary practice); Declining public trust; Increased social anxiety; Projections of society’s anxiety and guilt (how to handle a fair set of demands); Legal obligations to clients’ interests, and also to broader society (the interests of one over the interests of the many); Virtue list (moral preoccupations for the good professional); Policy response to crises; Media / public scandals.

The nature of ‘professional’ is changing and different discourses of professionalism include: Innovative professionalism (the ‘icon’ of the incoming care giver); Restricted / extended; Regulatory / transformative; Civic professionalism; New discussions.

The changed nature of professionalism and ways of working present major challenges in relation to exercising responsibilities: Multiple conflicting roles and responsibilities; Relational responsibilities; Efficiency demands v good practice (too busy filling in forms, while the needs of patients are being ignored); Responsibility is negotiated compromise (no way of defining responsibilities other than through a series of compromises). Codes of ethics and rules have to be applied to practice, but responsibility is rarely the rational application of rules (“Impossible practices acting in spaces of undecidability”).

Professionals have a wider civic responsibility – engineers [+ other professions: planners / architects] codes require contribution to greater social good. How does this affect co-production; collaboration; partnership working? When entering into such arrangements professionals can have concerns around: loss of professional accountability; lose different logics of practice; it’s fine until bad things happen – who is accountable when it falls between the cracks?

Changing professionalism has implications for equity and social justice: how are the needs of the vulnerable and disadvantaged met; how to collaborate with culturally diverse knowledge practices; how is local wellbeing identified and promoted; how to work with concepts such as ‘global citizenship (a ‘false friend’), to understand and respect difference; to consider the needs of wider communities?

In terms of civic responsibility, whose demands in the web of commitments will be dominant? The professional’s role is inflated to symbolic importance. The flow is to encourage and support collective practices – what are the professional implications of managing community co-design and delivery of services. We must move towards an expanded sense of civic responsibility.

Chris Brown (IGLOO) provided a developers’ perspective in his presentation ‘Linking professionals, value and delivery of better place making’. He started by noting a need to consider how professionals and placemaking can help to solve big issues (e.g. mental health, climate change, etc). Igloo’s wider sense of responsibility is reflected in the triple aims of ‘people, place and planet’.

Placemaking comprises hard / physical aspects and soft /people considerations (e.g. impact on wellbeing). The term ‘people’ is taken to mean anyone who experiences places now and into the future, and the relevance is summed up in Jan Gehl’s philosophy: “Design places as if people matter” (Where is there a sunny spot? Use leftover land for something special); if places work for both young and old then they will work for everyone.

A starting point is to consider ‘value’ in a wider sense (society and the planet); better places are worth more; this is not about trade-off, but about achieving a win-win. However, most places are made by developers not by professionals; most places are housing (80%), and most housing is by volume house builders (70/75%) who don’t see themselves as having a wider duty to society!

People making decisions are mostly ignorant of what is being discussed, and unaware of how to factor in the cost of negative externalities. Volume house builders have short term desires to get in and out as quickly as possible. They won’t have to bear the costs of ugly buildings as they don’t have a longer term stake in what is built. Negative costs are put onto wider society. How is it possible to incorporate negative externalities into financial appraisals?

Developers don’t necessarily appoint professionals, and don’t recognise a wider sense of duty; but they have to deal with issues when they come up against regulatory duty, and positive pressure can result in change. Pressures for positive change can come from different areas: • Employees – next generation are expecting things to happen differently • Investors – average length of time share owned on London Stock Exchange is 45 seconds! • Developers – sensitized to risks attached to bad business practice • Customers – 2/3 would not buy from volume housebuilders – not much of a choice! • Voters – via politicians: licence to operate • Party leaders – talk about ethical practices

Certain developers (e.g. Barratt Homes) are setting a good example and starting to change the way they go about making places. How to make things better? Regulation is one option; but placemaking / planning system is not a good place to manage delivery as not good at getting design. Therefore propose a different approach: 1. League tables where performance ranked; could provide incentives (i.e. better access to public land; speedier planning consent). Behaviour will change – developers are good at imitating the success of others! 2. Royal Charters provide a basis for greater duty to wider society; therefore, enforce the Royal Charter and threaten to remove this if necessary! 3. Things happening in other parts of the economy, e.g. the Social Value Act, could be applied to placemaking and capital works.

We need to learn from the best and from the worst; but be wary of professionals telling us what’s good for us! Salford Quays was designated as an enterprise zone but became a collection of rubbish buildings. In Birmingham (brownfield site next to canal) old buildings down were knocked down; to replace these assets a professional produced a plan and a vision – awful! In Leeds (brownfield site next to canal) old buildings were kept and occupied with young creative high tech businesses. We need to work with the assets that exist: this has been the experience of any number of sites that didn’t have much going for them except the water e.g. Malmo; East Islands/Amsterdam.

There is potential to change placemaking; professionalism means owing a duty to places and the planet; various lessons are evident in a need for:

  • a good client who cares
  • a good urban designer (and we haven’t been training them)
  • lots of different architects / variety
  • mix of uses; which need to be cross subsidised (and therefore complicated to achieve)
  • community co-production (community as client and developer)
  • long term investment (investors who invest for longer than 45 seconds!)
  • make places “As if people matter”
  • link community and spatial planning > to neighbourhood plans > to site briefs
  • move from individuals to community custodians – it’s their interest to do the right thing
  • custom build – rather than having speculative volume housing that builds to the lowest common denominator, the person building their own house will do everything they possibly can to maximise the value – in every sense!

In group discussions, Prof. Ian Cooper directed participants to consider ‘Reframing professional responses to place making’ by reflecting on: a] what is happening now? b] what needs improving? c] what do you want to happen next? Group feedback was:

Group 1:

Now – Patchy approach to current practice with some pilot projects

Needs – How to incorporate small scale; resources for community engagement; tangible definition

Next – deliver consistency / consensus of practice; not about big masterplans; learn from doing

Group 2:

Now – definition of placemaking; existing places – people have a sense of attachment; new places – design reflects principles of sustainable development

Needs – how to raise aspirations / public attitude? Make it no longer acceptable; not bad enough to refuse; better communication skills; placemaking not about designs – evolutionary process: local organisations generative capacity – play groups to self help

Next – private rented and self build housing (not enough £ to pursue the owner occupation dream); interest pension funds as long term investors; lead to more sustainable communities; diversity of providers leads to diversity of communities; public need to demand investment

Group 3:

Now – concern at generic application of the term (placemaking at different scales: city/ small) – potentially a language barrier; not all doom and gloom, a work in progress; learn from other places

Needs – genuine community empowerment; create opportunities for community housing and co-production; turn into something meaningful – fits with SGov prevention agenda; address silo thinking at high level; link spatial and community planning

Next – match the needs/wants of communities with leadership; local democracy – a process that works for the community; leadership see benefits of community having ownership

Group 4:

Now – there are good community led projects but elsewhere it’s a patchy tick-box experience

Needs – processes to be accessible, early in the process – as a cultural norm; not done by professionals; continue to involve/monitor over time

Next – raise aspirations about what consider as tolerable; all become much more demanding; understand the negative externalities; public authorities become receptive to facilitating good ideas

See attached resource for the final report of the event.

A video of the event is available at

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