How to develop a socially productive place

April 8, 2014 by
Filed under: Design and Society, Social Economy 

Last week the RSA brought together over 100 people who invest in, plan and construct our built environment – homes, workplaces and public buildings. Here, we summarise the key insights generated, and diverse voices heard. In the next two months, we will pull together a paper outlining policy directions for the government and the various relevant sectors of industry. This will be an open process, so we are starting here summarising feedback and providing minutes and presentations:

We want this to be the basis of an inclusive “in the pub” conversation which includes constructive cricism…

To open the conference, Mark Prisk MP, former housing minister, gave a keynote address – welcomed by Chris Brown of Igloo as the best he had heard in years. Mark was aware of how his ability to speak freely was liberated.

Mark outline five key challenges for the conference

  • “we will need to show people that when we build to a greater density, its desirable for them and for the wider community.”
  • “what needs to change, so we can integrate this [rapidly growing] older population back into the community?”
  • “those of you who are investors or owners will reel from the idea of broad, mixed-use asset classes. However isn’t it time to recognise how people’s lives are changing, and not leave these assets increasingly vulnerable to becoming redundant ?”
  • “So what does it mean for a space to be public? And how do we square private ownership and public access, in either new settlements, or urban renewal schemes?
  • “The final challenge is how can we empower people, to create lasting communities? It’s that social side, less tangible but just as important, which acts as the glue that binds a community together. Now all too often this is the exception not the rule. We need to change this, developers, community leaders and politicians alike.”

In short, the conference had to consider how our planning, development and construction sectors account for the changing reality of work, rest and play? You can watch his full presentation here:

Tim Dixon’s session concerned how the built environment fosters social sustainability, well-being and a sense of community.

Other sessions emphasised the need to allow successful places to grow and fulfil their potential? Chairing a session, Ben Lucas noted how this question was tackled by the City Growth Commission

…and identified that keeping successful places successful, while expanding them, rather than always making new places, is an art which may be promoted by new ownership models.

Matt Leach: What inspired you to take this approach?

Waheed Nazir: I’m a resident, born and bred. Grown up thinking “why is the public realm so awful”? It’s not rocket science – its basic. The planning process makes it complicated – frustrates residents.

Matt: How have you found winning over those who made the mistakes in the 90s?

Waheed: Haven’t called them ‘mistakes’, for starters.

RSA Chief Executive Matthew Taylor defined a socially productive place as a place where “people are enabled individually and collectively to come up with solutions which help to meet their own needs and achieve their aspirations for issues which matter to them”. To realise this requires developing a shared vision. One challenge identified by Tom Bridges of Leeds Council is that places need to find a balance between finding their “unique selling point” in a competitive playing field, and having an economic development strategy which is too broad and generic so that “if you Tipp-Ex out the name of the place, it could be anywhere”.

All agreed that for successful places, a shared vision is required, and local plans need to be easy to understand. Where a vision is already in place (or development underway is prompting local people to respond), Ed Watson (Camden Council) and Nigel Ingram (Joseph Rowntree Housing Foundation) considered the actions they had put into practice, based on their understanding of local places, to foster better social and economic outcomes.

…some suggestions were made, and there was much debate about who should be in the driving seat, and what drives socially productive places.

In the final session there was consensus that one focus should be achieving progress measuring the social impact of development in the built environment. This will be considered in a policy directions paper to be released via the RSA website in June 2014.

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