Friday, 11 April 2014

Break the Rules - Get Tactical

Break the Rules - Get Tactical.

As the tactical urbanism movement gathers pace across the globe. Communities, professionals, residents, neighbourhoods, cyclists, pedestrians, mums, dads, kids, and so on, are all beginning to realise that urban design and place shaping is not solely the domain of the government or local authority.  People and community led place interventions and movements are often found to be better planned, more responsibly designed, more cost effective, more responsive to local need and better used than those delivered by the powers that be.  However this movement, which has seen changes to places such as Times Square in New York and the creation of pop up protected bike lanes in Denver has struggled to get a strong foothold in the UK.
In the UK we probably lead the world in written guidance about better quality places, public realm, urban design, streets, spaces, and community engagement.  Add to this that across the country a great deal of community engagement and neighbourhood planning is taking place. Yet when it comes to doing it on the ground then quite often smaller interventions such as knit bombing and graffiti art appear to be the mainstay.  That’s not to say it doesn’t happen in some places and I would mention the excellent work of the DIY Streets programme run by Sustrans plus a few others listed at the end of this blog.  However this appears to be more isolated projects and definitely not the norm of street or place interventions. 
Small Scale Street Interventions

Other countries, while lacking the plethora of guidance, just appear to get on with this approach possibly not held back by our sensibilities. Maybe it's our UK view that the state delivers change in the public domain not communities, that unless it's official and sanctioned it's not our place to redesign the local park or street.  We appear to be happy that the local bus station has looked like the arse end of town for the last 20 years despite the production of three separate strategies and several independent reports calling for its change and upgrade. Content that the town square has remained as a glorified surface car park since a few souls started parking Morris Minors on it in the 1950s. Furthermore when and if delivered by developers we are content that some three letter acronym corporate architecture firm with no local knowledge and limited place skills will design and deliver a soulless plaza or new shiny quarter to our town or city.  Community Engagement in these cases is often limited to viewing a few sharp photo-montages and being asked leading questions about the choice of lights, bollards or paving colour.

Low Cost Interventions Can Transform Places
Some have said it's the term tactical urbanism, others the reluctance of local authorities to embrace this sort of approach both of which have some credence. However, it should be noted that this has not held the movement back in other parts of the world. It's is still happening in places where urbanism or placeshaping is not professionally well established, where there is little guidance and in many places where the local authority is more deeply entrenched than it is in the UK.  Maybe this difference in context is one of the reasons it happens - maybe having no guidance is better than lots of it.
Does the UK context prevent us intervening?

However I believe that in the UK we are still failing to realise the value of DIY interventions in places and the many benefits it can have. So for those considering its use in their neighbourhood or community I thought I would set out a few.

Engagement and Real Change

The ability to inspire local people to make real change, to fire up a genuine interest in the future of a place.  Tactical urbanism gives engagement and change a real purpose and end goal.  This isn't being asked about the wording in some dreary policy document or to choose between crappy option A or crappy option B. Often the question asked by local authorities is why don't more people get involved in our decisions well the answer quite often is because local authorities make it so incredibly tedious and boring.  And my do they make it boring! There is very little that is boring about tactical urbanism, the ability to physically change a place for the better with your neighbours, community and local business.  This is how UK towns, villages and cities were born and grew in the UK and should be a rediscovered route to how they change and adapt now. What many local authorities miss is that it is also a very powerful tool in bridging a gap between local authorities and the communities they serve. It may help with issues I raised in this earlier Blog.

Communities 'Build a Better Block' Project, Philadelphia - Can the UK follow?

Actual Real World Testing

The ability to actual test what happens when you close a lane off, slim down a complex junction create sitting areas or create a park out of a large surface car park.  Test the real world effects of these changes, impacts and the benefits, not just on traffic movement but social impacts too.  Don't run your scheme through some half-baked techno geek modelling program which everyone tells you was the wrong sort of modelling and doesn't actually model the true impact of changes - as they say garbage in, garbage out.  Modelling factors cold numbers and never reacts to how people use space or the changes people make when spaces and streets actually happen on the ground. It is a sad state of affairs that our UK towns and Cities are shaped more by virtual traffic flow calculations than they are by what a place should be. Computer models will never factor in the how the dwellers of places, pedestrians, businesses and cyclists economically, environmentally and socially benefit from the improved urban environment.

