Day in My Life: Building a city-wide brief

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‘Any process of design is actually a more complex process of developing a brief (which sets out what’s wanted) and then a design response to this (which is largely technical). A brief is then the start of a design challenge, for design professionals; one which can still be a conversation – a creative partnership with the community – but one where each party is clear about their opportunities and responsibilities, and the long-term nature of this relationship’

Planning for the future of cities is a complex, dynamic process. Planning professionals in local authorities juggle the difficulties of technical and political demands – and often produce proposals which are contentious, or downright rejected by the public they are designed for. Why is this? Incompetence? Very rarely. Any process of design is actually a more complex process of developing a brief (which sets out what’s wanted) and then a design response to this (which is largely technical). There are two reasons why urban planners, highways engineers and other skilled professionals turn out poor proposals. One is that the briefing stage is handled terribly, with the community poorly engaged and with short-term politics over-riding long-term vision, and the second is that briefing, like design, should be a creative process, but is usually strangled by risk-aversion and lack of faith in the broader public. The minimum number of people are involved, rather than the maximum.

So how do we turn this into something more successful? The first important step is to note the distinction between brief and design; the two are linked (and good design often involves repeatedly revisiting the brief to check it is still completely valid) but distinct. Professionals often fear that inviting the involvement of the community is “getting the public to do our job” when it is nothing of the sort – it’s simply about providing the professionals with a better brief. Being able to plan the shape and structure of a city requires the professionals to know what the community wants to do in that city – how they will use the future buildings and spaces – and planning professionals are rarely actually given this information with any degree of completeness. The second important step is unhitching the briefing process from elected representatives. The cycle of politics – the politician’s “forward horizon” is far too short for strategic planning, and consideration of what will be popular with voters in four years’ time is unlikely to reliably describe what is wise for shaping a city for twenty, thirty, forty years of strategic change.

A third, and important, issue is that producing a good brief isn’t easy; we assume it’s simple, like doing a shopping list for the supermarket. But it’s completely different; it comprises moving beyond consideration of the present into consideration of the future, it involves imagining things being different, and it involves altruism – consideration of what we hand on to others as our lives move elsewhere, or come to an end, or are simply shared with increasing numbers of fellow residents, travellers, workers. This process involves individuals developing a picture of their future lives, based upon their values and wishes, and then bringing together these individual strands into a collective vision of what buildings, places and spaces, what infrastructure (and indeed what governance) needs to provide in our future city.

And this resulting brief is then the start of a design challenge, for design professionals; one which can still be a conversation – a creative partnership with the community – but one where each party is clear about their opportunities and responsibilities, and the long-term nature of this relationship.

Find out more about how share your Day in My Life and to help build a brief for York.

Two Days in the Life of…

I decided if I was going to start asking the question, asking it of myself first was only fair. So here are two days.

4th May, 2016

A typical weekday workday; a session on the turbo trainer, and then on to a site visit at Haxby Road school via coffee with a friend at Your Bike Shed. The school meeting is to deal with Listed Building issues as part of changes we’re making to the school – the tricky side of making changes to history. The journey is by bike – I pull up alongside a fellow Environment Forum member at traffic lights in town. It’s the first really warm day of 2016 and we celebrate with a cheery discussion at the front of the traffic queue. From the school it’s onwards via picking up a Good Food Shop stuffed pitta (and narrowly avoiding messy consequences) to the chiropodists in town. Coming out I get a call from the site manager on a job in Fulford – could I call in? A ride down the riverside in the sunshine means it’s no major chore, and I meet an old friend – now retired – who’s just got back to York after a Brompton ride from Howden (“the wind’s a southerly, so I got the train there”), and he tells me he had dinner in the house I’m heading to, sometime back in the eighties. “Bloke drank a lot of port”. Carry on to the site and agree on foundation details which needed  checking, and get a call from the chiropodists – they’d overcharged me accidentally, so could I call back in? Another sunny riverside pedal, and then back to my office – the basement under my home. A couple of hours dealing with emails and phone calls, and a short walk (up the steps in the back yard) to dinner and news of my partner’s day, watching the trains rattle past out of the back window. Another couple of hours preparing stuff for the following day, and then the sofa.

4th May 2026

A typical weekday work-ish day; out from the house across the back yard to the office – I know I said I’d cut back when I got older and greyer but there’s so much happening it seems a missed opportunity to step back. Sort out all the online work information exchange, and then sling the tablet in a rucksack and head for the tram stop. It’s early, and there’s a deer peering out above the crops in the fields. I never thought I’d move out of the town centre but when the chance came up to build on a custom build plot out at Whinthorpe, among like-minded oddballs – well, we signed up. Caroline’s packed up the shop, so sorting this place out is a good long-term project. There’s always someone I know at the tram stop – a chance to chat, gossip. The tram cruises up, we board and head into town – they feel so much more solid and permanent than a bus, I love ‘em. Most of the morning’s in meetings at the York Central design office – whoever finally came up with the idea of establishing a local collective to carry the detail design forward over the lengthy development process was a genius – there’s a real atmosphere of wanting to get it right. A long way off finished of course – another ten years? Maybe, but at least there’s A Plan. Lunch is a short walk into town – every year the weather’s weirder so short walks are good – but today it stays fine and shuffling meetings to tables outside cafes works well – WiFi everywhere so work happens everywhere. At the end of the afternoon it’s still sunny and calm and I regret taking the tram, so take a bike from the hire rank in Parliament Street and after a quick wander round the newly-pedestrian-priority Bishy Road head down the riverside, over the Millennium bridge and out of town along the cycle path. Lots of others out too – cars are so expensive to use that it only takes a whisper of sun for them to get forgotten. Food, and online to catch up with my daughter in London – thanks to technology I get to talk more – phoning was always just that bit too much effort, or maybe now she’s in her thirties she’s just got more time for the elderly!

My present, and My Future York. What’s yours?

Phil Bixby