Design doesn’t matter

‘Design doesn’t matter. Community consultation doesn’t matter. Planning doesn’t matter.’

Well, this wasn’t quite what David Engwicht said during our first live Skyped lecture (from Australia! It was 3am their time, 6pm ours).

What David was questioning was traditional approaches to regeneration: costly masterplan documents which sit on the shelf, community consultation which doesn’t get neighbours to talk to each other, public spaces where the public don’t feel at home.

David Engwicht is an artist, street philosopher, award-winning author and former Place Maker for the City of Wodonga, Victoria. David used this experience during his Talking Cities lecture to explain how some of the most vibrant spaces break design rules, pointing to one of the most popular bars in Melbourne – an empty space with white walls, next to garage, with pallets for seating.

As a designer himself, he recognises that design is incredibly important, but it isn’t until a ‘space’ is used for a purpose other than that for which is it designed that it becomes a ‘place’. Using a park bench as a picnic table, picnic tables as skateboard ramp, or telecoms cabinet as a bench, are all examples of people adapting things to suit their own needs; feeling at home in the space.

When visitors feel at home, they put their feet up on the coffee table and help themselves to beer from the fridge. When people feel at home in public spaces, they feel a sense of ownership and responsibility. But residents now respond as ‘customers’ not ‘citizens’, expecting an authority to do everything: ‘I pay my rates – why don’t they pick up the litter’. Customers demand speed humps to deter lads from doing wheelies at 2am. Citizens speak to the lads and re-open the empty airfield on the edge of town where they can be as noisy as they want. (David has written Mental Speed Humps: the smarter way to tame traffic

In fact, far from feeling that consultation isn’t important, David looked back to previous eras where social rules and expectations formed part of the public psyche, where there was a general responsibility for actions and activities in public spaces. He showed how this extended to the creators of buildings who had an unwritten responsibility to make the outside and the inside work in relation to the public realm and how today’s European public squares still work as places because of this legacy.

David proposed ‘agile planning’ to replace ‘masterplanning’, pointing to the many documents which have taken months or years to compile, by which time circumstances have changed so much that they end up unused on a shelf. He used an analogy from the software industry to show that designing places should be an iterative process: try out temporary and flexible interventions, review the impact and continually make adjustments.