When we talk about our approach to city making, we often refer to a quote by urban theorist Jane Jacobs, who wrote:
‘Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.’
Her assertion has a number of logical consequences. Firstly, it contends that every citizen is a potential participant in city making. Secondly, it suggests that city making is a creative act. Thirdly, there is a positive requirement for the city to provide inclusively for all of its citizens.
We fully endorse these principles. Language is a powerful device to uphold the status quo, which is why our work with communities has led us to question the term ‘masterplanning’. Traditional processes can be reflective of a top-down approach. The very term ‘masterplan’ implies that a designer assumes a masterly stance. Instead, we like to refer to our method of city-making as common planning.
Common planning is inclusive. It realises the creative capital of communities. Importantly, it shifts our role as architects and urban designers to grant others co-authorship in the work that we do and connects people with the places that we create together.
The Claridge Way Common Plan is a case in point. The site is a 600m long strip of tarmac linking residential neighbourhoods with two primary schools, civic amenities and transport connections in Thamesmead, southeast London. The brief from our client is strikingly simple, requiring public space improvements of any type or nature along Claridge Way to be defined, designed and implemented with local people.
To begin, we hosted a public tea party. Our table cloth reproduced a map of the site and pens and pencils served alongside biscuits and tea helped to record conversations with people on their way to the shops, returning home from school or work, or taking the dog for a walk. A series of school workshops was followed by door-knocking, public meetings and communal planting. Ideas were recorded, opportunities uncovered and deficiencies in existing public spaces identified.
Only once a brief based on our conversations was agreed did design work progress. Workshops shaped the design response and a public exhibition helped to set priorities. In the end, we built a school garden and tool shed, an educational wilderness walk and tree house, we inserted new gates in residents’ garden fences so they could meet, painted London’s longest play route onto the pavement, planted an orchard, built bird- and insect boxes during a school holiday club and installed a set of creative exercise benches. We are proud the the project has realised an ambitious and creative works programme, but also that it has established links to local people through hundreds of individual experiences and encounters.
Closer to the centre of the city, Hoxton is a predominantly residential area in the southeastern corner of London’s Hackney. The neighbourhood features a high street with a weekly market, and borders Shoreditch Park and the Old Street technology hub. Due to its strategic location, development pressure is bringing change and local people are concerned about the impact that this may have on public spaces, shops, rent levels and civic amenities.
Planning policy helps to ensure that public interests are considered where development takes place, yet there is little specific policy governing Hoxton. To respond to this deficiency, Jan Kattein Architects, William Hodgson from the Bartlett School of Architecture and Peer Gallery teamed up to invite the public to join a common planning process.
Together we built an oversize scale model of the neighbourhood. The purpose of the activity was to instigate debate and discussion, to define the neighbourhood’s unique identity and to respond to a series of provocations about its future. During a two week period, the model took up the shop front of Peer Gallery, growing each day as local residents, business owners and school children contributed to its communal creation.
A comment left on our model by a workshop participant continues to make us wonder whether it is time to abandon our quest for order and functionality in city making. The comment read:
‘We need to cherish London’s oddness, embrace uneven elements, make more of all that already exists.’
Must we embrace the city’s incoherence, its dysfunctional- and illogical natures to a greater extent to give space to those with different priorities?