Value Places

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This paper was prepared reflecting on the material presented by A&DS at the Built Environment Forum Scotland Conference 2010.
Sympathy, synthesis, synergy

Patrick Geddes suggests a framework to understand the making of place. For him, the process is about the three interrelated issues of sympathy, synthesis and synergy. Authenticity is about the honest expression of a context. Like a story handed down from generation to generation, we recognise it and see how it relates to our life. Authenticity is important because it is the basis of collective ownership. To work with the authentic story of a place is to be sympathetic to the contexts that make this place what it is.

Richard Florida suggests that authenticity is a function of talent, technology, tolerance and time. In other words, the basis of authenticity is about relationships, relationships that matter, relationships that last and relationships that we understand. All places are about relationships. A sympathetic understanding of these individual relationships and the interdependence between relationships should form a fundamental basis of how we make better places for people, in our time, meeting our challenges in our contexts. The process of making this all happen, of making forms and spaces that translate our desires into an authentic expression of place and time is the process of synthesis. It is not just about auditing problems. It is not just about picking off the easy problems to solve. Synthesis is about the creative and interdisciplinary act of making sense of complexity. Just like a conversation puts words to thoughts and helps us communicate with each other, synthesis in place and design terms is a process of gathering together, making sense and communicating.

When we have synthesised context, understood relationships then we can see the opportunities for synergies and the opportunities for opportunities. Place is about opportunity, the chance meeting, the exchange, the sharing of experiences and spaces. Geddes was right in his simple assertion about sympathy, synthesis, synergy. Delivering on these simple principles is as challenging today as it was when Geddes first clarified their essence. It remains our challenge to deliver better places, better people places, better Scottish places.
Relationships and Scottish places

Paradox is a powerful word. It sums up the essence of many traditional Scottish places. Aberdeen beach is a powerful place. The beating of the waves against sea wall, the accumulation of sand, the gusty winds beating against the land. Within all of this, nestled carefully behind a sea wall are a terrace of houses, people places, lived places. In spite of the dramatic and powerful environmental influences, life flourishes here. There are many complex relationships that make this place matter to people. Edinburgh, draped on a rock has successfully colonised an ancient landscape and made a place for people. In spite of having many other possible options to build, the builders of Edinburgh positioned this place is a very particular set of relations, many of which are highly visible, many of which difficult in topography and liveability terms. It is a cultural achievement, a monument to ambition and cumulative creativity over time. The long line of the Royal Mile arcing down the rocky surface, split up by the feus, wynds and closes creates a lattice of amazing complexity, all knitted over time in response to changing contexts. Each different building represents ideas about how the building represents at once an idea of the world in time, and a relationship to an old street. The relationships matter because they make this place work. It is distinct. Lerwick, says William C. Wonders, is a ‘creation of the sea’. The ragged edge of the town is reclaimed in part from the sea using a device called a ‘lodbery’ a flat area adjacent to the building, that Wonders calls ‘courtyards in the sea’.

The relationships that make Scottish places distinct are a response to time, landscape and people. Recent work by A&DS and the University of Strathclyde mapped some of these relationships in a settlement context by looking at 50 Scottish towns over a 100 year time period, and drilling into detail on 20 towns to better understand the patterns of streets, spaces and buildings. The intention was to enhance the Geddesian principle of sympathy, to understand the relationships and components that are a resource for our contemporary placmaking. The work helps us understand better what place is. A place, according to Kim Dovey, is a ‘centre of collective meaning’. It is about sympathy for and synthesis of physical settings, the story of a people and contexts. Working with these ingredients can help challenge our thinking about what we do and how to deliver better people places in Scotland.
From Mediocrity to authenticity

The Council of Economic Advisors first annual report to the First Minister of Scotland has a lot to say about place. Recommendation 14 of their report says that ‘Too much development in Scotland is a missed opportunity and of mediocre or indifferent quality’. The report says that we need to rise to the challenge of ‘creating places where people want to be’. In terms of what this means for development, we might begin by looking at the different roles and responsibilities in shaping and making places.

Over the last decade, there have been a number of useful studies which highlight our collective responsibilities to meet the challenge set down in the Council of Economic Advisors report. Much of this relates to processes of urban design. In ‘The Role of Design In Housebuilding’, urban design is identified as an issue which is poorly understood and undervalued by the housebuilding industry. The Scottish Planning Authorities Skills Assessment undertaken by Improvement Services in 2007 identifies that urban design and placemaking are key areas where local authority staff at all grades, from Chief Executives to junior officers feel less confident, and require more training.

The recent publication by A&DS ‘Masterplanning-Lessons Learnt’ sets out some key issues about the processes and outcomes of various approaches to masterplanning in Scotland drawn together from 5 years of design review. The document identifies that ‘regrettably we have found that the priorities of some masterplans appear to be driven by guidelines for roads, pattern book approaches to urban design, and standard housing layouts’. These reports, and findings suggest that there is some way to go to achieve better placemaking in Scotland. Meeting this challenge is about forging new relationships between place producers, place managers and place designers. In these strengthened relationships, the role of the local authority is key. The Lyons report identified that placeshaping is a key role of all local authority activity’. The decisions a local authority makes, the policies it sets, the enabling functions it discharges set a framework for the way in which places are formed and stewarded. Better, more visionary plans set a mandate for better masterplans, better design, better architecture. They set a strategic brief for the kind of place we want to create. Without ambition at this level, without plans which embed a desire and a language to engage in better placemaking, we will continue to fail in meeting the challenge of creating ‘places where people want to be in’. We need better plans.