Cost effective and shows intent.

This approach is comparably cheap and easy to do. It doesn't take expensive granite kerbs or bespoke art installations this can be done with a few concrete blocks, paint, some planters and a few temporary tables and chairs. In times of austerity and dwindling budgets this approach is a very sensible and justifiable one. It can avoid dealing with services below ground - the single most important factor in the rising cost of public realm and infrastructure projects.  If the proposal doesn't work or causes real local issues then it's very easy to rectify or adjust, again at very low cost. It also demonstrates that an area has intent to change that it doesn't have to wait 10 years for the new shopping area, road diet or the new quayside development. No huge budget bottom line has to be reached before it’s done.  It shows a city or town can control its own destiny and is not solely in the hands of a development partner - who more often than not is more interested in a profit margin or shareholder interest.

Café in Antiques Quarter, Bridport, Dorset
Social Benefit

These schemes are often led and driven by local communities and therein create social capital that is more valuable than a few neighbourhood meetings or a neighbourhood watch scheme.  They bring people together not just to design and craft an idea but to build and use the place, streets or facility created. This is what true place shaping is all about and therefore one asks, again, why we don’t do it more in the UK?

Street Fair in Bath
Economic Benefits

Many schemes result in improved access, public space or new facilities all of which benefit the residents and business around them.  Recent tactical interventions in the US saw significant uplift in rents, increase patronage of local shops and businesses. This then gave credence to do more and spend further time on doing some of them as permanent schemes. With the current threats to our local high streets, economy and businesses, this has to be a logical step in improving local sustainable economic income.

Tactical Café Advert, Falmouth, Cornwall

Results in properly thought through and well designed schemes

It engenders an interest so much greater than a strategy document sitting on a dusty shelf. It tests the real effect not just on traffic and parking but more importantly on people and how they interact with a new space and a pop up store. It irons out the wrinkles easily and with little fuss and at low cost.  It creates real conversations and problems solving between designers and communities.  If successful enough it can lead to a full scheme with all the whistles and bells.  Being able to do this quickly and at low cost is invaluable as a design tool both at concept stage, through design and onto implementation.

Educates and inspires

Seeing people get involved in this sort of project inspires them to want to help shape their area and surroundings.  It acts as real education in places and spaces helping all sides to understand the issues faced when making a change to an area.  It allows professionals and local authorities to show communities how decisions are balanced and involves them in the choice and decisions process. It leads to other projects and initiatives and when people realise how easy it is and successful they want to do more – surely this should be a key part of the much talked about localism agenda.

Heath Ledger and Christian Bale
Get Tactical During Filming of Batman.

Summary Rant

I believe it's about time we realised in the UK that sometimes we might have to grip the bull by the horns and take hold of projects as a community.  Check out the links at the end of this piece or Google ‘Tactical Urbanism’ and see how it's being done in other places.  They may not all be in the UK but that should not make a scrap of difference. The benefits to social, environmental and economic aims of a place can truly benefit in a time when true sustainability can be created through interventions at a neighbourhood level.

Local authorities need to wake up to this too and I have found some transport departments that appear to block some of these initiatives but hopefully as communities and professionals we can begin to challenge and change that.  I have been contacted by community groups very keen to do this type of intervention being blocked by extremely regimented officers, processes and procedures.  There probably is a UK notion that we don't do this the government or the local authority does, however if this can be championed in other parts of the world surely we can do so here?  Isn’t it time we grew beyond the smaller intervention in the UK and have a go at closing off some lanes on a city centre road or converting a major town centre surface car park into a real park! 

With regard to what it’s called I don’t have the answer and not really sure it matters that much.  Call it what you will Tactical Urbanism, DIY Places, Pop-up Projects, Lean Urbanism, just get out and do something. Don’t wait for it just to happen because in a great deal of cases it probably won’t.

