Love, urbanism and a deadly ski slope

ski slopeI was in Liverpool recently for the latest debate in the Glasshouse / Academy of Urbanism’s series ‘Putting People in their Place’. The discussions are designed to explore the relationship between people, the places we live in and different kinds of value we attach to them.

The evening’s question – ‘Does involving local people in placemaking make good business sense?’ – provoked a healthy debate.

For some, even asking the question was anathema; who cares if involvement makes business sense? It should be a fundamental placemaking requirement, a duty, regardless of whether it helps with the bottom line.

While others argued that engagement was too timid an ambition; we should be climbing up Arnstein’s ladder of participation and promoting community ownership and control, not engagement around the edges.

Nevertheless, a consensus started to emerge around the conclusion that the business case for involving people in placemaking is a strong one. Common sense tells you that talking to people gives you an idea of what they want in a place and what they’re prepared to pay for.

At the very least, engagement will help planners and developers avoid obvious mistakes. The council in my hometown once embarked on the construction of a ski slope, even though there was no evidence people wanted or would use it.

The scheme was cancelled halfway through construction, at a cost in 1970s money of over £100,000. The official reason was the increasingly obvious lack of interest, but locals still swear it was scrapped because it was built facing the wrong way and would have sent skiers flying head-first onto the fast lane of the adjacent M57.

I’m sure you all have similar stories of planning and design screw-ups that inadvertently made the case for better public engagement.

Unlike the Kirkby skiers, the debate on the evening was heading in a more orderly direction until a member of the audience posed a different question:

“Why don’t we talk about love? When people are happy with where they live they say they love it, and they never want to leave. When we’re building a neighbourhood, why don’t we ask if we’d want someone we love to live there?”

Why don’t we talk about love? What a question to throw at a room full of architects, planners and consultants more accustomed to discussing design codes and infrastructure levies. But the debate series is about value, after all, and what greater human value is there?

You could tell by the audience reaction that the question resonated. Instead of nods and politely expressed ‘Hmmms’, there was a mini-chorus of muttered agreement. It was a feeling-level question that evoked a feeling-level response.

The debate was held at FACT Liverpool, so there may have been a bit of Scouse sentimentality behind the question. And maybe because I’m a sentimental Scouser the challenge implicit in the question stuck with me.

Why don’t we talk about love? I do a lot of work in neighbourhoods, often the most deprived, where I hear people say they love their neighbourhood. But in professional circles, I hardly ever hear the word love attached to a place except for branding and promotional campaigns.

We develop all kinds of complex criteria and assessments for places, but the audience member asked the crucial one: would we want someone we love to live there? As the consultant and activist Tim Morton tweeted on the evening, the best description of the Decent Homes Standard he ever heard was equally simple: would you let your son or daughter move into this place?

There’s a lesson in the question for all of us concerned with creating beautiful, sustainable places. Maybe we don’t get our message across because we don’t talk enough about people’s feelings. We talk about the value of place in the abstract, not in the gut. Perhaps if we’re more comfortable talking about love in relation to places, we could actually go about the job of making loveable places.

Britain needs an urbanist revolution now more than ever, but the movement has never really got going. Who is Britain’s move famous self-proclaimed urbanist? What was the last avowedly urbanist strategy adopted by a major town or city?

Unlike a group of famous Scousers, I don’t suggest that love is all you need, but maybe if we start with people’s feeling and values we can take urbanism out of the debating chamber and onto the streets.


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Steven Boxall
Steven Boxall
11 years ago

Absolutly right. Urbanism, regeneration, growth, economics, politics – everything – has got to be about people but too often this is forgotten about or ignored.

In my view part of the problem is that too many people don’t like other people.

R Greenhalgh
R Greenhalgh
11 years ago

‘Too many people don’t like other people’, or maybe just a slight tendency/preference to be near ‘folks like us’?

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