Tuesday, 1 October 2013

'Issues Now' coffee-time debates | Autumn 2013

'Issues Now' was a series of coffee-time debates hosted at the Black Box, Belfast on Wednesday mornings from September - December 2013. 'Issues Now' highlighted the critical issues in relation to design in the built environment and encouraged debate around these themes.

A Belfast School of Architecture (UU) event.

Emily Smyth (University of Ulster) who organised 'Issues Now' explains that:
"The issues that drive debate and development in the design of the built environment are many and varied. Issues might take place on a world stage and have individual global impact, or they may emerge locally and successionally over time or space, having impact cumulatively. The measure of their ‘criticality’ might be life threatening, environmentally destructive, socially adaptive, lifestyle impacting, economic, poetic, moral, ethical, political, professional, personal."
"A critical awareness of these matters is essential across the design and built environment disciplines in order to understand the contribution each can make to the context of concerns and ideas. This series of debates will introduce the most current preoccupations within the design of the built environment at the scales of the building, city, region and indeed the earth."
The 'Issues Now' series of coffee-time debates presented the multiplicity of views, issues and actions of the professions and campaign organisations working in design and the built environment in Northern Ireland.

Below is a summary of each event by Emily Smith (University of Ulster):

Wednesday 25 September

Series introduction. Issues - why, what, who?
Emily Smyth, Belfast School of Architecture at the University of Ulster

Living Places - 10 principles for urban design and stewardship
James Hennessey, The Paul Hogarth Company

Emily Smyth introduced the series by overviewing issues on the world and local stage today (eg. Iranian nuclear weapons threat and presidential visit to United Nations, Kenyan massacre in a Westfield mall, chemical weapons attack in a Syrian civil war, UK women confessing guilty to drug trafficking in Peru, new Pope’s secular approach, Belfast flags dispute, Labour conference in Brighton, death of Seamus Heaney, WPFG and G8 summit in Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Planning Bill, the economy, and local government reform, Unesco and the Giant’s Causeway). Is it clear what issues currently drive development? Who decides, and through what means is action taken? As an example, the approaches (acceptance, resistance or challenge?) of the different professional disciplines in the design of the built environment were introduced, alongside those of organisations whose remit in the design of the built environment is less direct, but whose actions engage strongly with the public.

The Living Places document is introduced by the Department of the Environment Northern Ireland as the first ever combined urban design and stewardship guide. James Hennessey reviewed its formulation through engagement of ‘authorities’ and agitators’ and the challenge of the resulting guide to be ‘for everyone?’. Stating that there is no such thing as an expert in places (through our use of places, we all become their designers), James offered 10 qualities of good place-making through stewardship. Relating to this interdepartmental, multidisciplinary document relating to the design of the built environment and currently under consultation, how might the evolution of our places be impacted through actions arising due to “Issues Now”?
Further information:

Wednesday 2 October

Ministerial Advisory Group for Architecture and the Built Environment in Northern Ireland (MAG)
Emily Smyth, Member of the MAG

Institution of Civil Engineers
Richard Kirk, Assistant Director ICE Northern Ireland

Architect’s knowledge and critical practice
Saul Golden, Belfast School of Architecture at the University of Ulster.

As a Member of the MAG, Emily Smyth presented 3 core areas of concern and actions currently being taken by the MAG. Excellence in Design Quality is a specific aspiration of Northern Ireland’s Architecture and Design Policy. Not only an aesthetic matter, MAG works for good ‘strategic’ design. Adopting the term offered by the Helsinki Design Lab: design is the glue, design is ‘joined up thinking’. MAG works for Design Quality through Design Review on projects being developed through the Northern Ireland planning system. Following change in procurement practices in Northern Ireland in 2006, procurement has also been a MAG concern since the outset. Perceiving procurement as a key component in the design process, and following a MAG symposium in 2008, MAG has been in conversation with Northern Ireland’s Central Procurement Division. Three recommendations have been jointly agreed: design review (at all key stages of project development) should be mandatory for public projects; design quality should be encouraged through design intelligent PQQ and assessment and requirement for submission for peer-reviewed Awards; and design contests should be facilitated to motivate innovation. Civic Stewardship is a third strand of MAG activity, arising in response to transfer of responsibilities to local government in 2015. No longer a campaigner on behalf of constituents, the councillor’s role will be one of responsibility for their local place. Following a symposium in 2010, MAG has been working with councils to encourage the ‘software’ of successful places without dependence on costly delivery of physical ‘hardware’. Local authorities are encouraged to become ‘citizen place-makers’ according to the Project for Public Spaces’ maxim of ‘Lighter Quicker Cheaper’.
Further information:

Recognising that he was the only one wearing a tie, Richard Kirk introduced the work being undertaken by ICE for Building Information Modelling (BIM). A force behind interdisciplinary working at all stages of design projects andrequired for all government funded projects by 2016, BIM is a means of reducing mono-discipline working and reducing clashes, whilst at the same time enabling design and project opportunities.
Further information:

A Board Member of PLACE and a trained PPS ‘Citizen-Placemaker’, Saul Golden contrasted autonomous architectural practice with the instant reality / hyper-reality interaction offered through QR codes. The architect’s practice is now defined through ‘stone soup’ (Turnbull and Harrison) - where the architect is the traveller, the stone his knowledge, the soup his engagement, his transformative practice, and his enduring legacy. The accepted definition of ‘design quality’ is challenged. The design is not so much of the architect’s hand as the enablement of that design. BIM is offered as a means of opening up the architect’s ‘black box’.

