A new focus on ordinary places
26 March 2010
English towns and cities need to focus on improving the ordinary places where more than 80 per cent of people live, says a new CABE report.
Ordinary places sparks a debate about how we respond to the needs of the residential areas around big city centres, smaller post-industrial cities and the suburbs.
While city centres have improved beyond recognition over the past ten years, many ordinary places still suffer from ugly commercial development, heavily trafficked roads and badly designed new housing. CABE believes that with the right actions, these places can also enjoy a similar resurgence.
Richard Simmons, chief executive of CABE, has warned that ordinary places are being taken for granted. "These are the places where most people spend most of their time. The challenges facing Britain now – frugality, low carbon living, getting people involved – will be played out here."
Ordinary places offers new ideas on the ways in which ordinary places can be improved. First, it advocates compulsory training in public participation for architects, planners and other built environment professionals, and the guarantee of funding for public engagement. CABE’s design review panel, for example, rarely sees schemes that include information on the views of local people.
Second, teaching all young people visual literacy, so that they can articulate what they think about a place, how it works and what would make it better. In CABE’s experience, many of the people who make decisions about design – such as councillors and clients – have never learnt about it. Teaching visual literacy is one way we can start to change this.
Other ideas include setting minimum design thresholds for all public building projects (not just schools), and asking local authorities to track the progress of ordinary neighbourhoods by introducing a way to measure the quality of a place.
Nick Posford on 29 March 2010 at 1.38pm
I thought this was an interesting report, attention to which one hopes is paid by decisionmakers. Planning Aid, for whom I work, would definitely agree that better public engagement is key to improving the built environment, and the more professionals in the planning and architecture sector understand and are trained in the importance of community engagement, the better.
One comment stood out - "In a national survey of 11-14 year olds living in cities, 80 per cent said that knowing more about a place, street or building would encourage them and their friends to behave better."
This is one reason why we are hoping to work with the Architecture Centre in our region on engaging young people in the development of their area.
I hope CABE is working closely with Planning Aid on the development of their work on public engagement.
John Britten on 30 March 2010 at 2.51pm
Nearly 40 yrs ago I worked with Brian Anson and John Dowson as part of Unit 1 at the Architectural Association.
I am glad to see that the idea of community involvement is not entirely dead. We advocated it then and "worked where our mouth was". Real community involvement in decision making other than nimbyism is so important.
At the macro level, most of what came out of the heroic days of 1947 and beyond was not all bad. But the community action of the 1970s was never strong enough despite some 'successes' but where are we now? Where is the leadership for the 21st century going to come from to create a culture of inclusion in the process which creates our built environment?
I hope CABE will put education for schools and for university planning and architectural students as an item on its agenda. Local authorities clearly also have a pivotal role. At the macro level can CABE produce a consultation paper for local authorities and others to start the debate?
As part of this, but at the micro level, can we now get local authorities to make available, on line for general public access and comment, any proposals which affect the built environment including drawings and D&A Statements for all planninng applications?
Tim Denning on 30 March 2010 at 9.27pm
I think you also need to look at things like the Secured by Design police initiative which seeks to sanitise landscaping for the benefit of easy surveillance.
Liz Farnell on 31 March 2010 at 4.17pm
As a Disabled Access Oficer, I would also like more attention to be paid by Architects and Developers to the needs and views of local disabled people.
Far too often, I see Design and Access Statements which make only a cursory nod towards inclusive access and design. Usually the most that is said is that the scheme will 'conform to Part M ' or 'will be fully DDA compliant'. In reality, these statements border on worthless, since Part M is only a minimum standard and advisory, while DDA compliant leaves the door open for claims of 'unreasonableness'.
I would like to see CABE pressuring the Govt to put more specific requirements in place for D and A Statements to force Architects and Developers to pay greater attention to accessibility from the earliest stages of preapplication and application.
Sadly, I fear I may as well ask for the crown jewels!
Christy Lawrance on 14 April 2010 at 1.20pm
Your report is welcome - it is good to see that the value of "ordinary places" is being acknowledged, as this is long overdue.
