Local distinctiveness in making great places
Maeve Walls, Director of Culture at the Department for Communities, welcomed the exceptional line-up of speakers and the audience of enquiring minds. She set out the purpose of MAG – established in 2007 to advise the Minister for Communities on the implementation and development of the Policy for Architecture and the Built Environment – as providing advice and services to all those involved in the built environment in both the public and private sector. She acknowledged the MAG Chair Andrew Haley and the team for their continued contributions and achievements, in spite of the absence of a Minister. Andrew Haley said the purpose of the symposium was to get conversations going and inspire all of us to deliver outstanding places.
The following speakers each presented and contributed to panel discussions.
- The Value of Local Distinctiveness
Yolande Barnes, Chair of Bartlett Real Estate Institute, UCL, London
- Communicating Places
Lee Mallett, Director at Urbik
- The Distinctiveness of Canada Water, London
Emma Cariaga, Head of Operations for Canada Water at British Land
- Celebrating Local Distinctiveness
Tamsie Thomson, Director London Festival of Architecture
- Regenerating Tirana, Albania
Joni Baboci, General Director of Planning and Urban development in the Municipality of Tirana
The two panel discussions were chaired by Lara Kinneir, a MAG Member.
The following captures the key themes from the event that we hope will continue to stimulate conversations on how we can all contribute to delivering great places.
Yolande Barnes stated that people place a value on local distinctiveness and this is evidenced by where people choose to live. She expanded on this explaining that in successful places the built form reflects the human scale with a variety of flexible, adaptable spaces that can accommodate a different uses.
Emma Cariaga explained that character and brand are intrinsically linked and that storytelling can be expressed in many ways, not just physical aspects. Historical cues are important and understating their meaning to communities is critical and can contribute to co-design.
Lee Mallett explained that we should seek to balance local distinctiveness with future needs and aspirations.
Emma Cariaga gave the example of the Printworks in Canada Water where trialling alternative occupiers and uses has led to it being repurposed rather than demolished. It has attracted potential investment opportunities and retained its placemaking qualities that reflect the character of the area.
Yolande Barnes explained that traditional street patterns tend to stand the test of time as they can accommodate different human activities and are flexible for various uses. She added to this during the discussion that place is created by streets, stewardship and the mix of uses – not by architecture.
Tamsie Thomson explained that the “essence of a place” is what makes a place special and that layering the scale and grain of a place with the local materials and detailing contribute to local distinctiveness. There are also emotional attachments that relate to people’s experiences in places that should not be ignored.
Yolane Barnes stated that we are in the midst of a tsunami of change with demographics and technology. She explained that although these are global issues, they have local impacts on the environment. Demographics means that people’s needs are changing. Technology is constantly progressing yet the need for human interactions is becoming more apparent, through people’s choice of workplace and home locations. She continued to explain that evidence is showing that people are moving to smaller more unique and affordable places. The future 5th age cities may look more like 1st age cities!
Emma Cariaga explained that the pace of change is slower and it tends to follow economic cycles. This means patience is required for longer term benefits and realising values.
Yolande Barnes stated that many investors are reaching an age when they are looking to extract finance from their investments. Also with the interest rate so low, people are looking at other ways to invest.
Need for new business models
Yolande Barnes explained that the barriers to delivery are often invisible and include ownership and finance.
Emma Cariaga stated that in her experience value is added over longer timescales and therefore need long term land interests. She explained that combining public assets and private investment deliver long term benefits and income streams. To make partnerships work their interests need to be aligned.
Yolande Barnes explained that evidence is showing that investors appear to be becoming more interested in finer grain developments with a multiple occupiers and range of uses. A different mind-set is required to create flexible spaces with new business models. She provided the example of a student hotel in Florence where an innovative mix of flexible spaces means it functions for interchangeable markets with similar needs. It operates as student accommodation with study areas etc. and / or a hotel with meeting spaces for visitors and business. It also provides for community groups and after school clubs, and provides additional animation through the café restaurant and bar.
Through the panel discussion it was agreed that where possible, public land should be retained and joint venture models explored rather than disposing of public land. This would mean longer term returns but should deliver wider regeneration benefits.
Achieving participatory engagement
Lee Mallett focused on the need to find the narrative and share stories to engage meaningfully. He also stressed that it is crucial to engage with young people as they have many ideas and should help shape the future of places and policies.
Emma Cariaga provided examples from her experience at Canada Water of engaging communities in story telling about their places and experiences and this can be reflected in the future developments in terms of character, brand, public art and naming elements. We should seek historical clues and understand their meanings for communities though engagement. Meaningful participatory engagement is time consuming but the pace of change is slow and it is important to bring communities on the journey and seek the potential for co-creation of places.
Tamsie Thomson explained how the London Festival of Architecture has created an environment that promotes testing ideas and enables conversations and debates amongst everyone about the built environment in terms of accessibility, engineering, building design, uses and public art. She also explained that creative ways are needed to ask people what places mean to them.
The festival provides the opportunities for change to be demonstrated and debated in a way that is compelling and easy to relate to. Installation projects are generally temporary to avoid the need for planning permissions. Clients and landowners provide briefs, funding and insurance. Longer term projects have involved architectural competitions to explore, experiment and test ideas.
Emma Cariaga explained that care is needed to ensure the approach is right for the participants with appropriate use of language, images and other technologies. Venues and format are also important to create an appealing environment for engagement. Proposals should be of an appropriate scale that is meaningful for the participants and enables a shared dialogue. She explained that at Canada Water they have co-created a social regeneration charter which has the potential to create a long-term legacy.