The reform of the planning system seeks to promote more ‘visionary and ambitious plans’. It does seek to enable better placemaking. This is an opportunity it engages with the key principles that Geddes set out: sympathy and synthesis. The opportunity can only be realised and long-term place value can only be unlocked if we get better at being creative about imagining and guiding a better future. This is an important opportunity to work with. In Scotland, there are over 300 settlements. Over 30% of the population live in her 6 cities with the city regions of Glasgow and Edinburgh supporting about 3 million people. Additionally 82% of people in Scotland live in settlements of 3000 or more accounting for about 30% of Scotland’s settlements. It is an urban place. Most of the local and major developments, as defined in the new planning act will happen in or adjacent to an urban settlement. How we conceptualise the relationship between new and old is of critical importance. A settlement is a system of many relationships, enabled by streets, people, ideas and nature. A whole settlement concept sees every addition to the settlement not as an entity in itself, but as part of a bigger picture. Every addition, and every internal change to a settlement should strengthen the place as a whole. This requires a new set of thinking, making places that understand relationships of settlement t landscape from the outside in, the inside out and from the dynamics that make the settlement work.

Ian Adams, in his critical review of ‘The Making of Urban Scotland’ commented in 1973 that if ‘Scotland wants to re-establish her social priorities, she should look no further than the living conditions of her ordinary citizens’. These living conditions come about as a result of the decisions we take about the relationships we enable or inhibit, socially, physically and environmentally. Special places are sometimes very ordinary places that hold a special place in people’s hearts. They are the dignified location within which memories are formed, lives lived, mourning respectfully facilitated. None of this can happen without us, as designers, developers and decision makers recognising the relationships that matter. If part of collective role is to enable value, then the full life value of our decision-making, lies in enabling effective services, facilities that work and by the basic infrastructure that makes the places liveable. Value is about investment. Just like marriage, investment is about time. Time and value are the key relationships in making of places where people want to be with relationships that enable profit and a fair return for a fair risk in the short, medium and long term. This whole life, whole place view of placemaking, and the outcomes we seek to enable can help us meet the challenges laid out in the recent Independent Budget Review. In particular, a whole place view and the synergies between the aspects of place, people, space and actions can help address the specific challenges of:

i – develop a set of practical options for delivering public services with reduced budgets

ii – highlight ways to a longer term sustainable future of Scotland’s public services

This moves us from a thinking relationship of sympathy to synthesis, towards a thinking relationship of synthesis to synergy. Places enable synergies because they are places where connections can happen. We can make better use of what we have. We can be more creative about using assets, people and talents to meet the challenges of our time.
More and better design: meeting the challenges of our time

We do live in interesting times. Our challenges are significant. The financial imperative, and the imperative to reduce financial burden at strategic level is focusing minds on doing more with less. Recent commentary from Scottish ministers insist that these challenges do not mean more and cheaper. It means remaining focused on outcomes and being more effective on delivering the outcomes that matter to people’s lives with less resources. The outcome is the key imperative. Outcomes, in the main, can often be expressed relatively simply. However, just like Geddes simple principles, outcomes are about complexity and relationships. Delivering outcomes that are effective necessitates relational thinking. Everything is connected. This is key value of design. It can help unlock the complexities that always come with trying to deliver outcomes, whether this be building design, service design or the design of delivery. It can show how relationships might come together to make something work. It can make a difference.

The recent A&DS Masterplans lessons learnt document demonstrates that there is some ability in Scotland in the processes of survey and analysis. Too often though this sympathy with the existing place does not inform or translate into better design to enhance our places. The link breaks down and in some cases it is hard to see any relation between analysis and the discussion and the product that forms the design proposal. This is not an assertion of taste or style or preference. This is an assertion about the qualities that make a place work and enable value for a range of people over a long period of time measureable in a number of ways. It is about financial short term value and it is about more than this. In a recent debate with RICS on post recession regeneration, Rob de Wildt of Rigo consultants argues that there are four ways to measure the value of place:

  • Direct: quality of houses, quality of neighbourhood, accessibility, transport, public space, shops, education and jobs
  • Indirect: health, safety, density, image and perception of the social environment
  • External: air quality, neighbourhood effects and noise
  • Distributive: sharing of risk and reward, income opportunities, equity, ripple effects

What is interesting about de Wildt’s analysis is that not only does it take a whole place view of investment and value, but it also takes a whole stakeholder view. It looks at value from the point of view of the citizen, the state, the developer. Each has a responsibility. Each has a role. All have to work in a relationship that is effective. De Wildt argues that the basis of this effective relationship working is quality:

  • Quality of life: collective clarity on what we are trying to achieve
  • Quality of service: collective commitment to delivering the facilities that matter day to day
  • Quality of design: a common language for making the big ideas about the kind of place we want tangible

If we use de Wildt’s thinking as a framework for achieving better places, then we can argue for better design as a means of enabling better outcomes. It is both a tool of synthesis and synergy that helps shape decisions for collective benefit.
Better design: what does it look like

The A&DS Masterplans lessons learnt document is deliberately constructed as an easy to read guide to a set of principles that have emerged from work in Scotland. It is designed to enable a range of stakeholders to look, think and question. It is a short document, but within the narrative it is possible to start picking out some of the ingredients that might enable more proactive synthesis, better design, more ambition and creativity in Scottish placemaking. The diagram below summarises some of these principles. The left side of the diagram sets out some of the issues we need to address. The right side of the diagram sets out some ways we might do it. The how is about tapping into the sympathy for place, not just as professionals but as citizens. It seeks passion, confidence and desire. The only way to effect change, meaningful change is to want it, to have the confidence to make it happen and to take responsibility. The people relationships that make places work, that deliver places where people want to be are about meaningful dialogue, respect and leadership. This is synthesis. This is the basis of authentic, valuable places. Lets deliver on this challenge.

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Place and leadership

The cross-party group of the Scottish Parliament on Architecture and the Built Environment were presented with the findings of...

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