It is unfortunate that cost and time are preventing locally distinct schemes from being built. However, there are already many understated gems that have worked for decades which could provide an attractive blueprint for future homes - I live in one (Northview in Holloway, London - see it at northview.org.uk).
Unfortunately, such places can be at risk, just because they have a low profile - especially when this is combined with an owner who not only lacks visual literacy but also sees the property purely as "theirs" and a source of revenue, rather than as a community asset.
We've now applied for local listing, in the hope that such our liveable, sustainable form of housing should be preserved for future generations.
Roger Estop on 15 April 2010 at 4.28pm
Teach visual literacy - yes. Let's help children look and learn, see and understand, use the eye to train the mind's eye in suburban places. There is huge neglect of simple observation and connection in planning. In particular planners, surveyors and public use the term 'townscape' in a vague conservation-oriented way but few use Cullen's brilliant method to understand by seeing and walking, to understand the value of small things and the disinctiveness of locality. So revive Townscape for kids and councillors alike. Let's explain why some spaces are exciting others fail. Not just the 20 'best designed, most successful' places, but also locally distinctive places, small-but-amazing places. And not just buildings (the illustrations at the top of the CABE website are buildings) but streets and spaces. I suggest 10 best for each town - the great street, the lovely green, the quiet corner, the busy hub, the wow-space (see my Tweets trying to describe a space briefly). Use Twitter to collect them and have locally meaningful spaces to use in visual literacy teaching.
Paul Bennison on 16 April 2010 at 2.50pm
I am a landscape architect and urban designer and have worked for many years across the ‘rings’. I am also chair of a city wide environmental group and my local residents association.
I find this paper intriguing in many ways, initially because i wrote a short MA paper a number of years ago on Lord Rogers ‘Donut’ rings, where the focus of (public and private) investment in the inner and outer rings would leave a very large and increasingly decaying, but also, angry middle ring. As a general overview this paper therefore sets out along the right lines. The reasons to care cover the main issues but the paper falls away and focuses on the relatively easy subject of new development and design standards (all covered elsewhere in numerous CABE documents). There isn’t a need for design solving, but there is a real need for resident involvement. This paper mixes the two and in doing so confuses the real issue.
Of course one fact about the middle ring which shouldn’t be surprising is that nearly 100% of the housing will still be there in 30 years time, as will the majority of the infrastructure. And in many cases these are places which are not ‘ordinary’ but ‘extraordinary’ in terms of (residential) architecture and streetscape. You may well have done many design professionals a disservice in branding where they have chosen to live as such!
Whilst the vast majority of those people reading this website and by implication, those members of the various built environment organisations, live in this middle ring very little research or basic understanding of how this area works is in the public domain. There are of course politics to play here as well. The simple view being Inner City regeneration is a tool of Labour, edge of settlement seen as Conservative, with the comfortable middle classes sat in the middle. And because this area has been seen as existing settled middle class it hasn’t received, quite rightly, the same amount of cash per head of population as any other area. It has therefore been taken for granted for many years. But the threats are real and massive as are the opportunities, but not necessarily about new development and design standards. More important are ways to maintain and improve character, improve and extend GI, increase public participation in local areas beyond single issues, reduce climate change impacts and improve access to services and facilities.
But it has to be said that there are residents here who are very vocal in terms of their own area as well as the city/town in which they live. They also understand very well the multi layers of regional and local government and associated quangoes. What is surprising however to my knowledge is the lack of so called built environment professionals involved as active residents through community groups or even council ward meetings, where discussions and decisions about service providers/provision, the local environment, policy, planning applications etc are undertaken. We are it seems more concerned about strategies and papers about a subject, as well as potential conflicts of interest, when we should all, as residents, be actively involved in what goes on in our own neighbourhoods. You might call it professional apathy if you want, but it is certainly part of the wider apathy to local and indeed national politics and decision making.
Utilising existing and emerging structures for public participation and involvement should have more focus in this paper. We already have across the country an extensive local authority ward by ward structure which I have seen being used by people of all ages make their views known, gather support, improve existing infrastructure and services and provide new.
