Ministerial Advisory Group for Architecture and the Built Environment: Placemaking Symposium 2017

This year’s ‘Loving Places’ Symposium, organised by the Ministerial Advisory Group for Architecture and the Built Environment (MAG), showcased a rich array of placemaking experience and knowledge through guest presentations and audience participation.

Connect, collaborate, create 

Entitled ‘Making good decisions: The Role of the Developer, Designer, Councillor and Citizen’, the event brought together a diverse range of stakeholders to collectively consider and discuss the roles and ideas to enable better decision-making for the delivery of good places.

Enabling and championing the design, development and delivery of good places is at the heart of MAG’s work. Set up in 2007, MAG has a primary role to advise the Minister for Communities on the implementation and development of the Policy for Architecture and the Built Environment, alongside providing advice and services to all those involved in the built environment in both the public and private sector.

Andrew Haley, the MAG chair, opened the conference with a call for participation and involvement, emphasising MAG’s commitment to enable good placemaking in Northern Ireland through its roles to promote, advocate, facilitate and champion good policy and practice.

Our chair for the day was Professor Peter Bishop, UCL, who began the discussions with his contribution of the conditions required for making good places. Collaborative working and collective determination, along with a clear and shared understanding of whom the places are for were key ingredients for success.

Beginning with the ‘The Role of the Council’, presentations followed from Phil Williams, Director of Place at Belfast City Council, and George Ferguson, former Mayor of Bristol. Working for Belfast City Council since 2015, Phil shared the council’s Community Plan and Local Development Plan for Belfast, emphasising the critical role the council has to enable placemaking, and the collaborative working approaches that this requires.

Bristol has some wonderful placemaking projects that George Ferguson shared with an inspired audience. Highlights included street signs to show ‘open’ streets instead of ‘closed’, an open policy to city markets, pedestrian focused developments, and initiatives that involved children and young people in the planning and delivery of new city activities and events.

At the heart of theses projects was a commitment to engage with all members of the community, to sustain an inspirational approach through connecting with global and local ideas, to embrace challenges such as transport issues with collaborative working methods and to address the need for a city council to facilitate open, fluid and responsive approaches to placemaking. George’s projects and approach left the audience and speakers challenged and energised.

On addressing “The Opportunity of the Developer”, David Johnston, Chair of Gracehill Old School Trust, explained the dedication that is required to sensitively and boldly restore our built heritage. The value of these projects can often be overshadowed by the necessary and sometimes risky financial commitments, but the outcomes create value far beyond their monetary input. Involving the users of these spaces in the process is critical to ensure the restoration is fit for its revitalised purpose and sustained for future generations.

Martyn Evans, Chief Executive of Uncommon, a property development company, explained that the starting point for any approach that has a positive impact on a place began with a commitment to the duty of care for the people and places involved. A careful assessment of what is currently appreciated and of potential value in the future can unlock development ideas at every scale and stage of a project. A flexible and responsive working approach can enable these ideas to be tested, reconsidered, refined and reapplied.

Often within the history of a site lies a wealth of stories that people know and relate to. By engaging with these, much more meaningful relationships can be formed with the variety of stakeholders, enabling a collaborative visionbuilding process to facilitate the necessary stakeholder negotiations that are required as part of any good placemaking process.

The audience’s enthusiasm to the messages and projects that the speakers shared was reflected in the varied questions and comments. Many voiced their agreement and support for new collaborative and inclusive methods for the design, development, delivery and maintenance of the places we live, work and spend time in across Northern Ireland.

Concluding the day, Roisin Heneghan from Heneghan Peng Architects responded to ‘The Role of the Designer’. Sharing their Giant’s Causeway Visitor Centre along with the Palestinian Museum in Jerusalem and The Architecture School at the University of Greenwich, London, Roisin journeyed us through their site-specific design processes. Their attention to surrounding cultures, behaviours and in-depth understanding of the people and purpose reflected through their architectural interventions was an eloquent and impassioned conclusion to the day’s discussions.

Throughout the symposium, many delegates voiced common challenges that limit the process and delivery of good places. The impact of heavy bureaucracy alongside working cultures that are resistant to change, and rigid planning processes that cannot react quickly enough to the rate of change, place or people were all aired as some of the most challenging conditions.

However, the underlying message within all of the presentations and participation was the importance of and need for a common platform for discussion, collaboration and decision making to enable vibrant, healthy, economically sustainable places to be created by the many varied stakeholders and users that they serve. The knowledge that can be sourced and shared in these instances can lead to many more good decisions being made and good places realised.

It was agreed by all of the participants that local and national governments have a role to ensure this common platform is enabled and sustained, along with the support of facilitating bodies in and outside of government. Government should be successful champions of good placemaking through initiating awards schemes, supporting design review services and placemaking training programmes for those involved in the decision making process.

Learning from other parts of Europe, participants also voiced the opportunity for the dominant placemaking professions to consider shared academic syllabuses and courses, alongside wider relationships between academia, professional bodies and city governments.

In his closing remarks, the event chair reminded the participants to recognize and accept that placemaking was a challenging process, but when a collaborative and determined spirit was built and sustained by all participants, good things happen.

Lara Kinneir, MAG member and curator of the event, commented that ‘whilst the day’s discussion drew out very useful and critical issues, it’s what we do with these issues which will make the difference. MAG is committed to ensuring discussions lead to action, and the evidencing of how we can take action is a key element of MAG’s work going forward.”

Back to top