The ‘Housing Alternatives’ module is a part of the MA Urban Design here at Newcastle University, and one of the initial aspects of the module was to visit Lancaster Cohousing. The scheme is relatively new cohousing project in the North West of England in the village of Halton, near Lancaster. As part of the trip we conducted a community consultation with some of the residents, proposing a new cohousing scheme in the North East. We used their experiences and know how to test our initial designs and ideas to get some valuable feedback. The rest of this post is a reflection on how that process went.
Community consultation is something I have experienced through my work with Sustrans, a sustainable transport charity that has a residential street design project called DIY Streets. Each street design is done cooperatively with the residents and/or local schools and businesses. They are rarely simple, and require a lot of skill to conduct well. A valuable lesson that I learnt working for Sustrans was that a successful project wasnt just about delivering a good design, it was also about facilitating the development of the community we were working with (Ife, 2002). This meant that residents increased their capacity to understand planning and design issues, as well as their confidence to carry out further work collectively in the future. The experience of carrying out the consultation as part of this module in Lancaster was equally as valuable, not least because we were consulting residents who had a greater knowledge of cohousing, but also because we were gaining priceless experience in how to conduct design proposals with a group of residents.
What stood out to me as necessary skills to be effective at community consultation were, an ability to be:
- concise but not choose over complicated language
- Mindful of the residents’ knowledge and experience (not overtly being the ‘expert’)
- Listen well to the feedback the residents gave
- Translate their comments into initial design ideas
- Translate vision with enthusiasm
“Professionals in all manner of disciplines are having to come to terms with the intricacies of consultation and effective community involvement” (RTPI, 2005).
Planners and designers are having to work more closely with communities in order get schemes passed, and it occurs to me that being skilled at leading community consultations is becoming more important due to the amount of ‘planning’ that is being conducted at the grassroots. My experience of working with the Lancaster Cohousing residents as part of this module has gone a long way to increasing my confidence when working with individuals you are potentially designing for. It has also reinforced the point that in order to be a good urban designer one also needs to consider increasing the capacity and participation levels of the client.
Ife, J (2002) Community Development: community-based alternatives in an ages of globalisation
RTPI (2005) Guidelines on Effective Community Involvement and Consultation (online:http://www.rtpi.org.uk/media/6313/Guidlelines-on-effective-community-involvement.pdf)