Switching On: How Should Culture and Place Shape the Built Environment?

For our last Switching On webinar of 2021, our panel of specialists talked about culture and place in the built environment. Discussions focused on what is or isn’t currently working, what should change, and what the role of architects, designer and planners should be.
Harry Hoodless
Regional Board Director @ Broadway Malyan
Shelagh McNerney
Independent Consultant @ Manchester City Council
Martin Lucass
Commercial Director @ Geosmart
Is there a Crisis of Confidence in Urban Design?
In the medical world, interventions are essential, and in public health terms, 2020 has been a year of interventions. But in the built environment, large-scale interventions that benefit how people live feel less common.

This might be a legacy of the failure of high-rise planning as part of a modernist vision, or come from the constraints of design and build.
Certainly, local authority budgets are under plenty of stress, and what Covid-19 has done is to exacerbate existing problems, rather than simply be the cause of them.
Housing is one example, the decline of high streets is another.  And while one high-rise era has ended in failure and, ultimately, tragedy, another continues to grow. The most recent example is Manchester’s £300 million Viadux project.

This sort of bold investment doesn’t feel any kind of crisis of confidence, but Covid-19 has exposed the weaknesses in such strategies. It has highlighted the absence of strategic planning that actually meets people’s needs.
The Missing Human Element
Another aspect of the missing human element comes from the focus on urban centres at the expense of the suburbs.
While much visionary talk centres on the repurposing of town and urban centres and the elimination of the car, it fails to take real-world needs into account.
The conventional narrative is that the suburbs are boring, undynamic and symptomatic of a failure to change. But people move to the suburbs for a reason: they like them. And suburban living is car-dependent. The car isn’t a luxury, but a necessity in many places. During the pandemic, suburbia’s benefits have come to the fore. It is a refuge. It is local.

Then there is the whole question of key workers.  Planning has been very office-driven, but the pandemic has highlighted how many people perform vital tasks and roles who are far from office-bound. Where do they live, and how can the built environment improve their lives?
Consumers or Producers
Who are we designing for, consumers or producers? Not every decision people  make is a buying decision.
If there are too many assumptions about end-users, then projects can end up failing.
An example of this is where a neighbourhood scheme that is designed to improve conditions and safety, then blocks off various streets to traffic. This inconveniences residents, leading to resentment and ultimately, the failure of the scheme. The car is a divisive issue. It becomes a contentious planning issue, but for many it gives them freedom of movement that they rely on.

The danger is that the planning process becomes too formulaic, without looking at the finer details of the things that impact on people’s daily lives.

This has led to the clone town phenomenon, where urbanisation leads to the removal of individuality. And again, some of this comes from assuming that people’s primary relationship to a place is consumer-based, that they must have access to certain types of retail and amenities.
Cut-and-Paste Briefs
The procurement processes of big public sector clients, lend themselves to a cut-and-paste approach to creating briefs for architects and urban designers. It is an unadventurous approach, that is procedural rather than creative, even though buzzwords like innovation are in frequent use.

On one hand, sustainability is now visibly on the Government agenda, but on the other, practical approaches to the built environment require more than innovation. It also needs to recognise the value of other qualities. In his book Head Hand Heart, David Goodhart argues that prioritising the knowledge economy has created societal imbalances. There needs to be a more even spread of status.
This comes back to the question of who the built environment is for, and whether projects are missing this essential human element.
Broadly speaking, what culture means will vary from community to community, and from individual to individual. And anyway, culture is only one of several variables in the built environment. Therefore, any development that is designed to last must take this into account.

If effective design begins with the brief, then the brief needs to be far more sensitive to, and reflective of, the needs of the end-user.
Localism and Lockdown
Covid-19 has made it very clear how important people’s homes and local areas are. Consequently, discussions about what a post-Covid world might entail have had plenty of focus on local spaces.

The takeaways from the lockdown experience have included the need for better cycling and walking routes, better commuting infrastructures, along with affordable homes and access to green spaces. But this can’t be a blanket approach. We’ve already highlighted the risks and pitfalls of making too many assumptions about people’s needs.

Reality is more complex than any sweeping generalisations about a changed society. The ideas about repurposing high streets, and of improving local areas need to be socially-led. This is about devising and completing genuinely local, cost-effective projects that recognise the human element in communities.

Architects, designers and planners should have roles that extend beyond the surface brief, to get truly under the skin of an area and its residents. They can be facilitators for change, by bridging the gap between ideals and concepts and people’s lived realities.
© 2021 partisan