Radical rethink part 4: The reason why we develop.


Dr Paul Hanna

People are key to fulfilling our potential.

This insight series opened with Part 1 making the bold statement ‘Buildings must become enablers of social and environmental change’, challenging the idea of technofixes, and suggesting all projects should start by asking ‘What do we want to create socially and environmentally in this space?’ Part 2 expanded on this by looking at regeneration, asset repurposing and the creation of new homes and Part 3 offered a vision of designing better for nature. In this final Part, we consider how the radical rethink of Masterplanning and urban redevelopment processes suggested can actually work in practice. Whilst the solution to such a rethink might seem extremely complex and uncomfortable, it is actually quite simple and starts with people.

Who are the experts?

The concept of an ‘expert’ is something we often take for granted but in reality, it is a fragile concept that is socially and historically specific. For example, when talking of ‘experts’ we often think of people who carry out specific roles in society (e.g., doctors, teachers, engineers) however in research and design we understand experts in a more holistic way. Essentially, we are all experts of our own experience and there are many other experts including those who work/volunteer in their community, those caring for others, and many other non-technical experts. To ensure urban redevelopment and regeneration projects maximise their potential for success and positive social and human impact, it is essential that we recognise the wealth of additional knowledge ‘non-technical’ experts bring to the table.

In the first part of this series, I suggested we need to start a project but asking ‘what do we want to create socially and environmentally’. In asking this we have the opportunity to properly engage and involve communities in the built environment process from the outset to design and create meaningful spaces and places with them that reflect the nuances of the historical and social context. Of course, few will want to sit at a design team meeting as we shift to this new way of working, we need to lay the foundations through creative community engagement over a period of time to empower people and utilise the range of participatory methodologies that community psychologists and others have been using for a number of years in research.

We don’t need to reinvent the wheel, rather we need to broaden our horizons and look to examples in tangential areas.

Such approaches help to break down existing historical barriers and enable organisations to show that they genuinely value the expertise of all, not just disciplinary or technical expertise.

Healthcare design has started to embrace this philosophy by recognising ‘experts by experience’ and working with service users and careers groups to develop designs and deliver projects, urban redevelopment and Masterplanning projects can follow this lead.

Imagining the future

I am under no illusion that there aren’t people reading this article, in the context of the economic situation, wondering ‘why would I? It will take more time and money’. Such questions are of course very valid and whilst there is a compelling moral argument for such an approach, there are also financial and practical arguments too. Practically adopting this approach requires a little more time at the front end of projects to build trust and establish a community experts team. However, this extra time during RIBA stages 0-3 is offset but a reduction in local resistance to proposed developments at planning, ultimately if we are building with communities and creating spaces and places they identify with and see value in, the likelihood of objection is minimal. This will also save money in the short term as rectifications and resubmissions of planning applications can become very costly when working at Masterplanning scale.

The financial benefits do not stop there though, creating spaces by drawing on local voices, history and culture results in the creation of spaces and places that work for the people who will use them. Done correctly, this provides projects with a resilient ‘end-product’ that enables all people to realise their potential and flourish.

Whilst spaces have long been known to contribute to the marginalisation of communities, reinforcing limited opportunities and aspirations, and impacting negatively on physical and mental health, they also have the opportunity to be vehicles for social good, inspiring people and opening up opportunities for all.

Through the process of co-production and genuine human-centric design, construction, and operation, we have the opportunity to create amazing spaces and places that have a positive impact environmentally (through micro forests, community allotments for example), socially (through inclusive and supportive spaces which enable interaction, community identity, and opportunities to flourish), individually (through integrating healthcare in communities), and economically (through local co-ops, pop-ups, for example), now and for years to come. This positive impact will also create additional benefits such as a reduction in crime, through creating a strong place-based identity and empowering the disenfranchised.

Through this rethink we will all reap the rewards for years to come and will be part of helping to build communities which truly celebrate diversity, equality, inclusion and afford a myriad of opportunities to everyone. The time to rethink is now.