The 2008 financial crisis ushered in a decade of austerity and deregulation that has reshaped the role of the state in Britain and Italy, and in turn reshaped the public life of our cities. The generation of architects who started their careers under these conditions is increasingly stepping across sectors and beyond traditional roles to build new forms of publicness.
Alison Crawshaw, DK-CM and Public Practice are three organisations that have emerged in this context. What follows is a conversation between Alison Crawshaw, David Knight and Cristina Monteiro (DK-CM), and Finn Williams (Public Practice) that took place in London in 2019, prompted by selecting points from their collective New Publics manifesto exhibited earlier this year at the British School at Rome.
Planning Must Become Popular: Planning is our collective tool for deciding the future of our environment, but its democratic potential is increasingly compromised by corporate interests. This democratic potential must be restored in a way that recognises that the public is an agent of planning, not just its recipients.
David Knight: This is taken from my PhD research Making Planning Popular and the design project that came out of it Building Rights, a proposal for an online forum for the public to share planning knowledge. It was directly informed by projects that Finn and I had already collaborated on: SUB-PLAN: A Guide to Permitted Development (2009) and The Rule of Regulations (2008).
Cristina Monteiro: Those projects unpicked the opaque and technocratic language of regulation for a general audience. They took specific regulations and translated and illustrated them to make them more accessible. The translations reveal the impact that they have on the built environment, or what is actually possible under their terms. In SUB-PLAN, you revealed the full potential of Permitted Development (PD), which is the UK law that defines what someone can build without formal planning permission, and handled it in a subversive and enabling way.
DK: A key discovery after we’d made that book and published it was that within weeks it was out of date. In response to how people were exploiting PD and to initiatives like our book, the government had moved quickly to update the legislation. I vividly remember us discussing, Finn, whether or not we would keep updating the book forever, or instead whether we should find other means of building connections between planning knowledge and people.
CM: Something that we’ve all been trying to work out is how to make the language around the built environment something that people can contribute to. And it might not be through a translation, it might be through other forms of media such as social media and online discourse (as with Building Rights) or through film. At DK-CM we have been making films with children for Haringey Council, which explore how they read and interrogate place on their own terms.
Finn Williams: I’m interested in how Making Planning Popular explores the origins and pre-history of planning as an idea based on popular consent, and traces how this kind of social agreement became codified through the state rather than the people. Before we had a formal planning system, what got built was directly related to what forms of development were commonly accepted within a community. But the more planning got codified, the more it was lifted up to a national level, and the more distant it became from people’s day-to-day understanding of development, and of their own role in giving that consent.
DK: Yes. The over-professionalisation you’ve just described was there from the start. If you look at the writing of people who were there at the genesis of planning, like Thomas Sharp, Clough Williams-Ellis, Patrick Abercrombie, all these guys were ultimately advocates of the professional classes taking responsibility for a nationalised right to build, on behalf of the rest of the population.
Most planning polemics of those early years, say 1900 to 1947, advocated a state-led system with some kind of class-hegemonic character. Although things have changed enormously, these assumptions were so fundamental at the outset that they’re still present in some aspects of our planning system, and I believe that we can and should challenge them. And one way to challenge them is by looking at other models that pre-date our current system.
For example, the logic of the Arabic-Islamic city was that there was a space between the street and the home called the fina where there were no laws. There were elaborate laws about the street and the home, family structure and behaviour, but the fina was a deliberate grey area. People ran businesses in the fina, and buildings leaned into it to provide spaces where women could participate in the life of the street while still being veiled by the architecture. Such a planning law (or absence of a law) was obviously the product of a rich discussion about how to formulate the rules that shape place.
FW: Planning might start informally with one person complaining about their neighbour’s wall, but it inevitably gets codified and formalised over time. For example in Christiania, the ‘freetown’ in Copenhagen set up outside of Danish law, when a provocative TV crew went in and started building their own structure to test how free it really was, the local community immediately said: ‘You can’t just build whatever you want here, we have a system. You have to say what it’s going to be like, and there’s a meeting once a month where we gather together to discuss it and take
a vote.’ And that’s essentially the planning system! Within a couple of decades they have gone from anarchism to a local democratic model similar to ours.
DK: The biggest failing of post-war planning was the assumption that the endgame was a consensus, and that once we had consensus we could roll out the plan. Planning is a political space, so it must contain and embody difference, argument, heterogeneity, antagonism, dissent and debate. Its purpose is not to build consensus but to make decisions in the context of dissensus.
Alison Crawshaw: When we were talking about this at the New Publics opening, a member of the audience noted that our projects focus on policy rather than politics and, in doing so, avoid some of the destructive polarisation that characterises political discourse today. What I found in Rome in the periphery where I was working was that people were quick to define themselves as being left or right. I wanted to bypass these divisive self-categorisations, engage as many different voices as possible, and make space for negotiation and productive disagreement around tangible, spatial issues. That was the purpose of the meeting room in Borghesiana.
DK: What you describe sounds like politics to me. It’s just not politics as currently practised.
