Over the last 25 years, JTP has pioneered co-design, community engagement and collaborative placemaking, but how do these processes actually function and how can they become increasingly relevant? JTP Architectural Assistant, Sigi Whittle, discusses co-design and achieving local support through the lens of his recent participation in the Harrington Community Planning Weekend and his previous work as a member of design collective: Civic Soup.
With recent changes to housing targets, as of December 2022, it has become even more important to, in the words of Michael Gove, “have the support of local communities” when designing and delivering new projects. How though can we as designers best create places and spaces that communities want and need while building trust that they can be delivered to the desired standard? The answer perhaps does not lie in ‘what’ we design but in ‘how’ we design. This question has been my preoccupation since joining the architectural profession and is something I have explored at university, in my work with JTP and in my time as part of Civic Soup, who focus on “inclusive design, engaging with diverse communities to take interest in and ownership of our built environment”.
I have looked at two recent processes to understand how their contrasting yet similar approaches can each be beneficial:
‘Harrington’ is located in South Oxfordshire near the market town of Thame. The site, which is being promoted through the Local Plan process, is being proposed as a new community in which all market-town amenities will be provided alongside around six thousand homes. The development is ambitious in many ways and promises to dedicate more than 50% of the available land to green space. The master-developer Summix brought JTP, along with its community planning methodologies, into the team to engage with stakeholders and the wider community. Early co-design work encouraging local knowledge and creativity was trusted to bring about the Vision for Harrington.
‘The Never-Ending Gansey’ is a piece of public artwork developed by Civic Soup which reflects the varied lives of young Shetlanders through engagement with five primary schools. This engagement was carried out over two weeks and included two different workshops (‘The Never-Ending Jumper’ and ‘The Never-Ending Story’). The work forms part of LOCUS, a new public art trail around Lerwick town centre, commissioned by Shetland Arts on behalf of Living Lerwick. Four artists – Civic Soup, Joseph Ingleby, Kenny Hunter, and David Lemm – were commissioned to create works reflecting the theme “Where we are / Where we’re going / Where we’ve come from”.
Co-design: Why and How?
The idea of co-design is familiar territory but still does not prevail in the arts and architecture. Often due to budgets, time constraints and mistrust, the lengthy process of involving many parties in the design process is avoided. Co-design is a process in which responsibility is shifted away from those who typically make decisions and shared with those who are directly being affected and who are treated as equal collaborators in the design process. This is where its power lies and is where Harrington and ‘The Never-Ending Gansey’ share a core commonality.
Architects, urban-designers and placemakers are well versed in the design process and creating enjoyable places and spaces. Often though, our designs can suffer from a shortage of local knowledge and input leading to a top-down approach which lacks the support of the community. Co-design challenges this and allows designers to act as facilitators and translators. When paired with the art of listening, co-design has the ability not only to improve the quality of our work, but also its credibility amongst the community.
Process and methodology
The role of the ‘workshop’ in co-design is essential as it allows the shift from ‘observer’ to ‘participant’ to take place. Although conversation is essential, workshopping can alter the power dynamic of the design process by centering the participant in the process. This re-balancing allows us to better understand, visualise and communicate thoughts, words and emotions thus ultimately improving design output.
Over decades of pioneering innovative co-design work, JTP has developed tried and tested methodologies which are combined at Community Planning Weekends (aka Charrettes). A number of these were used at Harrington, including the ‘post-it workshop’, ‘walkabouts’ and ‘hands-on planning’. The ‘post-it workshop’ invites participants to write down their problems, dreams and solutions. Each post-it note is collected and read out by a team member, prompting discussion during which participants can comment. The process then moves to ‘hands-on planning’ workshops in which people gather around themed tables to discuss options and draw their solutions alongside team members. Community members from each table then report back the results of their work to a plenary session. A walkabout is also organised in which participants show team members around their communities and describe them in detail, bringing detailed local knowledge and insight into the process. After the workshops are complete, the design team spend the next 72 hours drawing up the vision before reporting it back to participants. The immediacy of this process strengthens the notion that the work and outputs from the workshops are not forgotten or manipulated.
For LOCUS, Civic Soup designed two workshops for the young participants that centred around the Shetlandic tradition of ‘makkin’ (knitting) and a culture of never being ‘hand idle’. Two bespoke workshops were developed for this project - the ‘Never-Ending Jumper’ and the ‘Never-Ending Story’. The first workshop involved abstracting rows of a traditional Fair Isle knitwear by reading into the pattern with a language of geometry defined by a custom-made stencil. The shapes were used to recompose motifs that revealed aspects of the pupils’ lives. Paints were then used to mix associated colours that reminded them of the activity or place represented in their motif. Workshop two collectively considered the relationships between these individual motifs and colours, prompting discussions around place, local life and community. Pupils used this discussion to weave stories that told of their community’s character and values. Civic Soup then returned to Edinburgh and gradually interpreted and designed the output. As this was not so prescriptive as a masterplan the time taken to digest the workshop information was crucial to creating the best work possible.
LOCUS/Civic Soup Workshop
LOCUS/Civic Soup Drawing
Observations: A question of flexibility
Co-design must build in a certain degree of flexibility as it needs to respond to the questions being asked and provide a safe space for exploration by participants. It is in this flexible safe space that the process truly takes place.
