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.
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