FW: I think planning is always political, but good planning should try to transcend local or party politics. For me there’s a big difference between what makes the public willing to be involved and what’s in the public interest. The purpose of public planning and local government is to broaden representation of people beyond those who are directly impacted, to take into account a wider sense of society that crosses socio-economic divides. For me, it’s vital that we try to stretch our perspective beyond the self-interest of individuals or communities, and that’s the role of the public planner.
Planning Builds Democracy: Every citizen should have a say in how their city changes. Good planning gives a voice to the silent majority by advocating for broader communities, wider geographies, and longer horizons.
FW: There are two different ways of going about engaging the public in planning. One is teaching the public the rules and language of the planning system, and expecting them to somehow engage on the terms of the system itself. The other is the planning system learning how to listen to the public, and speak the language of reality. Planning needs to talk to people on their own terms and through the media they’re used to using. But even then, no matter how popular a social media platform is, it’s still not going to take into account the people who haven’t moved in yet, or their children. That’s what is so important and exciting about the role of the public planner. You get to advocate for a broader public and wider set of values than the confines of a contract with a client. You can persuade developers to create benefits for communities beyond the red line boundaries of their sites, or make decisions that will benefit people who aren’t even born yet.
CM: The ‘silent majority’ that this manifesto point refers to is, I suppose, the people who don’t have an existing sense of entitlement or agency towards their environment. We need to be reaching these people and I think that one method is through environmental education from an early age.
When I first took part in engagement events as an architect, I was surprised at how much the general public talked about CCTV, parking and such like. But it’s not a lack of imagination these concerns are valid. People have seen local government cuts for so long, particularly in the context of austerity. Small things become big things and are symbolic of wider changes in society
DK: Engagement has become codified. The public go to consultation events and ‘perform’ consultation. There are meaningful conversations happening every day about the environment that are not captured in those moments.
FW: Consultation is too often about asking ‘Do you like this design we’ve already come up with?’. It forces people to be reactive, so it’s not surprising many of the responses are reactionary. We need to get better at engaging people before the big decisions are made, by making the earlier stages of the planning process more tangible and inclusive. A number of our Public Practice Associates are working on this. Hannah Lambert, an Associate in Newham, has been co-producing a development at Custom House, working with local residents to write the brief and commission the design team. Hana Loftus has been working with communities in Parish Councils across South Cambridgeshire to develop design codes for their own villages. Or there’s Jan Ackenhausen, whom DK-CM have been working with at Old Oak and Park Royal Development Corporation and who is running a new community-led design review panel.
CM: I think we need consultation stages like the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) construction stages, as a way of being clear about what is being discussed and when. Not led by the RIBA necessarily, but perhaps by another body.
FW: Exactly. I think there’s no professional body that covers the full breadth of the field we work across. The institutions for architects, planners and engineers have each retreated into their own defensible spaces, leaving a no-mans-land which is undefined, but probably the most interesting area in terms of broadening our agency.
DK: Finn, Diana Ibáñez López and I teach a postgraduate architecture studio at the Royal College of Art, and I once asked our students how many of them wanted to one day qualify as an architect. Only one student put their hand up, and it was just to say ‘What do you mean by an architect?’. Not one of them was willing to accept the received definition.
FW: I think we need to avoid a situation where architects don’t feel able to say what they’re doing is architecture just because it doesn’t involve designing a building. We should be seeking to broaden the boundaries of the built environment professions so that they all see things like meaningful community engagement as part of the job, and don’t see their training as a limit on their ability to shape the world around them.
Everyday Places can be Extraordinary: Planning has the power to build better everyday environments, for everyone. Rather than creating exceptions to the norm, we work to raise the standards of normality itself.
FW: I made the move from private architectural practice to working for the public sector because I didn’t want to work on projects with big budgets that only served a narrow public the few who could afford it. In England, 94% of new homes are not designed by architects. I didn’t want to be confined to the other 6%. I was always more interested in working on the built environment that normal people really use. That’s why I chose to join Croydon Council, and then the GLA.
DK: There’s something great when an architect designs for a client that isn’t the direct client, especially when that indirect client is the public at large or the community that the literal client represents. This is what unites, in my head, the public work of the LCC Architects Department with the private speculation that was Georgian London. This is something that we talk about at DK-CM, that is, using our design skills, such as they are, to serve that broader need. We have had to tell councils sometimes that, on one level, they’re not the client.
CM: I think we’re all working in different ways to raise the quality of normal places. Common Ground, the charity, is an important reference for me. They created the ‘Parish Map’, a kind of collaborative craft-based mapping used to establish what’s important, valued and distinctive about a particular place. They have produced an amazing series of publications about place, and about the cultural implications of mapping.
FW: Common Ground informed a small group of practices that were established in London in the early 2000s, including General Public Agency (where David and I worked) and Muf architecture/art (where Alison and Cristina worked), who created a counter-voice to the predominant architects of the time that claimed all the headlines. I think these practices played an important part in teaching us, and our generation, to take the existing reality of a place not only physically but also socially as our starting point.
