Thought 17 - Edge response to Place Alliance discussion paper - August 2014

The Edge joined a wide range of organisations and individuals at the Big Meet in July 2014 to discuss Place leadership.

A discussion paper was issued by the Bartlett School of Planning following the meeting. The following is the Edge’s response to that paper.

The analysis on the general lack of quality in local environments and the need to continually emphasise the importance of quality of place seem unarguable, but they could be accompanied by:
• an improvement in the understanding of the performance of place
• the importance of place maintenance and management
• the need to achieve a shared ownership and usage of place

Despite the careful definition of ‘Place’ on the first/second pages of the discussion paper this conflicts with the general meaning of the word. This usually relates to the scale of a town square – the ‘Place de …’ - rather than the wider locale or those parts of towns not included on the tourist trail or in the postcard shots. Another term, one without the acronymic tricksiness, would be advisable.

In addition the definition is so broad as to encompass almost everywhere, with only the relatively minor exceptions of the purely private and the untouched wilderness. A tighter focus is recommended.

Place quality in the paper is generally defined by it achieving a mild enhancement to the current norm (more social and liveable, reducing costs, raising aspirations etc.) and moving towards an all-purpose niceness. The challenge built environment professionals face is far greater than this, by several orders of magnitude. Places need to:
• Provide space, accommodation, services, access, employment etc. for a very different demographic quantum and mix
• Successfully provide for a diverse and tolerant society, living at density and at close quarters while avoiding conflict and social ghettos and monocultures
• Function with minimal energy input and zero carbon emissions (as envisaged by the Committee on Climate Change)
• Be provided with adequate infrastructure capacity for a changing range of potential services
• Be able to adopt changes and the effects of changes in technology
• Be habitable and comfortable in a changed climate prone to greater extremes of weather conditions, drought, flood, infestation etc.
• Be durable and adaptable for the long-term, re-using rather than replacing existing structures
• Be affordable in monetary, resource and environmental terms.

Built environment professionals are going to be important players in delivering the conditions for the future success of urban life (the only choice that most will have) and will need to develop strategies for the long term to achieve this. They already have the experience of planning for twenty to a hundred years forward and need to contribute to a wider national plan on this basis. This will be both drive and be driven by the Place agenda.

On the direct issue of a Place Alliance intended to tackle a leadership gap we note:
• There already are, or have been, several organisations in this space including UDAL, the UDG, The Academy of Urbanism and Cabe. Why would we want to invent another one?
• There seems to be a conflation of a desire to achieve an alliance/agreement/ common cause on ‘place’ issues with that of ‘place’ leadership. These two are rare and unlikely bedfellows.
• What would be more useful would be a research and campaigning group focusing on Place issues, sponsored by the various organisations concerned, able to speak on its own behalf, yet backed by their authority. A think tank charged with commissioning research, knowledge dissemination, thought leadership and campaigning for better place. Linked to, yet independent of, the various institutions and organisations that would provide it with seed funding, and able to raise its own further resources. (Proposed working title: ‘LOCUS’).
• A set-up on these lines would need to recruit a thoughtful, inspiring and energetic leader who would need to be given the space to carve out a distinct message and the challenge of founding an organisation that would have both popular and political impact and above all, achieve change. No small task.
But as Charlie Leadbeater has written recently “leaders only achieved what they did because they became the focal point for a much larger creative community. ” Building a creative community isn’t going to be the result of an alliance of organisations – however supportive - it can only be the work of individuals.
• What is unlikely to have much impact is an ‘alliance’ of a wide range of groups and institutions, with a constitution designed to allow full engagement with its members while ensuring that none of them are upset, feel that their voice isn’t being heard or believe that their territory is being imposed upon. It would be a lowest common denominator affair and rapidly sink without trace.

The Edge is enthusiastically in support of this initiative and for the built environment professions to collectively take responsibility and provide leadership for radically improving the quality of place. But it also believes that half-measures are unlikely to succeed. If it is to achieve its goals it needs to be carried forward with a real sense of purpose, as so far no one ever went to the barricades just to make the world a bit nicer.

The Edge – August 2014

The Edge presented at the follow up Big meet session on October 2nd 2014. Download the text and images of the presentation:
- Edge notes for Big Meet 2
- Edge presentation for Big Meet 2

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