Indignation tomorrow

Indignation is a great source of energy. It seems to be sparked equally by the whiff of a threat to personal territory and by concern for the wider community. The British in particular seem to respond vigorously to a sense of injustice on behalf of the powerless, the vulnerable and the mute – be it mute animals, mute landscapes or mute people. Outrage can stimulate extraordinary gifts of time and intelligent support – as well as money – from those who might otherwise stay silent. Indignation will always play a crucial role in democracy, but in some ways it is quite an inefficient use of energy. It is reactive, confrontational and depends on some injustice being perpetrated in the first place. If the concern and energy for these causes could be harnessed before the outrage were even born and channelled into the planning system to make sure that the direction was right from the start, we would be living in a fine world.

English Heritage is in the midst of reviewing policy recommendations for the historic environment as a whole. Consultees are recommending that there should be more democratic access not just to the historic environment itself, but to the way that the historic environment is actually defined and given value. In the previous chapter, David makes important points about the populist dimensions of heritage. The range of things we value is enormous and the critical part is the value not the thing. Losing a grandfather┬╣s worthless watch in a burglary can be far more distressing than losing expensive computer equipment. Seeing the tree on the village green felled can seem more tragic than watching the Grade I town hall go up in flames. It is not just that some things can be replaced or rebuilt; it is what the loss represented; what were the memories it could open; what emotions were stirred by merely touching or smelling it?

The work of Sue Clifford and Common Ground has done much to reveal these values. Quietly and steadily, Sue and Angela have been showing what places mean to the people who live in them. They have uncovered the stories hidden in street and field names; the sense of village pride in the variety of apple tree bred over the centuries for that particular soil and climate; and the power of local ballads and ceremonies to connect people and place. In the public consultation at the start of any project it is amazing how the simple act of bringing out historic maps or photographs can trigger huge interest. Seeing what our everyday surroundings looked like a hundred, or even ten, years ago seems to hold almost universal fascination. There is an immediate sense of time – charted through shared and personal memories – and a realization that a place continues to live and change alongside its inhabitants. A place is not just a backdrop for events; it is caught up in the process.

Along with the excitement of change, there is anxiety. We are constantly being told that we are living in a time of great change; that computer and bio-engineering technologies mean that nothing will ever be the same again. Perhaps steam power and railways actually had more impact on the lives of our ancestors than on ours, but it is the perception of change which counts. The more we feel that everything is in flux, the more we crave some sense of continuity; some fixed points in the flow. Travel and exploration are much easier if there is the security of a home to return to. It is not just the elderly who reach out for continuity. Cutting edge computer game firms choose to make their offices in restored Victorian mills in Manchester and the magic of Harry Potter , with its appeal to children around the world, is set in gothic and suburban England.

So how can these emotions and associations fit into the prosaic English planning system? The Thames Landscape Strategy (Hampton to Kew) was an attempt to understand the ideas which make people feel strongly about the river and to gather the concepts and images into an agreement for how the place should continue to change in the future. The Strategy was based on three years of consultation with local groups, planning authorities and central government agencies. The project combined a study of the local history and nature conservation with an assessment of the current landscape and its contemporary use. Over 200 groups were actively involved in the study, contributing ideas, information and a passion for the place. Members of local and central government as well as amenity societies gave very generous amounts of time and energy to the study. Policies and projects for the river landscape were raised and discussed by all those involved. It was a strategy which drew together the local knowledge and enthusiasm to agree a common way forward. The landscape which had inspired the indignation meetings when the riverside was threatened in 1900 is still able to raise the local interest and energy to come up with a vision for its future a century later. This time though, the energy is raised by optimism for the future rather than by any single threat or outrage.

It is interesting to note how the Strategy began. Rather than as a big idea conceived by government, the Strategy emerged as a small part of the 1991 Thames Connections exhibition which set out to draw attention to the value and plight of the river in London. Most of the exhibitors were building architects, but a small part of the exhibition was set aside for a landscape architect. The landscape exhibit showed how the historic vistas and sightlines along this part of the Thames had determined the layout of the towns, parks and open space in the area. The exhibit showed not only how these views could be restored, but also how they could inspire new vistas and connections. The exhibit happened to catch the eye of some riverside residents, captured the local imagination and grew from there.

