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How do we create more resilient, sustainable, healthy and inclusive towns and High Streets?

Updated: Jan 18

This is the question being asked up and down the country with particular fervour in November 2020 when it seemed the year’s backlog of property and real estate industry conferences all decided to take place at once. Fortunately, we managed to attend many of the events and here’s our roundup (some recordings are available online). In future, we’ll be screening these types of events live at our studio, so that anyone can join us to listen in and contribute.


Much of the content overlapped, with seemingly specialist subjects such as “The Making of a Feminist City” (Leslie Kern, Festival of Place) addressing more common points made in talks like “Who Owns the High Street?” (Power to Change). So, in the interest of packaging up the main takeaways and more importantly share solutions - which is the part we’re most interested in - we’ve attempted to arrange this article by the thematic elements of the question at hand: resilience, sustainability, health, and inclusiveness. At the end of the article we’ve also compiled a number of resources that were raised at the conferences, but it is by no means exhaustive.


Here we go!


Resilience:

Economic resilience – the message was clear that supporting start-ups, small businesses, and other organisations with a local supply chain was essential. Independent retailers and freelancers, particularly in the creative fields were the silver bullets recurrently discussed as fundamental component of any healthy community. Representing such an organisation ourselves, we’re inclined to agree and kindly remind readers that “shop local” also includes professional services and that the public sector is a vital consumer.


Environmental resilience – more green space, higher-density development, re-wilding, reinstating natural watercourses and working with existing buildings where possible. One particularly attention-grabbing contribution was a video compilation pointing the finger at urban sprawl – or more accurately its systemic enabling by planners – as the arch-enemy of thriving communities. A link to the video on YouTube is included at the end of this article, but note that strong language is used.


Cultural resilience – this overlaps somewhat with the subject of “inclusivity” which is covered later on, but in this context what we gleaned was that there is real concern for a return to our sociable nature as the world heals from Covid-19. This was where the High Street in particular was hailed as the ultimate saviour, with contributors commending this space for its potential to host a high-density, high-frequency, quick and effective platform for social engagement. It might have been a biased audience, but reducing cars and encouraging more eating, drinking, co-working and community functions were repeated by almost everyone.


The greatest challenge to cultural resilience appears to be related to the undefined nature of ownership in the High Street; who owns the buildings, who owns the pavements? There were two definitive actions arising: one was to create a “Register of Beneficial Ownership” (from “Who Owns the High Street?” hosted by Power to Change) – which BiBO has already started preparing for Trowbridge in collaboration with the Chamber. The other was more general; the encouragement of community driven guerrilla action based on sentiments such as not holding your breath for public investment (Mark Robinson, High Street Task Force) and asking for forgiveness, not permission especially when it comes to dealing with elected officials (Gil Pelanosa, 8-80 Cities). We’re not quite sure how BiBO will respond to the second point other than to start by writing this article and reminding the public that ultimately, they are the owners of the public realm.


Sustainability:

Social value is the latest buzzword permeating the nation’s property and development circles. It’s meant to help communicate a top-down ambition to move away from assessing value (and return on investment) in terms of capital alone. It embodies notions of legacy and ‘being good ancestors’ as well as attempting to more objectively assess the knock-on impacts of any decision. For example, it might be cheaper to knock a building down and start from scratch, but now part of that sustainability/value discussion must include considerations such as embodied carbon and local job creation.


To a certain extent it also includes the ongoing challenge of assessing ecological value – the monetary equivalent of retaining wildlife habitat vs addressing housing needs.


Of course, many conferences this year (beyond those listed below) have been focusing heavily on Net Zero 2050 targets. It goes without saying that any developer and council keeping pace is now actively insisting on measures that will result in energy efficient buildings (note we promote “fabric first” technologies such as Passivhaus rather than post-applied solutions). We consider Wiltshire immensely lucky to be the home of Greengauge, who are at the leading edge of carbon-conscious design for both new-build and retrofit. It would be wonderful to have somewhere in Wiltshire aspire to pick up the enviable Sterling Prize for passivhaus affordable housing – which is something Greengauge knows about.


Health (Mental and Physical):

“People have a right to know whether where they live supports their health” (Araceli Camargo, Centric Lab at Festival of Place).


Greenspace again! By far, this was the most commonly discussed feature of good place placemaking. Admittedly, it might be the circles we move in, but since Festival of Place was specifically aimed at the public, we are more confident that sentiments put forward were representative of the general public (we’ll come back to this under inclusiveness). If “mindfulness” was mentioned, it was only in the context that going out for a walk or seeing trees was better at enabling it.


An organisation called Centric Lab is creating resources and mapping to help communicate whether a place is healthy or unhealthy to live in. They don’t necessarily intend to “name and shame”, but the way the information is presented makes it clear that poorer areas do not receive as much investment in their green infrastructure. Gil Pelanosa (8-80 Cities) posits that good parks and green-space are more important to include in poor areas where private amenity is generally the smallest. He underlined that “the cost of doing nothing, is not nothing” and the cost of this is ultimately borne by the NHS, who are tasked with healing the unhealthy in whatever form that takes.


