Advice: How to strengthen community consultation for large placemaking projects

To avoid wild rumours flying around, bring the community in early when considering major schemes, and think about how to make consultation more accessible, Ben Kochan finds.

Consultation processes need to be intensive and look at a range of options [Pic Credit: Soundings]
Consultation processes need to be intensive and look at a range of options [Pic Credit: Soundings]

Consultation with the local community is now an integral part of the planning process for local authorities and developers as they bring forward major schemes. However, there are still misunderstandings and conflicts which might have been avoided if the consultation process had started early enough, says Patrick Devlin, partner at urban designers and architects Pollard Thomas Edwards (PTE). Here are five lessons which can help placemakers consult constructively.

Involve the community early
The community needs to be drawn in early during the preparation of a scheme to make local people feel part of the process and that proposals are  not being imposed on them, says Devlin.  "We were called in by a local authority to advise on the extension of a housing estate because wild rumours were flying around about it," he explains. PTE’s first stage was to do some sketches about what the extension might look like and, after a difficult meeting, a constructive dialogue was developed with the local community, he says.

Understand where the community is coming from
Planners and developers need to understand the concerns and interests of the local communities as schemes come forward, says McDiarmaid Lawlor, head of urbanism at design champion Architecture and Design Scotland. "The design of the new scheme is unlikely to be their first concern," he says. "The local community will want to know how the development proposal will impact on their area and local services," he explains. Even if the proposal is for a new standalone settlement, there will still be concerns in surrounding districts, he adds.

Steve McAdam, director at Soundings, a community engagement consultancy, says developers and planners need to respect their local communities, adding that "by listening to them from the outset, they will get huge amounts of local knowledge for free". McAdam also points out that "you cannot hoodwink communities with marketing speak".

Make consultation accessible
James Anderson, head of engagement at architects and urban designers Turley, says developers and planners must be prepared to go out to communities. "That can mean presenting the project at youth centres, schools and churches," he says. "If a site is isolated or closed off, you should invite them in," he suggests. He cites the example of a range of events including a cycle festival in an old market building in Brighton, which developer Cathedral Group held to attract local residents into the site where it is preparing plans for a mixed-use scheme. 

The ice needs to be broken between developer and community, and that can be achieved through the community taking the planners and developers on a tour of the local area or even a joint meal, says Adam Brown, neighbourhood planning advisor at the RTPI’s Planning Aid organisation, which gives planning advice and support to individuals and groups. He emphasises that councils and developers need to present information in a range of forms. "The material should not all be written; videos and graphics are useful," he says.

Facilitate intensive engagement
Once the conversation has started between the community, the developers and the local planning authority, intensive discussions can begin about the schemes and the issues in an area. Different processes can be chosen. These can involve short but intensive planning exercises, such as charrettes that bring together the local community, architects, urban designers and representatives from local authorities and the private sector, says Susan Parham, head of urbanism at the University of Hertfordshire. "Starting from baseline information about the area, which has been jointly agreed by the participants, these sessions then consider different development options," says Parham.  "During the week the designers could go away and draw up indicative plans," she explains. The outcome of the consultations is not binding on the developer but the strength of support from a range of interests has a legitimacy which decision makers find hard to ignore, she adds.

Other processes can take longer. McAdam, who handled consultation on designs for the latest housing scheme on the Chelsea Barracks site in west London, set up a series of working groups involving the local community and the developer’s design team that met over several months exploring a range of issues associated with the site and fed into the masterplanning process.

Secure long-term involvement
McAdam says that as part of consultation processes, a local forum is often set up "which we encourage developers to support throughout the development process, so that it continues to input as the scheme unfolds and even once it is complete". At Chelsea Barracks a historic chapel on the site is being converted into community centre for the area which will be used by residents of the developments and the surrounding area.

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