I am an architect specialising in lighting...
Who are we designing our spaces and our cities for? The people that use them.
If as designers we set our minds to ask, listen and observe how people behave and react in public spaces I believe we can deliver long-lasting designs that users can relate to.
As planning and architecture tools follow the trend for computer-assisted simulation, we should not overlook users who ultimately might not relate to our virtually generated assumptions.
As planners, we should be asking people more often about space. We need to understand what current and future users think about the condition of public spaces and have them commenting on the proposals we are working on. Above all, we must know how to filter this information to effectively inform the design process.
We have achieved the technical capacity of being planners working globally. I believe a major challenge today is to be able to adapt to all these different contexts, working with people locally. At the fast pace we live today, are we giving ourselves enough time to listen and observe?
Should we be engaging with communities in workshops, where we can present and discuss our designs? Can we manage, in the length of a project to consider storytelling and people's concerns and preferences? Is there an alternative to the traditional public consultation debate?
In the medieval period, everyone in a city or region would have been involved in building and the thinking behind its grand cathedral. Back then, the specialists, the artists, the craftsmen were sourced locally. There was a sense of participation and ownership among populations that lasted for generations.
In the USA during the 1970s and 80s, William Whyte applied social research methodologies to the design of public spaces. By observing public urban life in a direct and measurable way, he contradicted received wisdom such as the separation of pedestrians and vehicles. His ideas are still valid today and his methods can certainly be reinvented and improved by technological development - so why not rediscover them?
Today Danish architect and urban designer Jan Gehl bases his approach on building up a profound knowledge about urban life. His realizations have proven to revolutionize the way people live in cities. Empty, lifeless public spaces become vibrant, enjoyable, safe places, with a new recognisable identity.
In the UK, estates like Peabody have founded their development on strong community engagement processes, where every single resident has a say. The participation process becomes a natural habit, the neighbourhoods push for constant improvements and the public space often wins with it.
Translating users' participation into a good design is a real challenge. Community outreach and public engagement are nothing new. In fact they are becoming a trend. It is in our hands as designers to make sure this participation informs our designs in an inventive way, building on social sustainability and planning long lasting places for cities.
If public spaces are for people, shouldn’t we be giving them the right tools and creating the circumstance to involve them in the design process?