My Castle Gateway Stage Two: Working with issues as tools

My Castle Gateway Flickr albums produced through the Step 2 Challenges events.

By Phil Bixby

Having done a large number of different public events – guided walkabouts in day and night, meetings, photography walks and events with local partners – we frequently get asked “how is this going to affect what actually happens?”

Firstly, the Open draft brief we produced – which drew out the themes from the Step 1 events and spelled out what people felt was important and what they wanted to do in Castle Gateway – has formed part of the briefing of the masterplanners working on the project.

Lastly, we have a number of groups and individuals – you may be one of them – who by now are developing some sort of view of how they might be able to be involved as the project moves forward, and hence be part of making changes on the ground when the time comes.

Inbetween these two, there is a process – Step 2 of My Castle Gateway – which we’re currently inviting you to be involved with, which is taking the issues which came out of the initial community engagement and looking at how they relate to the range of changes which might happen in Castle Gateway. This blog is about that process, and an attempt to show some sort of route from start to finish.

Briefing and Developing the Masterplan: Interconnected loops
In a previous blog we spelled out the difference between briefing and design:- briefing is about what’s important and what you want to do (basically the questions we repeatedly asked during the initial community engagement), and design is the process of giving form to buildings and spaces in order that they provide for those wishes. But the two are not completely separate things – the process of developing the brief and then developing the design is a process of “loops”. An initial design is created, which is then tested against the brief. Rarely will it be a perfect solution, so it loops backwards, being taken apart and reassembled differently, before being tested against the brief again. Where the design challenge is complex – as with a whole chunk of a city – many of these iterations are needed in order to get the best balance of “fit” between wishes and solutions, and to deal with the compromises which are inevitable where the range of wishes includes conflicts. Cars and people, planting and robust urban use, vibrant riversides and flooding.

Designers – architects, town planners, masterplanners – spend years learning about this complex process but for good design there needs to be a bridge between them and the people they work with, and for. Language needs to be shared, with no fog of technical jargon to exclude people. But beyond language there also needs to be a shared currency – what are we dealing with during those discussions about shaping the city? We need a shared understanding of the issues and narratives, which are the real building blocks which help create both the discussion with professionals and ultimately the changes we make to our city.

Take 1 post-it: The journey from a post-it note to the masterplan
Let’s look at an example. How does a Post-It make the journey from being written upon and stuck on a map, to being a changed part of a city?

Okay, here’s one, chosen more or less at random. Someone wants to be able to have picnics in public space. How can we have a conversation with a designer about what that means? Let’s look at the issues.

One of the My Castle Gateway post it notes that mentions picnics

What facilities do people need for picnics?
Do surfaces need to be hard or soft?
Do they want just a patch of ground, or something raised, or a proper picnic table with benches?
Will picnics just be a summer thing or all year? Does it need shade and shelter?
Are we talking day time picnics or in the evening or after dark?
How much space is needed, and how does this relate to the broader environment in which it sits?
Does it want to be secluded or do people want to see other activity?
Will people bring everything they need, or do they want take-away vendors nearby so they can build a picnic on the spot?
Beyond that a variety of management and ownership issues then emerge:
What kind of ownership and management enables pic-nicking?
Does that have to be totally public – owned by the city and open all hours?
Could it be just open during the day to make it easier to keep clean and functional?
Can it be privately-owned, yet available for free public use?

Pull up a few different Post-Its, or – moving on from that, a few of the broader things that people collectively said were important or that they wanted to be able to do – and it becomes clear that a number of issues apply right across them, and these issues become those building blocks we can use when we engage with the designers. Looking just at public space, the main ones are:-
1. Size and layout of space to suit uses
2. Enclosure and boundaries – what’s around the space and how does it serve activity in the space?
3. Materials and structures in the space – how do they accommodate and provide “prompts” for activities such as sitting, gathering?
4. Ownership/management – how does this enable or constrain use, access and freedom for a wider variety of activities in the brief (from pic-nics to music events to political protests)?
5. Time and seasons – how does space respond to seasons and day/night use?
6. Landscaping and trees – how can planting contribute?

There are similar building blocks which relate to other broad areas we need to consider – the headings of Living Well with Water, Movement, Ownership and Values in addition to the matter of Public Space, the first of our Challenges.

Enriching the brief and exploring the issues: My Castle Gateway Challenges Events
So, how are we going about getting these issues to a point where people understand them and can bring this rich understanding of them to the table when conversations with the masterplanners take place? Experience as an architect suggests that people are often almost too ready to move to lines on a piece of paper – a plan, a design solution. The difficult bit is making the brief really rich, and gaining an understanding of not just the “what”, but the “how” of it too – the quality as well as the quantity.
Narrative is a useful tool for this – we tend to include detail and qualitative stuff when we tell a story. So we’ve used storytelling in the “Challenges” workshops – in the case of public space by asking people for a story about how they’d use it in a future Castle Gateway. We then work collaboratively to identify the issues in each story, and then to group them into collections which relate to each other.

We can then use these groupings as a starting point to ask people what activities or interventions they think might usefully highlight or test these issues, or how we can use resources out there – the internet, other parts of our, or other, towns, or experts from elsewhere – to give us knowledge to work with.
The aim of all this is to ensure that as the masterplan takes shape and becomes available for broad consultation in the Step 3 of My Castle Gateway, we’re able to have a proper city-wide conversation about it – knowing what we collectively want from it, understanding some of the conflicts which shape it, and being able to see beyond the lines on the paper to understand the activities which the plan enables, along with the qualities of the spaces which it provides in order to accommodate them. We hope there will be plenty of people who have been involved in this process who will feel they are part of that conversation and are keen to involve others.

Dealing with issues rather than physical details of our surroundings can be tricky – but it gives a framework which is essential to really meet the masterplan on its own level. A good plan is a rich, interconnected thing, full of sometimes-hidden meaning. A good response to also needs to move in and out from the detail of everyday life to the big picture and back again. We’re trying to use the Challenges phase of the My Castle Gateway project to do just that.

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