Some of the touchpoints of participative democracy need a bit of work
The primary interface between the UK’s planning system and the people and places it serves is a piece of A4 paper tied to a lamppost in the rain. OK, not always rain. But rain often enough.
The paper is a public notice describing a planning application for some kind of ‘development’ somewhere in the vicinity. If it’s a significant development, and very close to your property, you may also get a letter in the post. However, this bit of A4 paper, via the local council, is essentially the only attempt to communicate how a neighbourhood may be about to change.
For something as fundamental as this — how your actual, physical neighbourhood may change — it seems little more than a token gesture. There could be few more important urban interactions, potentially; and yet this is our best attempt to garnering your attention, your input. You’re supposed to read it and get in touch if you want to discuss the development. Implicitly, that means if you want to object to the development, and as such, It’s an interface largely geared around a negative impulses (the opposite of Brickstarter’s starting point) Given that, the more conspiratorial amongst you will suggest that a token gesture is the point.
The paper notices are ubiquitous, tied at eye level in well-trafficked places. Yet they are also effectively invisible, largely ignored by all and sundry. They are the lonely, silent messengers of a planning system that is also effectively invisible, at least until you happen to be caught on the wrong side of it, or are trying to get something through it. Yet is still supposed to be the primary way that we engage with collectively shaping our cities.
If one did notice the notice, you’d find language which is often alarmist—Camden lead with HOW DOES THIS AFFECT YOU?, which immediately gets the conversation off on the wrong foot. “How does WHAT affect me? … Something’s going to affect me?!”)—or else, the language is largely impenetrable. Or the detail is insufficient; there are never any drawings, photos or models (presumably not allowed within the current legislation.)
For the last year, I’ve been collecting examples of planning notices in the wild, most of them collated into the accompanying video. Making a video is clearly an absurd thing to do, but somehow it felt appropriate.
I seem to be the only person even looking at the notices, never mind filming them. I’ve begun to feel almost sorry for them; at least, as much as one can for a bit of paper. The lucky notices get laminated; most fade or disintegrate over time, eroded by weather and lack of attention, before slipping down to the pavement, where their final audience can only be dogs, foxes, rats.
The video captures the variety of notices — a largely unnecessary variety, it must be said, given the inherent consistency of the regulation — and the environments they’re in. Mostly London, Manchester, Newcastle. Mostly lampposts. Sometimes tied to notices about picking up dog waste.
What it can’t really show is the subject of the notices, which range from the introduction of sliding doors to a major, multi-storey housing development. But it’s the same piece of paper, posted up in the same numbers, either way. Here’s a set of photos.
(Aside: the soundtrack is Philip Glass’s ‘String Quartet №3 (Mishima): VI. Mishima/Closing’, performed by Kronos Quartet. It had the right plaintive quality. Hopefully the rights holders will understand the context and spirit it’s being used in; either way, it’s from ’Kronos Quartet Performs Philip Glass’ (Nonesuch, 1995) and you should buy a copy.)
The notices seem forlorn emblems of a system that is now completely out of kilter with contemporary cultures, whether business, community or civic. These pieces of paper are the physical suggestion of opaque processes, paper-based interactions, lengthy delays, bureaucratic obfuscation, unclear strategies, community-led NIMBYism as much as developer-led circumvention, and more besides. Perhaps this implied negative weight is one reason why people subconsciously ignore them. To coin a phrase, they are the matter that signifies the dark matter of the planning system.
Yet it is just as likely that the peripheral vision registers them as adverts or missing cat posters as much as anything, and filters out accordingly. To hope that people will simply notice the notice seems lazy and irresponsible, given the numerous communication options available to us. Our planning systems do little to reflect an age in which many people (in this country) are almost constantly connected; increasingly using social media to interact around about shared concerns, increasingly around complex aggregations of urban issues.
The connected street is laden with alternative possibilities for such communications. Various networked technologies enable the previously mundane sentinels of the street — lampposts, traffic lights, benches, sensor boxes, building facades, bus-stops, bike racks, signage — to become more active interfaces for conversations and interactions, for data and augmented projections of what might be. Here is a space where the Internet of Things might genuinely thrive. Here is a possibility of a new, interactive form of street furniture, in the grand tradition of David Mellor, Kinneir and Calvert and Design Research Unit, yet reimagined for the networked age, by marrying interaction design with architecture, industrial design with urban planning, code with urbanism. Token gestures become gestural tokens. A more holistic approach wouldn’t necessarily mean completely relegating paper, or relying solely on smartphones, but would involve numerous touchpoints orchestrated to coherently work together, whether e-ink, sensors, augmented reality or equivalent. And yes, probably paper at some point too.
For it’s not the materiality of paper that’s an issue. Just as the planning notice was intended to stand for the unseen mechanics of the planning system, the notice now evidently also betrays a lack of thought, care and investment from those responsible for the planning system. These ignored bits of paper represent the state of planning, as a practice and service, as much as anything else, the lack of institutional interest in designing a system that actually works for today and tomorrow.
Planning is far more than simply communicating decision-points. It involves complex trade-offs, from carbon to economic development to heritage and cultural identity, never mind the small matter of local politics. It involves long-term decisions, with hard material outcomes. These are things that are not exactly easy to convey at a glance in the street, or via a ‘Like’ button. They do not just submit to idle design fictions of what planning could be. Whilst it would be enjoyable to reimagine the planning notice, redesigning the planning system itself is rather more important*
Yet, given what we now understand about strategy and design, starting with the interactions in the street and working up from there may be the best approach to take.
At this point — when, after all, we can land a probe on a comet in space, and more besides — we can surely do better than our primary interface for engaging our citizens in city-making being a piece of paper tied to a lamppost in the rain.
- Notes: In terms of that broader redesign, the Brickstarter project I co-led at SITRA’s Strategic Design Unit in Helsinki collated a lot of thinking. Finn Williams and David Knight’s Sub-Plan would be obvious precursors, as would the newer approaches of Spacehive et al, as well as alternative models for planning-related discussion, from Chile’s Hybrid Forums to Renew Newcastle to Switzerland’s baugespann. Each of these has physical interaction points as well as digital; each questions the scale of a decision (who needs to know, and who needs to decide and how, what happens in a neighbourhood, a district, a city?) and each explores different ways for decisions to be communicated, developed, discussed, recorded.
- This article, and speaking about this on many public and private contexts in and around London, contributed to a recommendation being made in the ‘Growing London’ 2016 report by the Mayor of London’s Design Advisory Group i.e. “Recommendation 2a. Work with boroughs to pilot a new London standard for Planning Notices, which are more publicly accessible, and visually communicative. This could potentially be aligned with a virtual London planning model (see also recommendation vii a).” and “Recommendation 2b. Use technology to develop research-led models of public engagement that offer a more balanced and representative sample of local opinions, and establish more objective evidence on public attitudes to growth and priorities for new development (for example, through Talk London).”
- It was also picked up by The Guardian’s Oliver Wainwright in this piece on new tech for planning (following this one.)
If you valued this piece, please recommend it — in other words, press ❤ below, so that others may find it too. This article was originally published at cityofsound.com on 14th April 2015.
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