by Graham Marshall
Prosocial Place Programme
On 23rd February 2016 Graham spoke at the UD/MH Dialogue and launch of the Journal of Urban Design and Mental Health at the Wellcome Trust in London. This is the transcript of that talk.
Hello; I’m a reformed urban designer and I would like to tell you the story of this catharsis and the Massive Small project that sparked it. This is a short talk and if you take nothing else away today I would like you to think about this: If we are to create and maintain healthy places we need to shift our focus from the built to the living environment.
£5k Public Realm Strategy
The project was in Bakewell, Derbyshire, where they had recently redeveloped their town centre over the former livestock market. The scheme maintained the street pattern, was built in local stone and most people were pleased with it... but something was missing.
We were commissioned to provide a quick appraisal of the public realm and provide an outline strategy for improvement - a simple palette of materials was expected by some stakeholders, with a few pointers to win Derbyshire in Bloom. Our initial observations were that:
The Grand Gathering
Our research told us that Edward the Elder called a Grand Gathering here between the many tribes of the Danes and the Vikings to broker a truce. This Gathering led to the unification of England under one King, Edwards’s son. Importantly, it established a new role for towns as centres for justice and protection, the Borough system connecting the new country together – it provided an urban focus to a new nation. The Normans loved it, finding it easy to ‘conquer’ the country with this administrative system in place! But importantly for us, a thousand years ago we established a progressive urban system focused on people and their relationships – not on buildings and architecture.
With a group of community leaders we developed a co-design approach to the project. Using Edward de Bono’s Six Hats method, we used post-it notes to record our conversations. Our first workshop discussed ‘what we knew’ and ‘what we felt’ about Bakewell. From hundreds of post-its we generated several themes:
At the next workshop we reviewed the earlier post-it notes as a basis to a discussion about ‘the future of Bakewell’. We were not talking about paving materials – we were talking about what was important to them about their town. It was clear that the role of the public realm was important to their understanding of place and by not over-facilitating we developed a deeper understanding. When we discussed the town the built environment remained the central focus – something solid they could relate to. But when we spoke about the assets, people became very passionate and it is here that they felt the purpose of the town lay - in the people – in the living environment.
There was a shift in perception.
They also realised how detrimental poor stewardship could be and it led to a discussion about the tipping point – where do we set the benchmark between success and failure? From these discussions we began to develop our Prosocial ideas about:
Key to Improvement?
At our third workshop we asked ‘what we could do to improve things’. In the discussion the focus shifted significantly from place to community and their vision. We also found that the concept of place shifted from buildings to public space - in the diagram, flanked by stewardship issues and positive assets. These shifts were from built to living environment.
The key outcome of the project was the successful establishment of a ‘Town Team’ and the identification of champions to take forward the themes of the strategy. A natural narrative emerged in the project which led to the project title of The Gatherings – the Vision.
We had a good client in the Peak District National Park Authority, who were open to our exploratory approach to the brief – we were Highly Commended in the Landscape Institute 2012 Awards for the project. The things that we learned from this Massive Small project included:
Recognition that the traditional urban design approach to the central redevelopment had UN-PLACED the town.
Prosocial Place campaigns for urban design policies built around people’s needs – instead of good design or well designed, social policy points to following the evidence towards WELL-DESIGN. We have produced a short think piece for this launch, published in the Journal of Urban Design and Mental Health, around the idea of THRIVAL in place of survival in place.
About the Author
Sanity and Urbanity: