I saw a notice by the entrance to my lovely local park the other day, announcing, slightly ominously, ‘Your park is changing…’ Reading on, I learnt that the car park, children’s play area and some other facilities were relocating. I wanted to know more – but could I find any details of these changes and the impact they might have? I could not. Nothing on the council website, or on the websites of any of the consultants whose logos appeared on the notice.
The only community engagement opportunity turned out to be a little exhibition in the play area one afternoon. The drawings were unfortunately displayed at an illegibly small scale, and the solitary member of the design team on hand to answer questions was swamped. I didn’t get to speak to her so I left none the wiser.
‘Your park is changing…’ How I longed to take a marker pen to the sign and add, ‘whether you like it or not’. This is the wrong tone for a consultation. It prohibits dialogue, and shuts out local input and ideas. It has ‘decision made’ stamped across it. Why should park users bother to find out more or respond, when it’s clear they will have no influence?
In a recent survey of thirteen new public realm projects in London, not a single one had involved any meaningful community engagement (1). What little contact the researchers found, they considered ‘minimal and tokenistic’: tick box exercises, in other words. This isn’t consulting local communities – it’s insulting them. Is it any wonder that people become disengaged and cynical?
There are designers who feel that the ordinary people who will be the end users lack
the knowledge to be worthy participants in the design process. Their tastes are too
conservative, they don’t understand design, their vision is narrow and parochial. Another school of thought views community engagement as an exercise in generating support for a project from the start to reduce the likelihood of planning objections and delays. Again, no scope for meaningful input – just sell the idea to the locals early so they don’t complain later.
Community engagement and user experience design
I’m writing a book for landscape designers about consultation and engagement on public realm projects. Currently I’m researching how designers in other fields learn about user needs – through usability testing in product design, and user experience (UX) research for online and technological products and services.
The art and science of designing for maximum user happiness has evolved to a highly advanced degree in these areas and the landscape sector could learn a lot. New products undergo lengthy and rigorous processes of focus groups, market research, prototyping, testing, refining designs, more testing and more refining until all possible improvements have been made. Then, and only then, is the product launched.
The makers of something as ephemeral as a website or app pay serious attention to user satisfaction. Yet a design for a public space, with the long term capacity to enrich or blight the lives of countless people and surrounding environs, can be implemented without any contact with the people who will use it.
Is it conceivable for community engagement in spatial design projects to move closer to the UX model of refining and re-testing designs, until both designers and end users are completely happy?
1. M. Carmona and F. Wunderlich, Capital spaces.
A version of this article appeared as ‘Working together’ in the September 2016 edition of Pro Landscaper magazine.