Alumni breakfast briefing: Place leadership

With years of experience leading regeneration projects across the capital, Andy Donald, now the Chief Executive of LB Redbridge, has learned a lot about what constitutes successful placemaking – and the role local authorities play in this process. On 27 November, he shared his reflections on the theme of place leadership with our Alumni Network, at an event kindly hosted by Tibbalds Planning and Urban Design.

Andy Donald, Chief Executive of LB Redbridge

The problems with ‘placemaking’

“Placemaking”, argues Andy, “is fundamentally broken; we’re using last-century solutions to address this century’s problems.” He attributes this dysfunction to the fuzzy thinking around what good regeneration actually is, and what the differences between placemaking, growth and regeneration are. Although they’re often grouped together, they’re not the same. We need to plan for each of them differently, using different tools.

Andy diagnosed several key problems with traditional approaches to placemaking. Firstly, we’re obsessed with boundaries and red lines, which can mean we often overlook all the interesting placemaking that’s happening on the fringes.

Secondly, we place too much emphasis on grand visions that fixate on the ‘end state’ of a place. London is always in flux: there is no ‘end state’. Practitioners and councillors need to be more comfortable with ambiguity. And LB Redbridge is a prime example of how places can change dramatically in a short period of time.

A decade ago, it was a relatively wealthy suburb of London. Now it faces many of the same challenges and opportunities as the inner London boroughs, such as overcrowding. With a growing Eastern European population, and residents that have relocated from neighbouring LB Newham and LB Tower Hamlets, LB Redbridge is now the fourth most diverse borough in the country.

Thirdly, we’ve forgotten that people make places. We need to create places that encourage interaction because that’s what people enjoy. While buildings and the urban fabric can facilitate this, it’s what happens in a place that really matters.

Setting the tone

Andy remains positive; the current debates about sustainability and the idea of ‘good growth’ put forward in the Mayor’s London Plan, are an opportunity for local authorities to re-think how they approach placemaking. Are councils actually best placed to deliver placemaking? Andy thinks their role should be to set the tone for new development, curating activity and convening conversations around placemaking with communities, planners and developers – rather than acting and behaving as developers themselves.

Whilst it’s true that local authorities are limited by financial and budgetary constraints, the fact that they don’t have to make a profit from development means they can challenge some of the rules and norms that we’ve taken for granted in the past.

In Redbridge, The Spark Ilford is a new Cultural Quarter bringing meanwhile projects by Mercato Metropolitano, SPACE studios and Things Made Public into the Town Hall building and car park for the next five years, whilst longer term plans are developed. Although this means that the council doesn’t know what the Town Hall site will look like in, say, 10 years’ time, councillors have come to accept this uncertainty.

Engagement is critical

The Grenfell Tower tragedy highlighted the catastrophic consequences of local authorities and organisations distancing themselves from the communities they serve. Engaging with communities is key to creating successful places; it leads to better outcomes and helps maintain trust.

Andy stressed that it’s particularly important to talk to people before the planning application goes in, so that local authorities and communities have a shared view of what should be developed. LB Redbridge is currently co-designing several Community Hubs with local people, to ensure that the Hubs provide the opportunities and services that the local community wants and needs.

Since becoming Chief Executive, Andy has been pushing for more community engagement across all council departments, particularly with children and young people. The borough is now working with UNICEF to gain ‘Child Friendly’ status under its Child Friendly Cities & Communities programme. This means committing to putting young people at the centre of decision-making.

Ilford High Road, LB Redbridge

Alumni discussion

In the small group discussion that followed, attendees reflected on their own experiences of working on regeneration and placemaking. Discussion topics included the need to put social value and the wider societal benefits at the heart of new developments, the limits of the cross-subsidy approach to housing delivery, the cyclical nature of London’s housing market, and the ways in which the capital is constantly changing.

Alumni also discussed non-residential spaces and the role of the high street in local economies, noting that there’s been a shift towards encouraging more meanwhile uses, and thinking about sustainability and child-friendliness. While we don’t know exactly what the future holds for local high streets, the fact that they’re spaces where people can interact with each other suggests to Andy that the high street will adapt and survive – particularly if local people are given the opportunity to drive these changes.

This event was part of a series of Future of London Alumni Network events, provided exclusively for our Alumni. Find out more about the network and upcoming events.

Future London Leaders 23 are exploring the future of London’s high streets and markets. Join us for their Proposals for London on 18 March to hear their perspectives of the challenges and fresh ideas for solving them (register here).