Defining the place we are all talking about is a good starting point. I would suggest that many of the examples in the paper are not in the middle ring for a start, but are probably only there because there are very few middle ring examples and why should there be. The middle ring has managed relatively well for decades relatively untouched. Every built environment professional should be able to draw two lines on a plan of the city or town where they live and define the three rings.
Understanding the ‘place’ would be next and here the paper outlines quite extensively, ideas and suggestions. Engaging schools and relevant HE courses is a given and should be encouraged, as long as you are not surprised with what some children come up with!
Transport is a key issue in terms of access to public transport, traffic generation, street design and indeed freedom to use other methods, particularly bearing in mind the middle ring will have the highest number of cars per property. It is unfortunate but the car will always drive what happens in the middle ring and the gradual demise of oil will not stop it. Just consider who buys hybrids and where they live. But here again we come up against changing existing infrastructure (bus lanes and cycle lanes anyone!), the current impossibility of directing the market and land values restricting public service investment.
Climate change and our efforts to minimise its impacts is where i believe the real change needs to happen. There is a firstly a need to connect in residents minds rising energy/utility prices and consumption with the benefits of personal carbon control and reduction, GI, health, community and personal benefits and other infrastructure investment. This understanding is starting to come across in the joined up policy at national, regional and local levels, but how long until the majority of ‘ordinary men on the street’ understands.
Alan Wroughton on 19 April 2010 at 3.55pm
Ordinary people suffer from most crime and anti social behaviour. So do ordinary places. Crime prevention through environmental design has a far greater part to play. Design has seriously let down the ordinary man, woman and child in the last 30 years. Secure by Design was started 20 years ago to stop ugly unsafe layouts as described above and help design professionals improve the layout and landscaping of new developments. It has never sanitised anything or been mandatory. It has only increased safety to enable developments to function safely and to be used safely. If a design was right in the first place then there would be no place for Secure by Design. It has always been the ordinary person in an ordinary world that has had to suffer by the many, many design and planning mistakes before action is taken usually when it is too late at high cost, not only of crime but of health and social cohesion.
Elanor Warwick, head of evidence at CABE on 17 May 2010 at 1.51pm
Nick – yes, CABE certainly does work with Planning Aid on public engagement. We run workshops for Planning Aid staff and volunteers to help them in their work with local communities, stressing the importance of design quality and understanding how it is embedded in the planning system.
John – education in architecture and the built environment is firmly on CABE’s agenda. Our Engaging Places website promotes learning outside the classroom through a huge range of resources, including 820 activities created for particular buildings and spaces. Our pioneering annual Green Day event takes place this year on 4 June, and gets schoolchildren involved in thinking about sustainability. Last year it involved 120,000 young people from 404 schools.
Tim and Alan – CABE is engaged in research at the moment, in partnership with the Home Office, looking at the links between residential design and crime. We hope this will create a better understanding of what works and what doesn’t to help when designing safer places. There’s definitely an appetite for updated guidance that looks at the available research and helps designers to common sense approach
Liz – there’s no doubt that the application of inclusion design to the built environment has a long way to go. We know that Design and Access statements are not used to their full potential. Inclusive and sustainable design are disability equality issues and, an important part of CABE’s work. We are working with our Inclusion by Design Group, and with CABE advisors who enable and review new schemes, to influence the agenda as strongly as we can. You have probably seen our publications Inclusion by design, and our Equality scheme. Most recently we published an LGBT assessment of Burgess Park in South London, and a case study looking at the Spring Gardens Hostel. We’re planning lots more work to educate and influence, and we work in partnership with other relevant bodies to influence government.
Christy – we like unheralded examples of good design, and have a large collection in our online case study library. We’ll investigate Northview, but do tell us about any other examples of design you think needs to be promoted.
Roger – we’ve looked for your tweets, which sound like essential reading, but can’t find them. What’s your twitter name?
Paul – you make very pertinent points about the ‘middle ring’. There’s a lot riding on these places, not least in environmental terms. As a nation we will only reduce our carbon emissions effectively if we tackle housing stock that, as you rightly point out, will still be here in 100 years. I hope Ordinary Places succeeds in making the point that there’s nothing pejorative about the ordinary and that the perceived dividd between ordinary and extraordinary is false.
Many thanks for all your comments,
Head of evidence, CABE