Placemaking and heritage

This week I was part of a panel brought together by RSA Brighton and Hove, to talk at its Are we making the most of our heritage assets in the south east? event, held at The Royal Pavilion, Brighton.

The panel was comprised of Gareth Maeer, Head of Research, the Heritage Lottery Fund; Janita Bagshawe, Head of Royal Pavilion and Museums Brighton; Jonathan Schifferes, Associate Director, Public Services and Communities, the RSA; Isilda Almeida-Harvey, Outreach and Learning Officer, East Sussex Record Office at The Keep; and myself.

Questions of the evening were: what will heritage look like in 50 years’ time?; how can we connect our heritage to place-based growth?; how do we leverage heritage assets for the best economic, as well as social, outcomes?; what type of dividend is it reasonable to expect from our heritage assets?; and how will we preserve the long-term future of our assets?

My response to this focused on cultural activities and placemaking, my short speech given below, starting with an introduction to a current placemaking and heritage project of mine, Modern Brighton and Hove map. 

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Modern Brighton and Hove is in its material form a map of architecture of note from the last 100 years in the city. It’s a project that I am working on with Paul Zara from Conran&Partners, fellow RSA Fellow, placemaker Richard Wolfstrome, and Brighton-based architectural photographer, Jim Stephenson.

The double-sided map will feature around 50 buildings from all over the city, from art deco and Modernist of the 30’s to contemporary architecture from this century. It will include images of these buildings, a note on what they are, who the architect was and why the building is considered significant – and significant here does not just mean ‘big’ or ‘obvious’ - and it will have an introduction putting contemporary architecture in architectural context and in the context of the city’s history.

We crowdsourced the longlist of buildings with RIBA members; and gathered a curatorial panel to decide on the final listing. Buildings include anything from residential builds from the 30’s such as Embassy Court and Furze Hill, to the Library, some contentious ones too, such as New England House and Kings West and the Odeon, and the i360, and education and religious builds, from Sussex University to the Reform Synagogue.

But the map is more than its material form. The map is designed to be used as a walking exploration of the city and its heritage built environment through its contemporary architecture.

It will have trails by area and architecture type for people to walk. It will have a public engagement programme running alongside it.

It also tells a different story to the one usually said about Brighton and Hove, that of its more distant Victorian and Regency past. It will include centres of regeneration such as New England House, it will include self-builds and social housing and new builds, and eco houses and the Waste House.

The map then is a heritage activity. And it’s the notion of cultural activity that my response to these questions focuses on.

To be able to know what our heritage of the future will look like, we need to discuss the nature of our past, present and future and our cultural values around this, how they shape what we deem to be heritage. Those were large discussions we had in forming the map, and it’s an aim of the map to generate these questions in those that use it too.

So when I think of heritage, I not only think of building stock, but of cultural activities – and these have a huge part to play in making the city the place that it is, giving it that sense of place that so many are attracted to, and has kept me here for 23 years. Our cultural activities are anything from Pride and Trans Pride and the Children’s Parade to the nudist beach and paddle boarding to the Festival and Fringe, and the numerous community festivals that take place across all the neighbourhoods here, and the city-wide street art gallery.

Heritage can be big and small too. Up the hill from here we have the demolished and replaced Amex buildings. Just further along from them, ‘Rest Awhile On Your Journey’, the orange wavy bench placed at Ashton Rise, in memory of Paul Hooker, who was the Vice Chair of the Tarner Area Partnership, the group specifically dedicated to the needs of the Tarner area. Both big and small, and in equally valid ways, what the Amex and wavy bench heritage represents affects and has affected many thousands of people, economically and socially.

My response to questions on how to work with built heritage as an asset, for social or economic growth, my response is again a cultural one, and in that, using the method of a truly participative placemaking to uncover the meaning of place for people, as well as shape that place with those people too.

Placemaking is both a framework and a hands on tool then for working with place old and new. It addresses not just urban design but the physical, cultural, and social identities that define a place. At its best it’s a collaborative process that joins all stake holders of a place.

Its bespoke too, responding to the heritage and sense of place that is unique to that place.

Placemaking will show you that there is no universal method for working with heritage. It will show you though thousands of examples, of all scales and sites, of all sizes of budgets, from all over the world, that harness creative and community skills and knowledges to work with place and to make it better.

Not all have an economic imperative, and not all should. To have positive social outcomes is valid in its own right. Yet with or without an economic imperative, placemaking – if done properly - can contribute to the health of a place – cultural and community and individual, and as a consequence, an economic benefit too.

Placemaking demands for people not to be satisfied with the first designs that they see; to not be satisfied with ‘anywhere architecture’ that belies the architectural and cultural character of a place; and to demand more by way of consultation than a formal and controlled exercise of CAD images on foam board, on display for certain hours of limited days

It demands that people, get hands on with these issues together, to create and shape the places that people really want to be in, whether that’s to work, play, live or shop in.

Thinking of the situation in the city right now, this city will look very different in five, ten, fifty years’ time. New demands are being made of the heritage assets that we have here and these are pressing to respond to the changing functions we have of the city pertaining to housing, infrastructure, and all types of businesses, as well as the more overarching wellbeing of the city’s residents.

The map is one mechanism for the debate of what the city will look like in the short and long term.