Currently I am researching and working on a few early stage projects on how this can be done in more UK Cities, Towns and Streets with the use of soft measures, local community groups, temporary TROs, Pop Up Facilities, Street Closures, removal of parking so if you want to know more get in touch via Twitter @shapetheplace or  I will also set up a list blog with examples in and continue to update and add to as people send me links and info.  Please also check out this great resource from the US called Tactical Urbanism 2.

Pop-up Bar near the National Theatre, London

My thanks also go out to friends and colleagues on Social Media who have suggested a few examples in the UK.  So please look at the links below and hopefully this may inspire a few more of us to do something in our towns and cities. 

The UK Getting Tactical - Links

Pop-up Cafes, Kings Cross, London

Dairy Crest, Totnes. A communities passion to Imagine a hub that is the heart of a new economy for Totnes and further afield, a food entrepreneursschool, affordable housing, a business incubator, a living, breathing taste of sustainability in practice, rising from the ashes of the derelict Dairy Crest site.

Coin Street Community Builders (CSCB) is a social enterprise and development trust which seeks to make Londons South Bank a better place in which to live, to work and to visit. Since 1984 CSCB has transformed a largely derelict 13 acre site into a thriving mixed use neighbourhood.

Sustrans brings communities together to help them redesign their streets to make them safer and more attractive places to live, where people come first. These projects are known as DIY Streets and offer an affordable, community-led alternative to the home zones design concept.

UK Guerrilla Gardening a place for guerrillas and wannabe guerrillas from around the world. Enlist with a username and password to share your guerrilla gardening plans, activity and advice. Find support or just go for it solo, sow the seed and get something growing.

Knit the City.  "Yarnstorming (also known as yarnbombing): the art of enhancing a public place or object with graffiti knitting" (Or putting knitting on something unexpected in public and running always giggling wildly).

Three years ago one street in South Bristol, backed by the city council, trialled the idea of a temporary road closure to let children play out safe from traffic danger. These residents then went on to help other local streets open for playfor a couple of hours after school to let local children use the space for scooting, chalking, racing, skipping and a host of other games.

The Headington Shark in Oxford – Shark in a Roof – Enough Said!

Watching and Hoping to See More

Saturday, 8 February 2014

The Director's New Roads

The Directors New Roads! Or a sad tale of Induced Demand!

Inspired by a recent podcast by the wonderful Andy Boenau - Urbanism Speakeasy. This is my take on the inspiring story by Hans Christian Anderson adapted for today and set out to highlight why we always appear to miss the obvious even though it's before our very eyes.  How sometimes it takes the eyes of a child to spot what we can't see through professional assumptions. Unlike children we've all had our corners knocked off a bit and that isn't always a good thing. So in reading this I hope I can make you think about adding a few corners back on.  Or at least challenging the status quo a bit more! It's a bit of fun or is it? Does this go on daily across the UK in transport funding, planning and design?

The Director's New Roads!

Many years ago there was a Local Authority Director so exceedingly fond of new businesses that he spent all his money on building new roads for cars and lorries in the hope it would attract them.  He didn’t read evidence or look at current research. He cared nothing about people that walked, people that cycled or those that ride in a local bus, except to occasionally spend a little on these modes to try and show fairness. He had a set of traffic lights for every hour of the day, and instead of saying, as one might, about any other place, "The Director is engaging with his community or creating a liveable walkable city" here they always said. "The Director is planning the next road widening or junction."

In the great city where he lived, life was always very busy, everyday many strangers came to town, and among them one day came two professionals. They let it be known they were traffic engineers, and they said they could build the most magnificent roads imaginable. Not only were their junctions and extra carriageways uncommonly fine, but roads made this way had a wonderful way of making congestion invisible to anyone who was unfit for their position, office, or who was unusually stupid.

"These would be just the roads for me," thought the Director "If I build them I would be able to discover which people in my city are unfit for their posts. And I could tell the wise people from the fools.  I will remove congestion! Yes, I certainly must get some of these roads built for me right away." He paid the two traffic engineers a large sum of money to start work at once.

