Alumni Network event: Cultural placemaking

This is a guest post by Scott Bryant, Senior Policy Officer, GLA Housing & Land and FoL Alumni Rep.

Alumni network event - Cultural Placemaking

Our latest Alumni event focused on how we can balance the competing demands on London’s limited land supply to ensure we deliver successful and sustainable places – not just homes. Housing is central to the work of many Future of London graduates and the event, kindly hosted by Overbury plc, attracted a wide range of FoL alumni.

The Greater London Authority’s Lauren Bouillot kicked off the event, setting out the Mayor’s vision for placemaking in the capital. Lauren outlined the importance of supporting, saving and sustaining the capital’s cultural places.

The Mayor’s forthcoming map of cultural assets across the city will enable councils and others to track cultural facilities in their area, identify cold spots, clusters and trends and inform planning decisions. Lauren also highlighted funding that is available to support cultural projects, including through Crowdfund London and Culture Seeds.

Lauren Cox from Peabody then outlined Peabody’s approach to developing a community-led cultural programme in Thamesmead.

Lorraine set out the importance of recognising local distinctiveness, working with an area’s existing cultural assets and local groups – or risk implementing change purely for change’s sake. These themes are explored in Town of Tomorrow: 50 years of Thamesmead.

Akil Scafe-Smith from the RESOLVE Collective set out his organisation’s locally-led, agile approach to responding to local need and addressing social challenges.

Resolve has gained extensive experience in Brixton and Croydon and understand the importance of bridging the gaps between often marginalised groups and communities, and providing a platform for the production of new knowledge and ideas.

Dr Frances Holliss from London Metropolitan University rounded off presentations by providing an overview of some of the issues covered in her recent publication: Beyond Live/Work: the architecture of home-based work.

Frances commented on the resurgence of home-based working, but that approaches to design and planning are currently preventing homes from becoming flexible spaces, which undermines surrounding cultural places and spaces.

A number of themes emerged from the panel discussion that followed. First was how to ensure cultural placemaking efforts are appropriate, complementary and additional.

‘Cultural placemaking’ as a term potentially suggests that there was no ‘place’ to begin with – when it should instead build upon an area’s existing cultural assets. Demolishing existing buildings and replacing them with ones that bear no resemblance to an area’s character does not respect – and effectively tries to reset – an area’s identity.

Successful placemaking therefore requires meaningful engagement with the local community. Consultation can be flawed and does not get under the surface of what a community needs. Community groups can be diverse, and a “one-size-fits-all” approach to developing a cultural programme is therefore not possible.

RESOLVE’s approach in Brixton focused on asking questions and co-designing the solution with the community, rather than simply suggesting options, while Peabody are gathering social and historical records from Thamesmead to understand community interests over time.

Linked to this was the importance of social media. The panel agreed this was a powerful tool to engaging communities but could also be a platform where false or inaccurate information about development proposals are propagated, which is hard to control and has damaging consequences.

A cultural shift is required for all of those involved in development to recognise the importance of cultural places – particularly given that cultural uses may not be the most financially viable option.

The group also discussed meanwhile projects. Such temporary uses may not be suitable for all types of cultural assets but can be a test bed for permanent cultural fixtures. Mapping meanwhile cultural places is challenging, given their transitory nature, but can be valuable in understanding cultural demand.

The discussion highlighted the vital role that cultural placemaking will play in resolving London’s housing crisis successfully. Placemaking needs to be embedded in housing delivery models, drawing on those successful local, national and international examples discussed at the event.

This event was part of FoL’s Alumni Network series. Find out more here.