One of the key things about place is time. The layers of lives lived and remembered turn location into place. It took time to create; it takes time to understand; and policies for the management and continuing evolution of a place deserve a sensible span of time to take effect. The Thames Landscape Strategy has drawn up policies and projects for the next hundred years. A century is a round cultural concept. It is the period it takes native trees to reach maturity. And it is a time span which allows for buildings to reach the end of their economic life and for past mistakes to be demolished and replaced by more imaginative developments. It also puts the city and the landscape in a proper perspective – places which look through generations, elections and environmental change. The linking of long-term policies and immediate projects in one thought process and document has the advantage of a broad guiding vision relating directly to things happening on the ground.

With such ambitious aims and so many different groups to embrace, a co-ordinator for the Strategy has been essential. Donna Clack has steered the project through its first six years. She has managed to keep national agencies, local authorities and local amenity societies involved and feeling as though the Strategy is alive, relevant and responding to their needs. She has also succeeded in raising funds for the project, so that over 60 per cent of the support comes from private sources. There is a new interest in the river and its future – a sense that it belongs to the local people and that their voice can actually make a difference to the way that it is managed and developed. There is inevitably frustration that some projects are not happening fast enough. There are conflicts between the desire for development and the need to conserve open space. There is friction between those who would like to see historic landscape features restored and those who would prefer a new urban wilderness. But the main thing is that people are looking hard at their surroundings, arguing about them and feeling involved in their future. The value of the place has been acknowledged and the understanding of the character has been explored. Local people are participating in the planning process and central government is responding by calling in controversial schemes for adjudication.

Inspired by the agreements on the Thames from Hampton to Kew, local amenity societies on the next 18 kilometres downstream, Kew to Chelsea, have banded together as the West London River Group to persuade government to fund a similar study for their part of the Thames. The economic boom and the pressure for riverside development has led to much discussion about how London should evolve around its river. The sites of redundant waterworks, gasworks and playing fields are targeted as brownfield sites ripe for urban renewal. However these areas of open land are also part of the rhythm of waterfront towns and intervening green space which characterize the form of the landscape and communities through the West London Thames. A Thames Strategy should be able to integrate these issues into a fuller context, crossing local authority boundaries and local interests, and reaching some consensus ahead of site by site indignation – before the bulldozers move in, the trees come down and the outrage erupts.

The Thames Landscape Strategy has sometimes been dismissed as a one-off – a plan for an Arcadian idyll of international significance. What about the less glamorous landscapes and the inner city? Does this approach have any relevance for them? The south bank of the Thames in Southwark around London Bridge is as gritty and inner urban as Richmond and Kew are pastoral and suburban. The English Heritage study for the Borough at London Bridge has however succeeded on similar principles to the Thames Landscape Strategy. The extent and time span of the study has been less ambitious, but the approach of involving the local people, understanding the character of the area and agreeing a long term plan based on the public spaces and movement has been accepted.

The Borough at London Bridge is one of the oldest areas of London. There are some fine buildings, such as Southwark Cathedral, but the real magic of the area lies in its rough, utilitarian history as the victualling, entertainment and red light district of the capital, safely across the water from the financial propriety of the City. The ancient market and cathedral still lie at the heart of the area, supported by a beleaguered but long-established community. Impressions of the place hover between images of Blade Runner filmsets and Chaucer’s inns, Shakespeare’s Globe and Dickens’ prison. Areas of dereliction and much-loved Victorian public housing sit beside new developments such as Vinopolis and the Bankside power station, transformed into Tate Modern. Proposals for the Greater London Authority Building, the largest teaching hospital in Europe, a new Thameslink rail viaduct and the much-needed improvement of London Bridge Station will accelerate radical change.