They set up a large office and began to model traffic, though there was nothing but numbers and algorithms on their computers.  All the finest software and the purest CAD systems which they demanded went into their new office, while they worked these meaningless computer systems far into the night.

"I'd like to know how those traffic engineers are getting on with my new roads," the Director thought, but he felt slightly uncomfortable when he remembered that those who were unfit for their position would not be able to see the congesting becoming invisible. It couldn't have been that he doubted himself, yet he thought he'd rather send someone else to see how things were going. The whole City knew about the new road's peculiar powers, and all were impatient to find out how stupid their neighbours were.

"I'll send my honest old Head of Transport to the traffic engineers" the Director decided. "He'll be the best one to tell me how the new roads look, for he's a sensible man and no one does his duty better."

So the honest old Head of Transport went to the room where the two Traffic Engineers sat working away at their software and meaningless computers.

"Heaven help me," he thought as his eyes flew wide open, "I can see that this will just fill up and cause more traffic and not hide the congestion at all". But he did not say so.

Both the traffic engineers begged him to be so kind as to come near to approve the excellent road, the beautiful junctions. They pointed to the meaningless computer, and the poor old Head of Transport stared as hard as he dared. He couldn't see anything that made the congestion invisible because there was nothing to see. "Heaven have mercy," he thought. "Can it be that I'm a fool? I'd have never guessed it, and not a soul must know. Am I unfit to be the Head of Transport? It would never do to let on that I can't see the congestion disappearing."

"Don't hesitate to tell us what you think of it," said one of the traffic engineers.

"Oh, it's wonderful -it's enchanting." The old Head of Transport peered through his spectacles. "Such a road, what junctions!" I'll be sure to tell the Director how delighted I am with it."

"We're pleased to hear that," the traffic engineers said. They proceeded to show all the extra lane widths and to explain the intricate junctions. The old Head of Transport paid the closest attention, so that he could tell it all to the Director. And so he did.

The traffic engineers at once asked for more money, more computers and more engineers, to get on with the road design. But it all went into their road. Not a thread went into the cycle tracks, bus routes or pavements, though they worked at their designing as hard as ever.

The Director presently sent another trustworthy official to see how the work progressed and how soon it would be ready. The same thing happened to her that had happened to the Head of Transport.  She looked and she looked, but as there was no benefits to see in the new roads she couldn't see the congestion becoming invisible.

"Isn't it a wonderful piece of design?" the traffic engineers asked her, as they displayed and described their imaginary disappearing traffic road.

"I know I'm not stupid," the woman thought, "so it must be that I'm unworthy of my good office. That's strange. I mustn't let anyone find it out, though." So she praised the disappearing congestion she did not see. She declared she was delighted with the wonderful additional lanes and the exquisite junctions To the Director she said, "It held me spellbound."

The entire City was talking of these splendid roads, and the Director wanted to see it for himself while it was still on the drawing board. Attended by a band of chosen men and women, among whom were his two old trusted officials - the ones who had been to the traffic engineers, he set out to see the two traffic engineers. He found them designing with might and main, but without a stitch of congestion disappearing.

"Magnificent," said the two officials already duped. "Just look, Your Majesty, what carriageways! What a design!" They pointed to the meaningless computers and drawings each supposing that the others could see how the congestion would disappear.

"What's this?" thought the Director. "I can't see any congestion disappearing. This is terrible!

Am I a fool? Am I unfit to be the Director? What a thing to happen to me of all people what will big business say! Oh! It's very clever," he said. "It has my highest approval." And he nodded approbation at the computers and drawings. Nothing could make him say that he couldn't see any congestion disappearing.

His whole retinue stared and stared. One saw no more than another, but they all joined the Director in exclaiming, "Oh! It's very clever," and they advised him to build the roads from this wonderful design especially for the great procession he was soon to lead. "Magnificent! Excellent! Unsurpassed!" were bandied from mouth to mouth, and everyone did his best to seem well pleased. The Director gave each of the traffic engineers a cross to wear in his buttonhole, and the title of "Chief Traffic Engineer."

