Town planners learnt their consultation approach in the 1960s. It is an approach coloured by the notion of a ‘ladder’ of participation with manipulation at the bottom, and citizen empowerment at the top. This results in all sorts of problems for designers. A local Council recently announced a review of heights and built form for an inner city area. This surely is an urban design exercise, but the questions the Council is asking of its community are informed by a planner’s approach to consultation. The Council has invited the community to respond to three questions:
- What five words best describe the area’s existing character?
- What should be given the greatest consideration in assessing development proposals?
- What are the maximum heights you would support for new developments?
These questions, particularly the third question, are surely wrong headed. I can just imagine the engineers consulting over a drainage scheme: ‘what is the minimum pipe diameter you would support?’ Any designer trying to incorporate the answers to these questions into her recommendations has no room to move – unless the community’s view is simply taken to be the correct one (the planners’ approach).
Urban design proposals ought to be a well-reasoned strategy to achieve some broader sets of objectives – sustainability, grace, grandeur, vitality, profit – design solutions are a way of achieving those objectives. Urban design consultation should be structured into three phases: research, objectives, solutions. In the first phase ask people what they value, how they live, what other places they like. Show them images of real places and ask them what they think. The photos above show two similar street scenes – is the building in the right hand photo too high? I ask this question of many communities, it always lead to a more productive discussion than asking what is the maximum height they would support.
In the second phase discuss with the community explicit objectives for the design solutions. Objectives could be about preserving heritage, creating a grand boulevard, or achieving another 500 housing units. Often there will be competing objectives. There is no problem with competing objectives – a really clever design solution will be able to meet them all!
In the third phase explain how the design solutions meet the agreed objectives (or how the objectives could not be met). By learning how to consult in this fashion designers can work with the community without having to surrender to it. At a recent presentation of an urban design framework a designer was asked why building heights had been set at six storeys. He replied that it ‘felt about right’.
I am sure it was right, but I am equally sure he would have found the ensuring discussion easier if he could have explained how these heights met previously agreed objectives.