Might this be the time to begin to trust people?

IT might not come as much of a surprise that a recent report (here) – highlighting housing developments with a high car dependency – received the mainstream media coverage that it did.

While The Guardian (here) and the BBC (here) found a sufficiently compelling newsline in the research conducted by the campaigning group, Transport for New Homes, elsewhere the study fell on deaf ears.

If that speaks volumes as to where architecture and urban design sits in the media eco-system, it might be because, as a nation, we are broadly denied the opportunity to design where we live.

In a parallel universe, communities would be invited to actively take part in the design process, and would be energised by it. But in this universe, all that a community – be it a professional one or one comprising local residents – is asked to do is to, essentially, complain.

An urban design is put up for planning permission and there is an opportunity to comment, which – by its very nature – is code for an opportunity to criticise.

Notwithstanding legitimate concerns about whether the enabling software is designed as well as it might be, planning applications are predicated on different parties fundamentally at odds with each other.

It doesn’t need to be this way. We can, indeed, live in that parallel universe.

If there is a common denominator to all the developments cited in the Transport for New Homes’ report, it is the seeming lack of thought.

Each of the developments were on greenfield sites, which – from a design point of view – represents something of a blank canvas.

A call for ideas is therefore eminently possible, which in turn could shape a design brief that gives developers a relatively free run – unhindered by the hassle, costs and risks of going through the planning applications process – so long as they stick faithfully to what’s being asked for.

In this digital age, there are several different ways whereby everyone can be encouraged and enabled to take part. 

And digital media additionally allows for ideas to be given the profile they deserve, rather than potentially put on a shelf, gathering dust. In this day and age, it should never be the case that ideas submitted as part of a consultation exercise end up in a dark hole.

It might even be that – to get the process moving – both individuals and groups are first invited to submit not just some individual elements to a brief (for instance, a cycle path or a food growing area) but the bones of a whole masterplan. Perhaps with a prize for the best ideas.

And to help in the formulation of a masterplan, for there to be some form of ‘panel of experts’ (its composition throwing up its own challenges) that can be called upon to answer questions, provide inspiration, flag up concerns and show what’s possible.

Greenfield or brownfield (or even the re-imagining of a street or neighbourhood), every site presents opportunities to think imaginatively.

The question is to what extent we trust ‘the people’ to come up with good ideas.

Mike Wilson is a member of the Place Design Scotland team

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