Before the procession the Traffic Engineers worked day and night, shut off all the existing roads and laid lots of new concrete and tarmac, to show how busy they were finishing the Director's new roads. They pretended to take the numbers off the computers. They made holes in the ground with huge diggers, laid drainage put in endless traffic lights. And at last they said, "Now the Director's new roads are ready for him."

Then the Director himself came with his noblest Heads of Service and local dignitaries, and the traffic engineers each stood proudly in front of their designs. They said, "These are the keys to your car, here's your coat, just get in, drive off and the congestion will miraculously disappear. "All of our designs are truly marvellous you will hardly notice the lack of traffic. One would almost think we hadn't removed the cars and lorries such is the subtlety of our design."

"Exactly," all the Heads of Service agreed, though as they looked out could see queues building up and no congestion disappearing, for there was nothing new to see.

"If The Director will condescend to drive his car along the road," said the traffic engineers, "we will help you onto the new roads with our new traffic signals and computer management systems." “As Director you will not have to worry about cyclists and pedestrians as we have made no provision for them at all."

The Director put on his coat, and the traffic engineers turned on the magical traffic signals and computer system, one road after another. They took him outside and seemed to be looking at something - that was the supposed car free roads and the Director turned round and round before the City folk amazed at his own foresight and planning.

"How well your new roads look. Aren't they becoming?" He heard on all sides, "That new carriageway, so perfect! Those junctions, so suitable! It is a magnificent transport system."

Then the minister of public processions announced: "The Director's car is waiting."

"Well, I'm supposed to be ready," the Director said, and turned again for one last look at the roads "It is a remarkable design isn't it?" He seemed to regard his roads with the greatest interest.

The Heads of Service and dignitaries who were to follow his car looked from their cars as if all the traffic was moving freely. Then they pretended not to notice the huge queues building up behind them. They didn't dare admit the congestion was not invisible.

So off went the Director in procession under his splendid canopy but moving just a few feet or so. Everyone in the streets and the windows said, "Oh, how fine are the Director's new roads! Don't they move the traffic along more freely? And we see no long queues!" Nobody would confess that he couldn't see any congestion disappearing, for that would prove him either unfit for his position, or a fool. No road the Director had built before was ever such a complete success.

However from the crowd a small voice spoke "But the congestion hasn't gone at all" a little child said, "and there is nowhere for me to walk or ride my bike!"

"Did you ever hear such innocent prattle?" said the boy’s father. And one person whispered to another what the child had said, "The congestion hasn't gone. A child says the congestion hasn't gone at all."

 "But the congestion hasn't gone!" the whole city cried out at last.

The Director shivered, for he suspected they were right. But he thought, "This procession has got to go on." So he sat stationary in his car more proudly than ever, as his Heads of Service sat behind him in the congestion that wasn't there at all.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Urban Photography Moments in Places

Moments in Places

Places fascinate me. The townscape, the detail, the moments, the people and the events. Over the last few years I have been documenting them via Instagram. Alongside the photos we have tagged the places they were taken You can check out our profile or follow and enjoy over a 1000 bits of the UK. 

Instagram @shapetheplace if you are intrigued? Here is a small example of those moments. 



