Penoyre & Prasad’s latest Green Sky Thinking event ‘Do Not Consult: Co-Creation in Plan Making’ was held on 17th May 2018. 

The question posed was: can the depth of co-creation, intimacy and connection present when designing a single-family home be scaled up to plan-making at a city scale? The new London Plan is at the time of writing out for consultation, leading some professionals to question the current methodology for engagement of a plan of this scale. There seems to be a disconnect between the desire to engage the public, and the reality of the standard consultation procedures followed. The title of the event ‘Do Not Consult’ aimed to be provocative, setting the tone for an event where everyone was in agreement that the word ‘consultation’ had lost value owing to its connotations of ‘tick-box’ notional engagement.

The subject of this event is particularly pertinent to Penoyre & Prasad’s work currently on the Lancaster West Estate. We have been working collaboratively with Fluid, one of the contributors to this event and seven other design practices on a resident-led co-design process to improve the Estate following the Grenfell tragedy. In this project it is more important than ever to ensure that the design embodies true co-creation

All four speakers were chosen for their expertise in using innovative methods to achieve positive and forward-looking engagement, breaking down the barriers of more established consultation processes. Here are five key themes which came to light during the event, and which we hope can lead to further discourse:

1. ‘It must be clear where people can have agency’ Tony Burton

It is critical to be open and honest from the beginning of the project as to how much a community can really influence a plan. Being upfront about the constraints of a project at the outset will help to build a positive relationship with the community. Professionals can paint too good a picture, thus unrealistically raising expectations, and that could amount to a form of malpractice. Delivering smaller projects successively and collaboratively will help build trust for the longer-term planning.

2. ‘Contaminate purity and avoid the inevitable’ – Steve McAdam, Founder & Director: Fluid

Those living in a community are experts on their area and should be involved at the beginning of local planning to enrich the project, as Tony Burton puts it, ‘you must co-create to innovate’. The community are the client in local plan making and must be seen that way.

There is also the question of authorship; a sense of distrust in the community can arise from a feeling of ‘them’ and ‘us’ during the engagement, and as David Ogunmuyiwa highlighted during the discussion it does not help if all the people leading the process ‘look the same’, and different to those at the receiving end. In order to achieve co-creation and avoid the inevitable, you must have co-authorship.

3. ‘Making information look beautiful draws people in’ Francesca Cignola, Senior Lead, Asset Based Practice: Innovation Unit

Ensuring information is presented in an attractive form helps to get people involved in and excited about the potential in a project or plan. In the discussion however the point was made that beauty is a matter of taste and therefore functionality must be prioritised. Many methods of communication were presented, including digital communication through apps such as Place Check, websites such as Space Hive and utilising online tools such as Sticky World.

4. ‘Planning is not black and white, it’s all shades of grey’ Heather Cheesbrough, Director of Planning and Strategic Transport: London Borough of Croydon

There is consensus that the planning system needs to become easier to navigate. It is currently a series of very confusing forms and formulas, and it is the role of professionals to demystify the process. Local Plan making involves numerous often conflicting interests. The planning authority ultimately has to make difficult decisions in the knowledge that not all will be content with the final result. In order for co-creation to be successful, energy must be spent building relationships and trust between the different parties: the elected members, the council, developers, local businesses or residents.

5. ‘Holding space where people can see reality differently’ Francesca Cignola, Senior Lead, Asset Based Practice: Innovation Unit

It is imperative to involve people on their own terms and ‘hold space’ where open discussion can take place. Otherwise defensive and entrenched attitudes will prevail. Long-term planning policy can be a difficult topic to galvanise a community over, however community groups could be organised around smaller practical issues in their locale. Engagement must always be accessible, at a time and place which is convenient for those who are time-short, and of course always accompanied by tea and cake.

The following very interesting points were also raised during the discussion, which we hope to be able to explore further:

  • How do we find out who the community are, and do they feel like a community? In this age of growing transient populations and the ‘air bnb’ generation, how do we establish the community? Who decides the extent of the community?
  • Can digital methods /social media help to define and galvanise a community? Can e-participation be utilised in plan making?
  • People should be able to say no. Not everyone will want to be involved or have the time.
  • How can we involve people who are only thinking in terms of the next 1-2 weeks, rather than the next 5-10 years?

Article author: Anna-Lisa Pollock, Senior Architect at Penoyre & Prasad.