Just who is in charge of changing places?

ConferenceI went to a discussion last night, in Manchester, led by Duncan Ecob, Chair of the Urban Design Group.  The theme of the discussion was “Connectivity and Engagement”.

What followed was a lively debate (fuelled by quite a few bottles of red wine), we started off looking at the ‘engagement process’ and discussing different methods.

The general consensus was that the motivations for ‘engagement’ and ‘consultation’ affect the quality of not only how the process is undertaken but also the final outcome.  For example, private property owners are likely to engage in consultations and ‘community engagement’ purely to ‘placate’ those that might be in opposition to their development plans.

Even when the process is part of a large-scale public redevelopment project, and the community is actively engaged, the outcome of the process can still be affected by factors such as, in the case of Hulme, the lack of imagination of those charged with managing the fulfilment of the development process.

We spent quite a lot of the evening discussing Hulme and its characterlessness, brought about by adopting a carbon-copy approach to urban design.  Nevertheless, its original vibe was more accident than strategy.  The widespread squatting of council housing by ‘creatives’ resulted in a large amount of like-minded people living in close proximity – i.e. a community.

Whilst one of our fellow discussants was confident creative collectives still existed in the area, they certainly didn’t number the same ‘critical mass’ as before the redevelopment.  Creativity has moved to other areas of Manchester such as Ancoats and the Northern Quarter.

So whose fault is it that an area such as Hulme loses its identity?  The council’s?  The council came in for quite a lot of ‘stick’ last night, but it was pointed out that Manchester City Council are just one of the forces of change.  There are other ‘powerful’ organisations behind what makes Manchester, like the Universities and its football clubs.

Change may be masterminded and effected by the council – but they are usually focussing on the physical aspects of a location, the housing, the transport systems etc.  Another important force behind change is the people who inhabit the area, or, in the case of Hulme, leave it in droves.

Perhaps the lesson to learn is that if you think you are responsible for changing a place, then you are only kidding yourself.  As one agent, actor, organisation you don’t have much hope.  Places evolve organically through the behaviour of those that use them.  Whilst the behaviour of people can be influenced by their environment it can never be dictated by it.

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