Follow on twitter @shapetheplace 

Thursday, 12 September 2013

How Not To Do Community Engagement

How Not To Do Community Engagement

Having spent the last 15 years both organising and attending a wide variety of community engagement events I felt it worth writing some thoughts on the type of engagement carried out by some authorities and in some case others (developers, partnership organisations, etc).  While many of these are well understood mistakes it is interesting how many authorities and developers continue to make them.  After a couple of recent engagement events and talks I have been asked by some community groups to post these thoughts in the hope that some will read and improve their community communication approach.   I am posting this mainly for the benefit of communities and what they really should be expecting from their local authority and others. I also hope some local authorities might use it to advise and improve their own engagement processes.
The blog doesn’t discount that some of these approaches can sometimes be used as part of a suite of engagement measures but far too often they are used in isolation and held up as wide and proactive engagement.  The unfortunate result is that these techniques are often taken as the view of the community and worse still used to develop designs, polices and strategies!  In writing this post my thanks go out to the many communities and individuals who helped to write this and shape my engagement events with their own suggestions, thoughts and issues over historic engagement calamities. The thing that really hacks me off about this subject is that it is not difficult to do it properly.  Good engagement is vital to shaping places and using public funds, it just takes a bit of thought and effort.
I thought I might start with a brief introduction to the legal view of consultation and engagement set out by the Gunning Principles.
The Gunning Principles
The decision-maker’s discretion in how to consult or engage is not unbounded, however, it is commonly accepted that certain fundamental principles must be adhered to. These are known as the Gunning (or Sedley ) principles, having been propounded by Mr. Stephen Sedley QC and adopted by Mr. Justice Hodgson.  A quick Google search on the Gunning Principles will give you a wealth of legal and guidance background.  To summarise the key Gunning principles are that:
1.    consultation must take place when the proposal is still at a formative stage; 
2.    sufficient reasons must be put forward for the proposal to allow for intelligent consideration and response; 
3.    adequate time must be given for consideration and response; and 
4.    the product of consultation must be conscientiously taken into account.
I can already sense many of you thinking well that wasn’t what happened in the last consultation I went to – and unfortunately this is often the case.  With these principles in mind I will set out where many consultations or engagement events go wrong. So with those thoughts in your mind here are some of the more commonly made mistakes.
The Council Meeting or The ‘Tin Can Alley’
This type of event has been going for a while and normally involves a panel show arrangement.  Council officers and sometimes other professionals attend the ‘top table’ and to a packed room present the case.  What then happens is normally those with the loudest voice or the most confident or the most hacked off get to fire comments at the ‘targets’ on the top table.  Normally very confrontational events and it often does not tackle the subject of the engagement.  Fundamentally it misses some of the key issues around wider engagement. Those quieter or more reserved members of the community who may have some great ideas or options rarely get to express their view.  The meeting is often dominated by the best ‘shot’ or loudest voice and the debate often gets skewed to those views with little balance. Officers tend to become defensive and not a great deal of compromise or solutions is achieved. Just don’t do it!
Location, Location, Location – and Time
The choice of venue can be a big issue and often is given very little thought or attention.  Sometimes it is a difficult one to resolve as the large venue that’s ideal for the event isn’t always on the main drag.  But some sensible issues can be looked at.  Normally there is a choice of venues so pick the one that is more easily accessible.  Ground floors with level access – yes sometimes rooms on the first floor and up steps are still used!  A little bit of fun signage and way marking if the entrance isn’t clear.  Enough space for the event type table layouts, games and discussion areas all need to be considered.  The obvious choice isn’t always the best for example a busy shopping centre will catch lots of local shoppers with a bit of time on their hands however it may miss a big percentage of the local community or those with other demands on time and attention. Often the space in shopping centres is squeezed, there are other events on and it is not great for considered discussion and ideas. 
I have always felt that you always need to review the location after the event and maybe consider a second venue if it didn’t work or how you plan your outreach consultation.  It’s often not good enough to choose just one event on one day in one location for issues you are trying to get a decent response for.  You should of course be doing some outreach consultation, going to see those that may not be able to make it.
The time and day for events is also critical, too often they are in the week and between 9-5 this is no good a large part of a community, for example those who work or might care for others.  You have to consider evenings and weekends and in some cases going to meet groups at their events and times.  Again this take a bit more effort and work but not much and is well worth the rewards and responses gained.

