Consulting the Community

A few points based on examples where the highly paid PR folks got it wrong: 

  1. Do not ask leading questions in consultations. The results might look fine on paper but it’s no reflection of how people are really thinking.
  2. Do not think that because people are old/female/not wearing suits, they don’t know what they are talking about.
  3. Do not think only rude people are involved enough to understand the issues – polite people also have brains.
  4. Do listen to planning officers who say you have to convince the locals.
  5. Do notice if there are strong cross-party connections – evidence of good networks.
  6. Do notice if your target group can reach big organisations like London Underground in days or weeks instead of months – evidence of even better networks.
  7. Do notice if you are dealing with people not interested in promotional puffs in the press or help getting money – not everyone is for sale.
  8. Do not make promises of unspecified future benefits from other vague projects – that just makes you look amateur.
  9. Do not ask for meetings when you have nothing new to say – these people are working in their own time and don’t want to waste it.
  10. And once planning objections have been lodged, it’s too late for either wheedling or threats, neither of which are even faintly professional.

Fail to observe the above and you end up with not just an unconvinced or even alienated community, you will also be dealing with incredibly irritated clients, and a scheme which will fall overs its feet because so many local people both know and understand its failings – and know that they can write to the council to object. 


Who Owns Your Centre

First step in trying to change places is to know who owns what. It’s not hard, you just search on the Land Registry – charge £3 per title (an additional £3 if you want the plan as well). Make sure you use and not one of the fake, alternative sites which charge more like £15 per search. 

You need to register and if you don’t use the site for more than six months will need to re-register when you go back on it. 

Armed with information on who owns different buildings and sites you may well find yourself several steps ahead of even professional masterplanners who can spend 12 months on designs without having checked out the owners. Needless to say, those masterplans tend to do nothing more than cause blight as they provide options unlikely to be delivered because irrelevant to the interests of the owners. 

On the other hand, once you know who owns a property you can contact them – if necessary by old-fashioned letter with a stamp on the envelope – and discuss whether you could work together. If they do want to make any changes, it is in their interests to work with the community from the start because that will really ease any project through planning. 


Protecting against the blight of gentrification

Rowan Moore, writing in the Observer, is rightly depressed that just three, persistent objectors had managed to close the Wapping Project He concludes that a handful of private owners are now pushing the city into sanitised blandness.

One of the good things about European living is that we all live close to each other. Traditionally that means that we have to get along with people different from ourselves. That contrasts with places like the US or Australia, where society is more geographically sifted.

In the big European cities the result of colliding worlds and people is buzz and creativity. But if we let people like the three (anonymous) complainants of Wapping get their way, we’re going to lose that.

Moore suggests a law preventing people from objecting, except in extreme cases, to any business that was there before them. That way if nothing else, you won’t get the worst effects of gentrification.


Why Public Space is Important

Fascinating findings in this US article For example, old people living above dead frontages like the ones supermarkets install, don’t live as long as those who live over active streets.

In other words, the way our streets look has a real impact on our health.

They also affect how we behave. Where people feel safe – and that means in a location they can ‘read’ easily, and which feels familiar – they behave better. Well nah, as my teenager would say.

Now for public design which takes  note of that.

Streets are some of city’s most valuable resources

The New York commissioner for transport points out the benefits of shifting use of streets from motor vehicles to pedestrians and cyclists . The result is a more efficient infrastructure, and improved quality of life. New York set out goals and benchmarks to achieve that. London needs to match that. If necessary we can just run the changes as pilots and prove that it works.

Big Improvements from Small Changes

You can’t improve a place until you’ve understood what’s there. Doing that well takes time, as muf architects have in Dalston. That means you can find the people who don’t usually feel confident to say what they feel, and help everyone think harder about what they really want, instead of focusing on money to spend. All too often the money becomes the objective, instead of the results.

The article by Kieran Long is a bit out of date – who talks Big Society nowadays? But it reports on something which is ground-breaking nevertheless.

What muf did was work to identify 76 small projects to create lots of little improvements, each rooted in the community so they won’t wither as soon as the money runs out. Not only is that much less damaging to the grain of the place, which develops like an urban patina over many years. It’s also much less expensive.

Neighbourhood Plans

Neighbourhood Plans are a real opportunity for communities to set up real dialogue with their local council about choices for their area. Even if the drafting of a final Plan proves too challenging – and given the requirement to stay aligned with all existing legislation that is something of a challenge – the direct dialogue not only with elected councillors but also the officers, is a real step forward.

It looks like central government meant for this legislation to free up lots of greenfield development on the edge of villages, without having to do anything as unpopular as imposing it from above. What is in fact happening is that the option is attracting attention from urban areas which have a much more complicated set of challenges to deal with.

The law of unintended consequences may apply. Despite the best efforts of government to centralise power, these Plans could turn out to be a step towards more active democratic involvement, because those who are increasingly doubtful about political parties or even voting, here can see practical outcomes.

Dangerous Pedestrians?

Does the motoring fraternity need to take a bit of a rest?