JTP’s methodologies provide a framework for the project but allow for very varied output. The workshops themselves are not prescriptive and thus often require team members to act as a rudder – this is particularly true during the ‘hands-on planning’. This can result in spin-off groups and provides the possibility for the participants to determine the progression of the sessions to a certain degree. The time constraint of the Community Planning Weekend process requires the workshops to produce certain outputs, therefore both pushing the workshop forward while potentially creating a dynamic where team members may drive them too heavily.
Contrastingly, Civic Soup tend to front load flexibility through a more bespoke workshop provision. Each commission prompts a completely new workshop process which is developed specifically for the project itself. Once designed though, they run in a much more rigid manner to control output type to a certain extent. This, in my experience allows the team to intervene to a lesser extent during the workshop itself thus affecting the extent to which professional knowledge is shared with participants.
JTP’s methodologies undeniably allow for rich and varied output but utilise an element of repetition in the methodology that is less project and site specific. Conversely, Civic Soup may restrict output too much through highly specific workshops where output is more prescribed. The extent to which team members intervene in work can be viewed differently – when intervention is higher, co-design is perhaps being executed more purely, however, when less intervention takes place, the biases of the team are less imprinted on the output produced. The flexibility of co-design will always create certain complications, but these two tangential methodologies can learn from one another both with regard to process and appropriate usage.
Observations: A question of scale
Co-design allows for a shift in which process equals output in importance, questioning architectural conventions and allowing for a richness that goes beyond the aesthetic. A co-design project is inherently more holistic in nature and means that participants feel heard regardless of scale, discipline or budget.
Harrington and LOCUS differ hugely with regards to these issues which undoubtedly affects to what extent they can engage with co-design. Civic Soup sought to maximise the engagement possible within the budget of the project and therefore perhaps saturated the process’ capabilities. Co-design during the detail design of the project would not have been viable due to the age of the participants and would have done little to ensure that participants were listened to and represented fairly in the final output.
Contrastingly, Harrington is at the beginning of a long and extensive co-design journey. The Community Planning Weekend took place at a stage where the project is still seeking allocation and therefore aimed to produce a body of work more aligned with a ‘Vision’ and manifesto for the project. The scale at which this engagement has taken place allows for many more layers and types of engagement further down the line. Afforded by a larger budget and scope, Harrington will seek to work with individual groups and demographics, while also utilising co-design through the various design stages, from strategic to concept to use. Furthermore, due to the timescales associated with such a large project it is important to allow different generations to participate: many of the people who will eventually live in Harrington are currently still at school or not yet born. The Community Planning Weekend has already helped in allowing people to be better represented but to truly achieve this, Harrington will have to delve deeper. If the original government target of 300,000 new homes a year is to be met, then development will have to take place on a variety of scales from small housing interventions to new towns to high-density urban development. Co-design is a methodology that is helpful across all these scales and project type and therefore should be utilised accordingly and appropriately.
Hands-on planning workshop
Observations: A question of trust
Although co-design’s core aim is to improve output quality it is also an excellent tool for increasing transparency and trust between stakeholders. The participatory nature of the process means that everyone involved shares knowledge and resources. This can be hugely beneficial when working with the community as it can break down walls and demystifies the creative and construction industries.
When unveiling ‘The Never-Ending Gansey’ as part of the LOCUS Art Trail, many commented that none of the commissioned artists were from Shetland: someone wrote “I do wonder if the artist ever set foot in Shetland”. Although all the artists involved had indeed visited Shetland, Civic Soup’s participatory design process gave us agency to design the work despite being from “sooth” (a term used by Shetlanders to describe people from the mainland). The trust levels that co-design built between the public and Civic Soup was reflected in the fact that people took a keen interest once the process had been explained.
Larger projects such as Harrington face this issue on an exaggerated scale and in diverse forms. During the Community Planning Weekend, concerns pertaining to traffic, housing, quality, sustainability and much more arose. A common thread however was a lack of trust that anything discussed and raised during the weekend would be implemented in the final output. By meeting with the community, a relationship of accountability began to be formed as not only did we look to represent their views during the process, but they saw that we were not a detached entity that took no interest, rather we were listening. This was reinforced at the Report Back session where local people could see how their views and ideas had informed the Vision.
The process of co-design is perhaps daunting for many people including other key stakeholders. A level of openness from all participants allows common ground to be found. It is essential to place trust not only in the process itself, but in each other. Co-design acts, perhaps, as a form of promise – an honest conversation in which people gather and pledge themselves to making the best of something.
In a time where the public’s trust in the development industry is low, where governments change their own targets and where the architectural discipline moves towards protecting its core skills, co-design offers us a guiding light. Through my work with Civic Soup and JTP I have seen how co-design, community planning and participation can allow for work to be enriched and diversified. The marriage of professional skills and avid listening allows the community to be heard and engaged with, and not only improves the work produced but strengthens the bond between people regardless of discipline and background. When discussing co-design John Thompson, founder chair of JTP once said: “It is the common ground that our process identifies, rather than the conflict”. This sentiment is surely more important now than ever.