The Communications and Engagement - ‘well it’s the same thing isn’t it’.
Many authorities see their communications teams the same as community engagement teams and therein is the first mistake.  The majority of communications teams are solely geared to delivering the ‘corporate’ messages, service unit information and dealing with press enquires and many do excellent jobs dealing with this sort of communication.  However the skills required to engage with a variety of community groups and open up to both different views and criticisms is not what they are set up to do.  It requires a different skill set and a different approach.  The result is often the standard questionnaire, the Local Authority ‘bland’ magazine or rather redundant leaflet approach to consultation to ask if people like having their bins emptied - don’t we all? These approaches often do not reach many in the community apart from those who always respond.  Furthermore the understanding of real engagement in communication teams is limited and often gives rise by suggestion to some of the other mistakes set out in this blog.
The Appointment of Public Relations (PR) teams.
This is similar to the previous issue and made by both local authorities and third party consultations. Once again PR firms who are extremely skilled in delivering slick PowerPoint’s, crisp marketing and advert style literature rarely chime with local people.  They descend on places in a swarm of people in pointy shoes and shiny suits or as a friend once commented ‘pointless shits and shiny shoes’.  I have often seen these well-oiled and well-dressed machines come to a juddering halt when trying to engage with communities and wider public.  Lots of good money is often wasted on these firms in the name of ‘engagement’ which could be better spent on more local ‘low tech’ engagement techniques. One individual in a West Midlands community once told me as soon as they see someone in a sharp suit with a clip board they know they are in trouble and tend not to bother!
Routes in and Routes Out
The failure to put in place, what I call, a simple way in or route map into the local authority.  A simple plan on a web-page or in the reception of who to contact for everyday community needs and how to get things delivered – even small things.  It’s very fine to talk about engagement and breaking down silos but getting into local authorities is still very difficult for many community groups especially those hard to reach groups which find the route in even hard to access.  Understanding that public space might be delivered by three separate units or that the planning tree team doesn’t deal with the trees on your local park is not translated to the public.  How a community might access funds to help improve a local place space.  We often use the simplification of the London tube map as an example of trying to help authorities simplify unit structures to help assist local groups getting to the right person.  As anyone who has worked in local authority will tell you a layout of current services units within the local authority will not tell the full picture.  The inability to sort this out can ruin all the good work done during positive engagement events.
Option A or B?
The late consultation or do you like terrible scheme number one or terrible scheme number 2?  The decisions have been made the budget set, the scope of works defined and we are just asking you if you like paving or planting.  This is one of the worst kind of engagement mistake and the most likely to both upset the community or scupper a scheme or project.  Plus as you can see above meets none of the Gunning Principles.  The community gets no real say in the process and it is in effect notification not consultation.  Yet it still happens and baffles me as to why.  I attended a training event last year where this type of engagement was being championed and early blank paper engagement being discouraged – I left and requested a refund.
The Great and the Good
This relates to the well-used stakeholder group a selected list of the chosen few.  Often full of those who turn up to all the other engagement events or are regular objectors.  It is also used used to avoid conflict with or tackle powerful local objectors who because they are given such a focus in a group are allowed to craft the project or consultation to address their own self interests.  This approach often misses the bulk of the residents and smaller businesses in a community and thereby the scheme only really responds to the stakeholders demands and wishes.  Stakeholder groups are useful but they need to be combined with wider engagement and some leg work in going out to hard to reach groups and the wider community.  Sending an e-mail and then ignoring them because they don’t respond is both lazy and arrogant. I have a half written blog on getting out to hard to reach groups I will post soon.
The Missing 3rd of the Community
The UK population demographic shows in 2011 the over 19 million people were between the ages of 0 to 24 just under a third of the overall population. I would ask you to consider the last consultation event you attended and the social makeup of that gathering.  It is unlikely that unless specifically focused it did not have many attendees under the age of say 25. This often falls into the too difficult or the hard to do box and then gets forgotten or side lined. The local youth parliament or young persons representative groups is often chosen but again choses those who always get asked and often results in a narrow young persons response.  It is not hard to go and speak to local schools and youth groups it just takes a bit of time and effort.
The Tea Party Engagement
