Frederik Weissenborn - RIBA

This article forms part of the LGA's Re-thinking local think piece series.

The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated – and in some instances: accelerated – the challenges faced by the built environment in the UK, including: the demise of high streets and town centres; the housing crisis and ongoing homelessness scandal; disparities in access to healthy public realm and the associated call for greater social justice.

These processes in part play out according to their own logics and across divergent timescales. Yet, they converge in local places producing outcomes that have a tangible impact on resident lives and community wellbeing. As we prepare to navigate a potential second wave of COVID-19, understanding why some places work – while others don’t – will be critical to the efforts to build back better after the pandemic.

This blog post explores the importance of local knowledge in the successful production and stewardship of places. Drawing on findings from the Future Place programme, which advances transformational thinking on placebased issues facing local authorities, it homes in on two drivers that make a place – community and character – and argues that these are best marshalled through a plan-led approach implemented through local leadership.

People: Engage local communities in placeshaping visions to develop civic pride

Places should first and foremost serve communities – whether they are local residents, business owners, or faith groups – and it is therefore critical to engage local communities in placeshaping activities through genuine consultation. While it can at times be difficult to engage certain sections of the community, it is important to ensure that as large a part of the community participates in the conversation.

Critically, high streets must once again become places of civic pride.

The Future Place project in Bradford city centre is a good example of that. Bradford Council was looking to update the city plan and were keen to involve the local community – in particular young people; Bradford is home to one of the youngest populations in the country – in the transformation of the city centre.

Recognising the challenge of engaging with young communities, the council worked together with Future Place partners to design tailor-made methods of engagement, co-creation and public communication. This helped positively engage younger people and excited their interest in shaping the future of their city.

When we re-emerge from the pandemic, we must ensure that community engagement is placed at the centre of locally-based placeshaping. Only through genuine engagement with local communities can positive visions for our towns and cities be defined. Working together with professional practitioners – such as engagement experts and architects – local authorities are ideally placed to lead on such endeavours.

Assets: Consider the role existing structures can play when developing future places

COVID-19 will likely accelerate the pivot towards online shopping, and there are now genuine concerns about the viability of the retail-focused model adopted by many high streets and town centres across the UK over the past 20-30 years. While retail will no doubt continue to play a role in the urban mix, we must reconsider the purpose and composition of our town centres.

Critically, high streets must once again become places of civic pride. This isn’t just a question of function (although that has a role to play too): it also is a question of aesthetics. In recent years many cities across the UK have been taken over by chain stores, leading to bland town centres with little to no character – what some have called ‘clone towns’ on account of their identikit looks.

As we reset our model for town centres, we should once again recognise the value of local character in well-functioning town centres. That doesn’t mean succumbing to a nostalgic vision of the past; it means building a bridge between the past and the future which is respectful of local character while at the same time being attuned to opportunities and constraints.

When we re-emerge from the pandemic, we must ensure that community engagement is placed at the centre of locally-based placeshaping.

The placeshaping project that Future Place ran in Great Yarmouth is a great example of how existing assets can be built into a future-oriented placeshaping vision. Putting ‘place’ at the heart of the visioning process, the partners on this project were able to create a vision for Great Yarmouth that a) makes the most of existing heritage and culture, whilst b) securing high quality development, and c) establishing the town as a national centre for excellence in renewable off-shore energy.

Detailed knowledge of local assets and an understanding of how to mobilise them in visions for public realm will be critical to the delivery of successful places moving forward. Given their unique understanding of the built environment and its character, local authorities are ideally placed to help steer these efforts.

Agency: Use local leadership to future-proof places

This blog post is written at a time of sweeping reforms to the planning system, and where there is a clear push for the centralisation of powers. This is worth both acknowledging and responding to here.

There likely are some benefits to a centralisation of powers – an often-made argument is that it leads to clearer, less complicated decision-making processes. However, when it comes to placeshaping, a locally driven, plan-based approach has many benefits.

Local authorities arguably understand local residents, assets and businesses better than anyone else, and are trusted to work on behalf of the local community. These are the voices and elements that must be harnessed in order to create quality local places; the Future Place programme demonstrates this clearly.

As we prepare to redesign our towns and cities for a post-COVID world, it is therefore critical that placeshaping stays local and that local authorities be empowered to deliver locally determined outcomes for local communities.

Even in a world of pandemics and globalised supply chains, the future of place is local.

About the author

Frederik Weissenborn (RIBA) manages the Future Place programme; a partnership between Local Government Association, Local Partnerships, Homes England, Historic England, RIBA and RTPI. He was previously R&D manager with Public Practice.