London must emulate the words of former Bogota mayor Enrique Peñalosa and create a city that is successful for children, and therefore for all people. To get there, however, it needs to allow for creativity and play at a local level via the creation of flexible places, managed with tolerance. But it must start with a root-and-branch ‘reset’ of how the world of property engages with those it designs for.
Those were some of the key messages to emerge from a breakfast talk at NLA last week kicked off by partnerships director at charity ‘A New Direction’ Holly Donagh with research showing strong links between creativity and place. Donagh said that the research included three case studies of projects in Bermondsey, Silvertown, and Boston in the US, all of which demonstrated the long-term benefits of involving and inspiring children. ‘We really feel that with growth in London there’s a lot more that needs to be done’, said Donagh. ‘We didn’t find the perfect case study, if you like – it’s out there, waiting to be built.’
Nicola Bacon, director of the firm which was commissioned to undertake the research, Social Life, said schemes such as that at South Acton with its public art programme helped to bring an old estate to life, with benefits for creativity, communities, and participation. ‘And it’s good for London as well’ she said.
But Uncommon founder Martyn Evans said that it was fundamental that we must stop thinking about this subject as a ‘nice to have’. ‘There seems to be a notion that you only bolt them on if you’re a nice person or if you feel that that’s important’, said Martyn. ‘Because we all know property development is driven by money, and that’s it. I feel we need to turn this discussion into how you connect doing good stuff with making money’. Property development, Evans went on, is to do with bricks and mortar, glass and steel, but the industry needs to better attend to the needs of young people and work together, ending the ‘combative’ relationships it tends to have with local authorities over things like Section 106 negotiations and planning applications. ‘I think we should think hard about how we reset those relationships’, he said.
ZCD Architects founder Dinah Bornat agreed that there was a ‘cultural shift’ required, especially in terms of how the house should be viewed less as a commodity and more as part of a community that is going to last, and to which the designer has a duty. This is particularly true of external spaces, which require intensive research about how they are used, and which deserve more emphasis in both design and policy terms. ‘The freedom we need to grant children in residential schemes ‘is not there at the moment’, she said.
How a society treats its young people is a marker of how civilized it is, said Ealing executive director of regeneration and housing, Pat Hayes. And we need to move away from the culture of people in high-vis jackets telling young people what they cannot do in their spaces, to designing them to be used flexibly and managed with tolerance. ‘The development industry has to move on this and the more enlightened ones have’, said Hayes. ‘We’ve got to build a city that works for younger people. Because if it works for them, it tends to vibrant and dynamic.’
David Taylor, Editor, New London Quarterly