I wrestled with this one a bit and was the most difficult one to put in this blog and I know many will feel differently about this type of engagement.  The issue here for me is often some very skilled engagement skills and personnel are used for these events.  This is often done by very committed officers and representatives and is done with the aim of starting engagement or generating community interest however it normally has no end goal or power to shape or influence.  They often end up as nothing more than well-meaning social events. They often raise community aspirations or promise things that can either not be achieved or they have no influence to achieve.  In some cases this frustrates communities and can lead to consultation fatigue which then affects subsequent meaningful engagement processes and projects.  If anything these officers need to be used by those with more influence such as planning and transportation departments rather than their own professional officers.
Professional Ignorance and Assumption
Many professionals go out into the community and engage on government policy, recycling strategies or planning issues assuming that Communities understand the system or legislation that supports it.  People reading this are probably thinking this is a thing of the past.  However I am seeing it quite a bit particularly in planning and transport related fields.  I have recently seen a number of local authorities advertising the test of soundness for their Local Plans or Core Strategy documents with absolutely no explanation of what that means.  Community groups spending long hours sending in comments that were discounted because they didn’t fit with the tests of soundness.  This is very easy to overcome but needs some thought, care and testing before consultation and not just in the office.  It may be hard to hear but often as professionals we are not always the best people to explain professional issues.
The Press Advert Solves All Problems!
This is a classic and often results in standard officer responses to lack of engagement.  ‘Well no one showed any interest when there was a press advert last August in the local paper’!  What they actually mean is we shoved a tiny indecipherable bit of text in back of the local newspaper next to all the traffic orders and general Planning notices.  It leads to members saying well they only complain when there is an application.  Yes that’s because the advert didn’t saying anything about the 14 storey tower or demolition of the locally listed building – however the document to which it referred to sitting on the dusty shelf may have! Use pictures, use films, use cartoons use a press article use anything to get it out of the back page in get it noticed.
Now you see it Now You Don’t - Budget Sleight of Hand
Local Authority budgets are notoriously difficult to understand – even for officers (outside the Finance Department that is).  They are a minefield for local communities who may want to access funding or just understand how money has been spent in their area.  Authorities are great at the pie-chart saying this is the department that we have decided where your council tax goes to but being able to have any access to those decisions or find local funding or support is like finding a needle in a haystack.  If Local Authorities are going to embrace Localism and community partnership working then this has to change and become a bigger part of an engagement package.
Shock and Awe – Bang and Whimper!
Large scale community engagement doing all the right things and then no tangible response from the local authority.  I have seen a series of these recently and this is a fatal error made by some local authorities. A consultation event where a strong response had been made across the community on the need for better public realm, and improved cycling and pedestrian facilities resulted in no action.  The authority did nothing with this feedback apart from produce a few booklets - the approach of both planning and transport teams was to put it mildly non-existent.  This weakens the credibility of both the authority and the positive engagement.  Sometimes big issues are raised by communities but it is vitally important to go back with some kind of response.  Be honest say it is a big issue you were not prepared for and give the community some indication of a response and action that might follow.
Don’t call us we’ll call you.
This feeds on from the previous issue and still affects many consultations.  It is the inability of many local authorities to give feedback on engagement once it’s done.  Some now do a consultation summary but often it’s a set of standard responses with no real meaning.  It is vital that following engagement that a conversation is struck up.  Nothing annoys communities more than no response.  Communities are extremely intelligent and intuitive and aware of how the world works – in some cases more so than the local authority.  Make sure you come back and tell them what you are doing.  They know that nobody has got endless resources but they know you have some - so tell them what and let them help you work on the priorities.
One Man and His Dog
A brief and final point for the scheme or issue generated by an individual resident with a specific personal complaint. This is often someone with the ear of the local councillor or a vocal local, who generates a large expenditure of officer time and sometimes resources in a personal compliant or issue.  In isolation this is not this is not too much of an problem but I have seen thousands of pounds wasted across a district or area on a number of these schemes where small individual complaints with little wider community benefit have been progressed by officers unwilling to provide local members with a strategic community view or perspective.
This has been born out of frustration over the years but at the core of this blog is a plea that we should all be aiming higher and wider in the aim to deliver better community engagement. Those of us who work in the world of place shaping are very privileged and owe it to those communities affected to do better and more.
I realise there are many more and I could possible write a small book on all the issues that this subject raises.  With this in mind I would welcome your thoughts on this post whether you are in local authority, work for a developer or in a community trying to work with it.
If I get some more thoughts I will definitely update this blog.

Regards ShapethePlace

Twitter @shapetheplace