During a discussion with Carolyn Steel (author of Sitopia: How Food Can Save the World), Christine Murray (Director of Festival of Place) even made the point that with enhanced green-space at a global scale, there is less potential mixing between wild animals and humans… arguably leading to events such as Covid-19. As masterplanners, we quickly find ourselves looking at the globe as a whole, discussing the impacts of deforestation and desertification, but at a national, regional, and local level we can confirm that the cumulative impact of small domestic acts such as leaving an area of your garden to go wild, not mowing verges, and putting out birdfeeders makes a big difference.


The property industry (and everyone else) learned from the April lockdown that humans enjoy hearing more birdsong, enabled by the silence arising from less car movement. At an infrastructure and masterplanning level, we now talk more about “15minute Cities” or walkable cities – essentially trying to put everything most people need to do in a day within a 15minute walk of home. This means having more employment opportunities mixed in with residential development, something that urban sprawl doesn’t support.


Inclusiveness:

This subject is our particular bugbear. The secret to making places inclusive, is including people in making places. Embedding the collective wisdom of a variety of people in the creation of cities, towns, High Streets and homes is probably the property industry’s greatest failure. The failure is systemically perpetrated by the planning system (which the new White Paper seeks to reform), and upheld by an array of property professionals and experts who discuss amongst themselves how to solve a problem that requires input from everyone else who by definition aren’t in the room.


Our solution is to address the public, here in the form of an article, but moving forward by creating an open studio where almost all of the conversations that happen in that room of experts and professionals, can be shared with anyone who wants to participate. We caveat that with an “almost” because there is a great deal of sensitivity that surrounds most development, whether it's to do with ownership, profit, or other issues that often result in contentious proposals. But we still think its worth drilling into the detail of what makes a proposal contentious, and for the sake of both developers and the public, helping the two find common ground. In short, our workplace is designed to be a continuous, live-in “public consultation” that not only has the potential to share what we as architects, urbanists, developers and agents get up to, but soak up the incidental feedback that often comes from casual chats in the street.


But, back to the conferences. By far the most exhilarating and intense contribution was from Gil Pelanosa of 8-80cities and if you only watch one thing, make it his 2 part masterclass found here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6lTvyYYxxhs&feature=youtu.be&dm_i=52EN,AA4M,1TLKZW,15RH3,1


Essentially what he, and others from Power to Change, The High Street Task Force, Bristol Housing Festival, Create Streets and numerous public bodies and enlightened consultants who have been contributing to panels advocate is empathy. In order to have inclusive places, you have to imagine yourself in someone else’s shoes. At 8-80 Cities they suggest imagining how you might experience a place if you’re 8 years old, then imagine it if you’re 80 years old, then imagine it if those 2 people are together – a grandparent with their grandchild for example. If it is not safe to walk or run around, if there is nowhere to rest or go for a wee, your space is not inclusive.


And why should that matter? One word: footfall. If footfall is as valuable as the retail industry seems to suggest it is to the economy, then getting as many people out and about is the first port of call. Keeping them there is the delightful “stickiness” referred to in Trowbridge’s FHSF bid, and inclusivity will be central to this.




What’s next?


If empathetic imagining sounds a bit too much like hard work, you could always just ask an 8 year old and an 80 year old. That’s what we’d like to do, and if you’d like to give us your tour of Trowbridge we would be most grateful – please get in touch at better@bibostudio.com. Over the next few months we would like to take as many different tours as we can, so if you are physically disabled, neurodiverse, LGBT+, BAME, lonely, unemployed, get in touch. If you’re to young to consume this article directly we hope your parents will help us out here and co-host your tour. We also want a tour from someone who is deliriously happy, fulfilled and content – it’s an important time to share!


We see tremendous potential for Wiltshire (and Trowbridge especially, as the county seat) to become a hot-bed of innovative community-led home-grown creative projects.


We’ve been asked to participate in the Bristol Royal Town Planning Institute’s “Cities” conference in a few weeks and in in preparing for this had asked a question about “What makes London so diverse, innovative and desirable?” Here in the South West those are words we like to use, but rarely accomplish, often concluding that the ‘safe bet’ would be to hire in a London organisation in to help out. In response to this; Jude Kelly CBE (WOW Foundation) suggested this might be perhaps because of the perception that if you’re a South West based organisation you’re not “good enough” to be elsewhere and that what’s missing in the South West is faith in local talent.


To add to that, in a less formal discussion with a few community group leaders (like the Notting Hill Carnival) it was noted that the London boroughs are in competition with one another, each seeking to produce and show-case homegrown talent from the borough in a shameless plug to be the most desirable place to be “from”.


We’d like to see more of that in the South West, Wiltshire and Trowbridge. More investment in pride, and exporting talent elsewhere. If the whole country is asking “How do we create more resilient, sustainable, healthy and inclusive cities, towns, High Streets and homes?”… let’s show them how we're doing it in Wiltshire.


Links:


The Festival of Place hosted by The Developer - https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCGZx3uwtEy4oD466vevLLXw/videos

@Planningshit video for Festival of Place (warning: strong language) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E2xFfBN9X7g&feature=youtu.be

The new planning White Paper: https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/cbp-8981/

Bristol Housing Festival - https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC59qsqsP59rtGHk-nW-AHCw?view_as=subscriber

Power to Change - https://www.powertochange.org.uk/events/

High Streets Task Force - https://www.highstreetstaskforce.org.uk/resources/

Create Streets - https://www.createstreets.com/front-page-2/library/resources/



BiBO is a group of companies working together to improve access into property and construction related fields. Find out more at www.bibogroup.co.uk


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