DK: If I think about the generation of practices that we all worked and met in, despite being known for developing new forms of practice, they also are united by very strong aesthetic principles, though many don’t assert them overtly. If you look further back, there was the ‘community architecture’ generation, working in the late 60s to early 80s who had experienced firsthand the post-war consensus model and had quite fundamental problems with it. The overwhelming feel of that period was a crisis of aesthetics and crisis of confidence, mirrored by a lack of faith in the professions of architecture and planning. And, of course, the start of the neo-liberal project. To me, the generation Finn is describing was distinctive because they talked about politics and society, and indeed new forms of practice, but ultimately were able to manifest that in form, shape and character. Barking Town Square, which Alison worked on at Muf, is a hugely distinctive space to be in. General Public Agency developed policy-level research that had an aesthetic language never seen before in that kind of document. That felt like the shift to me.
Planning is a balance between catch up and conjecture: In order to make a projection for the future, one must acknowledge and understand the terrain.
AC: This point came from a text that I read by an urbanist called Cassetti that described the history of the masterplans of Rome as being ‘the story of the continuous pursuit of transformations, inserted a posteriori in an overall design of the future city’. The statement acknowledges that masterplans aren’t definitive, that a lot of development happens spontaneously outside them or in ways that deviate from what was anticipated, and also that masterplans have a lifespan, that they will inevitably be rewritten or replaced. It seemed to me that to think of the production of masterplans in this way, to see them as an opportunity
to analyse why a city has developed in one way rather than another, in order to inform how it can move forward, was a very positive take. In Rome, there is a huge amount of illegal building; a third of the city has been built without permission since WW2. Each time the authorities make a citywide masterplan they have to acknowledge that it is there. Successive masterplans have absorbed it and set out policies to address it whilst saying that it must not continue, which of course it does. It is a cycle of prohibition and condoning, rather than reflection and visioning, which is what the manifesto point is advocating for.
CM: In your own work in Rome, did you try to produce surveys that would enhance understanding of these places?
AC: There is a policy in the most recent citywide masterplan that sets out the terms for the recuperation and retrospective legitimisation of illegally built zones. It demands that the residents of each zone form a committee, hire an architect and develop neighbourhood plans. The intention of my project was to make a physical space for the policy meetings a space in which to gather information on the neighbourhood and enhance understanding of it which would underpin the neighbourhood plan.
DK: What I enjoy about this is the idea of a responsive planning that is partly propositional and partly about documentation. There’s a sort of push and pull between those two states, like reading and writing. Back and forth. It’s quite a positive statement to make for planning today. Particularly as the previous peak of public planning in the postwar years was very heroic and not very good at understanding what was going on in its path. It achieved a huge amount, but not much of it was particularly contextual.
FW: That heroic period of planning was often carried out from a distance. You see black and white photos of a few men pointing at maps and looking down on distant fields, which were treated as blank slates for building a ‘new Jerusalem’. And you can see it in the use of zoning, where complex urban life was separated out into pure envelopes of single uses that could be seen and managed from a helicopter-view. But if there’s one approach that unites the practices we’ve worked in, our own practices now, it’s that they give value to what already exists.
DK: Making Planning Popular was based on the premise that, rather than focussing on the contextual methods of architects or planners, the context itself should be empowered to speak: people are constantly producing narratives of a place that are of value to us in terms of understanding what a place is and how it should change. But there are very few lines of connection between those narratives and how a planner or architect might typically read a place. We tend to rely on very codified moments of understanding rather than building new, more nuanced and open relationships.
AC: The other thing to mention on this point is that large-scale regeneration rolls out over ten, twenty, thirty years, and in that time the market and policies can completely change. When the result does not fulfil the original plan, it is talked about as if it is a failure. Instead, we need to find a way to be propositional without the constant narrative of failed plans, and this is where conjecture comes in. We need ambitious visions that have some flexibility and open reflection built into them.
Diverse Planners Make Diverse Places: Places and their populations are complex and don’t benefit from being simplified. We value the diversity of the places we plan and reflect the diversity of the people we plan for.
FW: At Public Practice we believe it’s really important that built environment professionals understand and reflect the communities we serve. At the moment we’re recruiting practitioners with at least three years of professional experience. But the big drop-off in diversity is the transition from higher education to practice, and the transition from school to higher education. So to really make a difference in terms of diversity, we need to work further upstream. We’d like to get to the point where we can run a programme for teenagers, or create a foundation course that is genuinely serving the public of the future.
CM: I teach in an institution that actively tries to broaden the range of people who can access its courses, so I tutor students from very diverse backgrounds. But they can struggle despite the support we offer, and I think it’s because the built environment hasn’t been properly explored with them in earlier education.
AC: Another way to access under-represented demographics could be to ask for nominations for Public Practice recruits, as well as inviting applications from people who by default have the confidence and know-how to put themselves forward. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, for example, didn’t initiate her run for congress herself. A group called Brand New Congress issued an open call for nominations, and her brother put her forward. She was a waitress and hadn’t ever considered going into politics until she was approached.
FW: I’d love to do that for local government: a leadership programme to bring in a new, diverse generation of local politicians, with real understanding of spatial and environmental issues. Young practitioners coming out of architecture and planning schools today are motivated by emergencies like climate change and the housing crisis. And if there’s one way of actually making an impact on these issues, it’s through engaging with politics and planning.