Working together

I saw a notice by the entrance to my 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 to be relocated. I wanted to know more – the park is important to me – 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 opportunity to see the plans was a little exhibition in the play area one afternoon; unfortunately the drawings were displayed at an illegible scale, and the solitary member of the design team on hand to answer questions was swamped. So I didn’t get to speak to her and I still know nothing.

‘Your park is changing’. I’m itching to take a marker pen to the sign and add, ‘Whether you like it or not’. This is not the right 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 can have no influence? In a survey of thirteen recent public realm projects in London, not a single one had involved any meaningful community engagement (1). What little contact the researchers found was described as ‘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 aims to generate support for a project from the start to reduce the likelihood of planning objections and delays. Again, no scope for community input – just sell the idea to the locals early so they don’t complain later.

I’m writing a book for landscape designers about consultation and engagement on public
realm projects, and I’m researching how people are consulted in other fields – especially 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 are subjected to 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.

Such serious attention is paid to user satisfaction with something as ephemeral as a
website or app, 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 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 in the September 2016 edition of Pro Landscaper magazine.

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