When you stop and think about it, we have pretty low expectations from democracy. For many of us, casting a vote in a general election is our most important role as citizens, and in local elections if one finds the time. But a core principle of democracy is that people have a say in the decisions that affect them. That could be economics, healthcare, education, or the workplace – and one of the most important areas of democracy is planning.
New developments, changes to street layouts or traffic flow, changes of land use – all these sorts of things can impact a place and its sense of identity. Even though Britain has an rigorous and fairly transparent planning system, it can often feel like development is something that is done to the community, rather than with or for the community. A couple of bad experiences and people can become cynical about development, even in areas desperate for regeneration. This is something I see regularly in Luton, a town that has suffered more than most from bad planning.
There is another way of course, and 20/20 Visions: Collaborative Planning and Placemaking describes it. Called a ‘charette’, it’s an intensive process of dialogue and co-working between professionals and local residents, creating a vision together for how a new development should come about.
Charles Campion is an architect who has taken part in dozens of such processes, and the first half of his short book lays out the principles for effective collaborative planning. The second half introduces 20 case studies from around the world, including disaster re-construction, contested land, and regeneration. There are smaller projects and whole villages, parks and a hospital. Stories come from the US, Britain, Australia, Canada, China and more. There’s even a local example in the new village being built in Caddington, on an old Vauxhall test track not far from us.
At a typical charette, residents and experts carry out site visits and walkarounds, familiarising themselves with the lay of the land. They hold open meetings where anyone can contribute ideas. Artists and designers begin to draw concepts live, so that everyone can visualise what is being discussed. Sometimes projects are built in Minecraft so that participants can take a virtual tour and build things themselves. (The Swedish government has built the whole of Sweden in Minecraft to encourage young people to play a role in urban planning) Local knowledge adds value to the development, while the community gains new skills in urban planning. Often land trusts or Town Teams are formed that go on to play a role in the ongoing management of the project. A charette brings people together, builds community and local identity, and gives people a role in shaping the geography of their local area.
As far as Campion is concerned, this is a win-win way of planning, and yet “Charettes remain a surprisingly non-mainstream way of working” he notes. “Perhaps this is because they have never received the mainstream political and media attention they deserve. Maybe there are not enough skilled professionals to facilitate processes. Or perhaps planners are threatened by a process that challenges the status quo.”
Whatever the reason, I’d love to see more collaborative planning and placemaking happening in Luton. I’d also love to see it championed by politicians, incorporated into council plans, and rolled out much more often. It’s an active form of democracy that all ages can take part in, and a rewarding process for everyone involved. In short, it’s time it went mainstream, and perhaps Charles Campion’s book will help push it in that direction.
- For more, see Charles Campion’s JTP Architects
- Look up Civic Voice, a charity that advocates collaborative planning
- In the US, where the collaborative process was first pioneered in the 1960s, it is often called an R/UDAT
- If you’ve been involved in a collaborative planning project, let us know about it in the comments.