Southwark Borough Council, anxious to bring regeneration to the deprived area, has shunned grand masterplans which could slow and hamper investment. Now suddenly, after more than 20 years of inactivity, development is scrambling into the area. The question has been how to guide regeneration to respond to the special character of the Borough. Uncontrolled development of glass and chrome blocks, typical of any other booming city around the world, could disinfect the place of its particular identity and leave the area bland and out-of-date in a decade or so. Regeneration needs to last and the special character of a place – in its community and stories as well as its physical fabric – can keep an area alive and attractive beyond the first burst of investment.

The shape and character of the Borough at London Bridge have been determined by trade, movement and improvisation. It is still a place of movement, located at one of the main commuter cross-roads and public transport interchanges in the capital. Following an intense period of consultation with key players – from the Cathedral and the Market to the local community groups and central government – it was agreed that the area should be planned around its public spaces and the flow of movement between them. The brief for individual buildings can be set in relation to the spaces they help to form. This is not a grand masterplan, but it does give a coherence to the city from the point of view of those who use it. The public are still able to influence their realm and the process of involvement is locked into the system. The rail viaduct in particular is stimulating much indignation. This kind of targeted vigilance will always have a critical role. There is however the possibility for the integration of local feeling, concern and pride into the planning of the place so that future developments can fit a pattern which has broad agreement.

So how do you tap the energy of indignation early enough to prevent outrage? Who do you consult and how? Many methods of community consultation have evolved. ‘Planning for real’ techniques are great at drawing in a broad range of the public off the street to plot what should happen to their patch in a direct and visual way. At the other end of the spectrum, focus groups can concentrate detailed discussions on particular issues. The internet also opens excellent possibilities for new kinds of consultation and interaction. Each technique has its strengths and ability to reach another group of the people whose environment is being affected.

Consultation takes time and skill if it is really to reach and reflect what the community is thinking. It is also expensive. The method used for the Thames Landscape Strategy and the Borough at London Bridge studies has been to talk to the key players first and then consult more and more widely as each person recommends several others for consultation. Key players include community leaders, amenity societies, central government agencies, key landowners, key investors and local authority members and officers. Each person or body has a slightly different understanding of the situation and different priorities for the future.

The important thing is to go to see each representative individually before any big meetings are arranged. Discussions should be wide-ranging and explore the special character of the place, regardless of what plans may be afoot. The memories and associations – good and bad – between the person and the place need to be understood before going on to discuss what should happen next. The complexity of the sense of place will gradually emerge. Often descriptions of the character will be fairly similar, although reactions to that character can be diametrically opposed. This kind of personal interview is the best way to get to know a place and to understand what it evokes in the people who live and work there. It also gets people thinking and involved before any kind of report is produced or any proposals are put forward. When plans are sprung fully formed on a community, it destroys the sense of belonging and being a part of the continuing evolution of a place.

Historic research can also reveal a great deal. Maps and paintings show how an area has evolved. Written descriptions can give a good insight into how people have reacted to the place before and how current impressions have been formed. Gradually a sense of the place will emerge and it will probably change and deepen, the more people are consulted and take time to look and consider what they think. One meeting is not enough. It is important to go back after the first exploration to talk about reactions from other people and to start forming suggestions for the way forward. When one finally starts to reach conclusions, any report should be circulated in draft and comments absorbed or acknowledged. The final document should then come as no surprise and simply act as the confirmation of the long series of discussions. It should also leave room for evolution as the place continues to change.

This kind of consultation relies on someone who has the time to visit all the key players and gradually combine and inform the results of the discussions. Interviews need to be sufficiently intimate and personal to pick up all the nuances of the place. The process is not formulaic and cannot be sub-contracted to lots of different people to save time. Each consultation informs the next and each issue tends to cross over into others. At London Bridge, for example, concerns over servicing Borough Market relate to the functioning of the Cathedral, traffic flows over London Bridge, pedestrian flows from the station, noise levels in surrounding housing, Council paving policies and so on and so on. All the ideas need to coalesce in one coherent series of discussions, leading to imaginative and locally focused proposals.

