The Building Site

The Tick-Tock of the New

from an article by Sue Clifford

It has been the curse of our age that we have been seduced more by time than by place. Modernity and 'progress' have been fine smokescreens for those who saw they could profit more by wiping out what had gone before, or for whom the only context was fashion within their own profession. They carried no responsibility for those physically and socially displaced, for the longer term or for sustaining those who would have to make things work. Much of the aftermath has left lost souls and places bleached of meaning, unloved and indistinguishable from anywhere else.

What is it that turns locality into place? Places are not constructed, there is no formula: somewhere becomes a place because its people share knowledge about its stories, can read its subtle cues, understand their significances, they may feel relaxed in its physical forms, find it easy to congregate there, but the point is that ordinary or special, a place holds an accumulation of meanings. Paradoxically, places and their meanings are dynamic, but change is at a scale and pace which encourages understanding. The ability of the city, the town or the village to absorb and reinvent keeps places vital.

In forging the idea of Local Distinctiveness Common Ground has been working on liberation from preoccupation with the beautiful, the rare, the spectacular to help people explore what makes the commonplace particular and to build ways of demonstratively expressing what they value in their everyday lives. We contend this should be an inclusive process, encouraging local people to debate what is important to them as well as luring the experts to appreciate a broader view.

Local distinctiveness is about the conspiracy of nature and culture to intensify variegation and it is about anywhere. It is about detail, patina, authenticity and meaning, the things which create identity. Importantly it focusses on locality (neighbourhood, street, parish), not the city or the region. It is about accumulations and assemblages, about accommodation and change, not about compartmentalisation and preservation. It must include the invisible as well as the physical: symbol, festival, legend, custom, language, recipe, memory may be as important as street and square.

Places then, are not just physical surroundings they are a web of rich understandings between people and nature, peoples and their histories, people and their neighbours.

People understand places and value them because they mean something to them. Little things (detail) and overlapping clues to previous lives and landscapes (patina) may be the very things which breath significance into the streets or fields. Try to define these things from the outside or at a grand scale and the point is lost; better to ensure that local culture has sufficient self knowledge and self esteem to be confident in welcoming new people and new ideas.

The new should be better than the old, that much around us demonstrates the opposite reveals our failure to purposefully interrogate and deploy science, technology, design and development to add to the richness of places. How can we demand the best of the new, ensure that progress gives more people more purchase on their place? And who should be involved?

No matter how great the vision, how accomplished the design, how right the moment, how generous the idea, if those whose lives are to played out here have no ownership, are left with no touchstones, if nature is left with few footholds, how much longer and harder it will be for this to become a place. If fragments of the city and green fields are seen only as sites, and if we are merely left to live, work and play on other people's blueprints, how shall we build a culture of wanting to care? And grand buildings and squares are only part of our story, we must leave room for the unspectacular, the common place, to be allowed to dramatize the four dimensions of our own lives, to be on speaking terms with nature, and be a part of the making of a real democracy.

How do we create the circumstances for people to communicate these richnesses, to create more meaning and to join together to ensure places reinforce their local distinctiveness?

Unhappy with the question 'How can we involve local people?' because it often resolves into simply informing them, Common Ground's founding question is more likely to be - 'How can local people make good use of the professionals'. We turn the frame on its side, and in removing the notion of 'top-down' planning and 'bottom-up' participation, wish to liberate both ends of the people/professional spectrum into potential for equal exchange, to look each other in the eye. Whose locality is this after all? Who knows alot about it? Who lives, works and plays there? Who cares and must continue to care? The answer of course is both.

Planning should be about helping decisions to be made that will add to the quality of the place and the daily lives of people, for if it belongs to them they are more likely to defend it.

There are so many new patterns we could and should be exploring which challenge us to keep on recreating Local Distinctiveness, bringing new particularity, redolent of and useful to our times and sympathetic to this place.