Over the last few weeks Channel 4 has been showing a series of documentaries about a project they set up with the local council (Wakefield) to renovate various areas around Castleford chosen by the local population. Being from the area, this immediately caught my attention when it was advertised on TV and only being busy has stopped me writing about it before now.
Now there are probably issues about how this scheme was devised, how it has been funded etc. But I want to deal what is billed as the central question, can ‘good design’ re-invigorate a run-down town. The idea of designing out social problems is not one that I haven’t come across before, in criminology the idea of designing out crime exists for example. The project is conceived as follows; the funding from various bodies for 8 initial schemes will create a boost that will lead to the regeneration of the whole town.
That the design of things can make a difference I personally am of no doubt of. Just the physical dimensions of any object affect how it can be used. A good design that fulfils the needs of local people will be of more use than a bad one. But no matter how good a design you have it is not isolated from the conditions around it.
The programme also suggests that it is innovative in involving the local community. In each programme there are some sort of community representatives, which although I am unsure how they are selected, I would think that any re-design of public space should include, indeed be the dominant group involved. Generally speaking though, in all the schemes covered, where the architects have listened to and taken up the ideas and needs of the people who are going to use it this has resulted in the best outcomes. Wherever the council takes direct responsibility for anything or tries to push its own agenda it ends up in creating something mediocre or worse. One programme has farce of a town square of benches, trees and paving being replaced by different benches, trees and paving.
Generally speaking it is the minor projects that have a large amount of local involvement that are big successes, and the ones where this involvement is either lacking or taken over by the council or a private company the result is less than satisfactory. But has good design reinvigorated the town economically. I think the answer is no – other factors such as the relocation of the market and a private investment plan are doing that for the town as a whole which are somewhat independent of the programme. But on a local basis around some of the smaller projects (particularly the parks) it has brought a community spirit back through a communal working together and ownership of these projects.