This sort of approach is perhaps a little too free-form for the traditional statutory system. It is however well suited to Supplementary Planning Guidance. The Thames Landscape Strategy could never have happened as a standard part of the statutory process, without being adopted as SPG first. It needed the freedom of standing aside from the system to come up with new ideas and approaches. Without the further filter of being incorporated into the statutory apparatus through Unitary Development Plan Reviews, local authorities could never have been as relaxed in considering fresh policies. Agreeing contentious cross-borough policies straight into the legislation would have been impossible. The ad hoc nature of this kind of consultation would also not have been acceptable without the secondary layer of full statutory consultation at a later stage. As it was though, discussion was able to range freely through government bodies and amenity societies without the fear that some irrevocable policy issue was at stake. By the time it came to formulating the final policy wordings, thinking had advanced to a stage where much more imaginative consensus was possible.

The consultation over the London Eye was masterly. Marks Barfield Architects spent over two years talking to everyone involved. The husband and wife team went to see each person individually. The idea for a Millennium Wheel had been their own inspiration from the start. Initial reactions to the concept of a ferris wheel opposite the Houses of Parliament were hostile, but with persistent and respectful consultation Marks Barfield managed to turn government and public opinion around and to convince British Airways to pay for the scheme. The London Eye is now one of the most popular of the Millennium initiatives and cities around the world are eager to copy the idea.

Indignation is one of the great safety checks provided by democracy. The Thames Landscape Strategy, London Eye and Borough at London Bridge studies manage to incorporate many of the ideas and passions into an agreement before they erupt in indignation, but it is not always possible. The very nature of these studies makes it hard to set down a template for the future. People and places being what they are, it is probably unwise to attempt a ‘how-to’ solution. Perhaps the closest one can get is to set down three main principles which might help:

1. Understanding of place Place is the merging of lives into land. The way a town or house or corner of land is remembered; the ideas and emotions it stimulates; the identities and associations it carries – these are what make place. The personal and passionate nature of these associations fuel the energy of indignation. The most essential part of understanding place is learning how to listen and really being interested in what you hear. Anecdotal stories will often carry the same significance as archaeological evidence in local minds. The trick is to discover where the stories overlap and where there is agreement on what gives the place its character. The local rookery may have more bearing on the perceived character than the particular style of Georgian sash windows. That is not to say that one has intrinsically more importance than the other, just that the rooks may impinge more consciously and directly on the lives of the inhabitants. Historical research, nature conservation assessment and the pattern of contemporary life will all contribute to the picture. The eighteenth-century concept of the animated prospect is still completely relevant. It is not just the scene one has to grasp – it is the life and movement which animate it. The public spaces and the way people move between them is the key to urban design.

2. Understanding of change The social and economic factors which continue to shape and change place need to be equally understood. How people live and where they are employed continue to be integral to the process. The forces of change can only be guided if the forces themselves are properly understood. Decisions about what to keep and what to replace have to be made in the context of what comes next. Priorities for conservation need to be set on a national and international level as well on the basis of local distinctiveness. It is the same with nature conservation as with architectural history. Sites of Special Scientific Interest are weighed against the setting of Grade I listed buildings and against regional employment and transport targets. If the need for change is fairly argued and the impact on the local identity and place fully understood, it may be possible to side-step the no-change:sweep-it-all-away tug of war. The discussion could shift into the realm of how the change can best be accommodated in the cherished and complicated pattern we carry with us.

3. Stewardship as part of continuing evolution The final principle is to do with the management of place. Over the past few decades, ‘preservation’ has been replaced by ‘conservation’ as an acceptable term for saving for the future. More recently ‘stewardship’ has emerged as an even more appropriate concept. Stewardship manages to convey the idea of caring for our surroundings to enable them to survive for succeeding generations. Stewardship can apply to land and water as well as to buildings and communities. Agreement needs to be reached not only on what to take forward but also how to do it. Place is not static; it continues to change. Agreement on stewardship may be the way to smooth the process of change while respecting the resonance of place. If this can find a place in a more responsive planning system it may be the channel for the energy of indignation in the future.

Kim Wilkie vi.00