Charles Holland Architects is an international architecture and design studio, producing work that is multi-disciplinary in scope and includes buildings, exhibitions, public art and urban design. In the first part this extensive interview, Charles discusses his views on community involvement in the planning process and his work on the Pioneering Places project at Fort Burgoyne, Dover.
New development often has controversial aspects to it. We get used to the idea of resisting it – maybe it’s not representing our interests or what we want personally from our towns. New housing and new development can be really important – new housing, new schools, new infrastructure. One way to make people more positive about that is to engage people more thoughtfully, recognising that everything has an effect and impact. When we say “no” to new housing we’re also saying no to someone who might want a house.
The planning process is meant to weigh up various objectives and designs of different people – one person’s design for a new roof is another person’s loss of light, but both people may be involved. Adversarial aspects can only be resolved by balancing the interests of different people.
There is something here about trust and we should trust people in certain positions to take informed decisions – and that includes planners. Ultimately they are acting democratically to find the sum of these competing interests.
Development is not something that simply happens to people. People are involved in making decisions for certain reasons – understanding what those dynamics are can be very empowering. Otherwise we’re just railing against ‘dark forces’.
New housing is important and it’s a fact. We have to react to that context – including the emerging context. It’s important for Dover – encouraging people to come and live here is all part of its future.
We have to explore and even enjoy the contradictions of this – a Victorian Military Fort overgrown by trees right next door to a new housing project. We can’t ignore this. We have to work with it. The Fort provides a piece of public realm for the housing that would not be there normally.
Our work has been about how to capture ideas and put them into plans that can then be put into action.
How do community engagement projects like Pioneering Places help support public consultation and engagement?
Planning departments are judging proposals made by people and developers. Decisions can seem pretty opaque. You often hear “I can’t understand why this got approval and another site didn’t”.
Community engagement can unpack those decisions. You can see to some extent why things have evolved into the shape they have done and their relationship to the site. There is an informative aspect to it and these ‘hidden processes’ as to who has acquired a site and why it is being developed in the way that it is.
Can this kind of process pragmatically happen in every instance? Probably not. It’s a messy business that opens up complexity rather than solves it. The more people are asked the more answers they get. The Big Drawing we produced through Pioneering Places is interesting because of this. The Land Trust can see ideas about putting a zoo in Fort Burgoyne, for example, and think ‘blimey!’ It can make it quite messy, but it makes outcomes stronger.
Planners have a tough time. Perhaps the value of the Pioneering Places process to planners is to bring schemes to them that already demonstrate a certain road testing as to who might be happy with such a scheme. The fact we’ve been through a process with a community helps the planning process as we can demonstrate there is a need and an appetite.
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