Why it pays to ask folk what they want

Marguerite Lazell
17 March 2009

It’s CABE’s 10th anniversary and we’re asking our commissioners for lessons from the decade. Ipsos Mori’s Ben Page explains why it’s so important to consult people about design.

Ben Page

Ben Page

A week after the government announced details of the first wave of its ‘myspace’ projects – a £270 million investment in youth centres across Britain – CABE commissioner Ben Page has only one question. “What a brilliant idea. Why didn’t they do it earlier?”

Key to the scheme is the involvement of young people to work with architects in the design and development of the centres. And if a project doesn’t get young people involved, it won’t get a slice of the funding. “It’s absolutely the right thing to do,” says Page.

Why to do it

As managing director of Ipsos-Mori, Page is an expert in finding out what the public do, and don’t like. Ipsos-Mori conducts public opinion surveys and analyses public attitudes to help government, industry and not-for-profits improve service delivery. Page has no doubt that public consultation is as essential for architects, planners and developers as it is for other professions.

You can’t use consultation to put lipstick on a pig – consulting on a project after you’ve designed it. You need to build to meet people’s needs.

Listening to the public as users means that their needs are more likely to be met in the final design. It has the benefit of raising public interest and ambition: involving people in projects will mean they are more likely to care about the product. And, if you ask people what they think, you’re able to monitor your own progress, through a process of constant feedback.

But, says Page, consultation must not be an afterthought. “You can’t use consultation to put lipstick on a pig – consulting on a project after you’ve designed it. You need to build to meet people’s needs.” he says.


How to do it - and how not to

People on Castleford Footbridge

Local residents on Castleford footbridge. Consultation with local people has been central to the regeneration project.
Photo by David Millington Photography

Page warns against “crude” consultation – you need to go into schools and community centres, engage in small groups. “You have to talk to a cross-section of people, at times and in places that suit them, not just have a big, stand-off meeting with big architectural models,” he says.

During the recent regeneration of Castleford in West Yorkshire – a project televised by Channel 4 - CABE helped to organise public meetings that brought local people together with architects and planners to discuss design proposals. This is a great example, Page says, of how to get people involved in projects that directly affect them.

“Nothing beats going out with people to the area where the development will be and looking at it on the ground. You can explain clearly how many people really will have access to that sky garden and its amazing views, or where people can sit down outside. If you give people the opportunity, they’re keen to get involved.”

Page warns against starting an irrelevant, academic debate about the merits of any particular architectural style. “Talking Corbusien principles isn’t going to get people hot and horny, you’ve got to make it interesting,” he laughs, though, as someone who studied architectural history, he isn’t averse to Le Corbusier himself.

Reaping the rewards

A light installation in the pavement under a bridge

Light installation in Bankside underpass
Photo by Kyle Gradinger

For local authorities with poor reputations amongst cynical electorates, the reward for effective consultation could be a discernable boost in approval ratings from voters – something that’s not easy to come by.

One subject sure to engage the public interest is local streets. “The quality of public space has a huge impact people’s quality of life. The evidence is incontrovertible,” says Page.

“Authorities like Leicester and Southwark in south London, who’ve put a lot of work into this, are bucking the trend of falling satisfaction levels. Southwark’s just had its highest ever rating – 67 per cent – after being around 30 per cent in the 1980s.”

Southwark has found that by engaging local communities and business – as happened during the refurbishment of Mint Street Park – means vandalism becomes a thing of the past.

Page says that Southwark’s success is because of a cultural change in the way it consults. “It’s not about the techniques, but the intent – they’ve used a whole range of mechanisms. It’s a constant process of feedback, monitoring progress. It leads to a virtuous circle.”

Research by Ipsos-Mori into the government’s New Deal for Communities (NDC) regeneration programme confirms that when people feel empowered, they are more positive about changes being made to their neighbourhoods. Of those surveyed, 73 per cent who felt they had the ability to influence NDC activities felt the scheme improved the area, compared with just 50 per cent of those who did not feel they had opportunities to exert influence.

Lessons from schools

Exterior of the Michael Tippett School

The Michael Tippett School, London
Photo by Tim Soar

When the government launched Buildings Schools for the Future, the £45 billion programme to rebuild every senior school in the country, CABE set up a panel to evaluate the designs delivered through the programme. It also provides enablers – experts who work with the client to help them translate the needs of the end users into a project brief.

Every school has different needs, and Page says: "Take the Michael Tippett School, in south London, which caters for children with severe learning difficulties. If the architect, Marks Barfield, hadn't talked to the children, parents and teachers about every aspect of the design – from the width of the corridors to the layout of the toilets – they would have been unable to create a building which would be genuinely life-changing for its users.”

Such involvement has resulted in a school design that works for its users – producing what CABE calls ‘inclusive design’. Inclusive design is essentially about creating places with its users in mind, so consultation is clearly key to the creation of truly inclusive places.

And while there are an increasing number of success stories, with the first wave of myspace youth centres the latest in the list, there’s one major problem with public consultation, according to Page. “There simply isn’t enough of it.”