Wednesday 9 October

Landscape Institute Northern Ireland
Pete Mullin, Landscape Institute PolicyOfficer for Northern Ireland

Belfast Healthy Cities
Jonna Monaghan, Health and Wellbeing Manager for Healthy Urban Environments

Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management
Paul Lynas, CIEEM Ireland Section Committee

‘Why not? It’s not controversial. It’s beneficial. It’s simple.’ This seemed to be the thread running through the presentations this morning. Landscape Institute’s Pete Mullin started with the statement that all landscapes matter, they change, and they deserve recognition, management and protection. In fact, theEuropean Landscape Convention adopted by the UK and Irish governments, embraces the process of Landscape Character Assessment as a means for effective planning. So why can’t this simple message be embedded in Northern Ireland policy? To illustrate his concern, Pete presented two cases of invisible boundaries becoming visible. Firstly, policy misfit between adjacent administrative areas, eg. housing pressure within Slieve Gullion AONB - ‘everyone wants to live in an AONB… then it isn’t an AONB anymore’. Secondly, our Peace Walls, which we have requested, designed and embellished. Unlike the previous examples of policy misalignment between adjacent areas, this boundary provides equal poor environments on either side. This is our normal. We even invite tourist voyeurs to enjoy our dysfunctional Belfast, like a recreational tour of a mental asylum. Tying up, Pete asked why are we happy with this normal? All places matter, even mine, even theirs, even Van Morrison's Haypark Avenue (of his birth) as much as his Cypress Avenue (of his song). Pete advocated that if our need for boundaries was re-expressed as a need for connections,they could themselves become arteries of our own wellbeing. This is Green Infrastructure, an alternative name for landscape architecture, a profession of integration rather than boundaries.
Watch the Landscape Institute’s YouTube animation on Green Infrastructure:

The World Health Organisation European Healthy Cities Network, consisting of 100 designated cities, aims to put health and tackling inequalities high on the political agenda of cities. The Healthy Cities approach is not about healthcare provision as such, but about how people’s physical and social living conditions affect their health and wellbeing - about how the city can make us healthy. If health and wellbeing is the aim: what should our places be like? As with Pete, Jonna Monaghan’s concern was that aspirations for health and wellbeing in Northern Ireland’s population should be included in policy for the design of the built environment. It’s not controversial. It’s beneficial. It’s simple. And it creates economic benefit, across sectors. Jonna presented the case for a child friendly city. If a city works for children, it works forfamilies, and the city economy benefits - but Belfast does not always inspire children to interact with its places. Jonna gave examples from her own work in Belfast (eg. KidsSpace on Culture Night) and from other countries, where city authorities actually encourage people, including children, to interact with the city (rather than confined to sterile playgrounds) as a strategy for better places and to improve the city’s economy. What if kids were allowed to do anything they liked? How good could our city places be!
Further information:

Continuing the theme, Paul Lynas recognised that if the city is good for children, it is probably also good for biodiversity -which is key to a successful economy. Paul presented 3 challenges. Firstly, when was the last time you saw a common frog? Our non-awareness is probably not because they’re not there, but because we haven’t been looking: we’ve grown up and have ceased caring; other concerns have reduced our interest. If sections of our biodiversity have declined, it’s not because we have wilfully set out to destroy them, rather that every action we make which doesn’t involve their wellbeing reduces their security - and taking everyone’s lack of concern into account, an accumulation of nibbles at the plate means that ‘soon all the biscuits are gone’. Secondly, Paul gave examples of attempts to build biodiversity where it had previously disappeared (eg. provision of a concrete badger sett). Whilst successful, these examples of artificial habitats seem to not put back quite as much biscuit as would be achieved by fostering their natural habitats integrally as part of our built environment. Thirdly, Paul asked how much it might cost to provide the ambitions of our economy without our natural environment. How much would it cost to provide a tourist attraction equal to the tourist value of our countryside? How much would it cost to build flood management and carbon sequestration equal to that provided by our bogs? It’s cheaper to look after it than to lose it. In conclusion, Paul stated that you can’t disentangle the natural and the built environment. Eating the biscuits is easy. Replacing them (especially if you can’t just go and buy them) is a significant effort.
Further information:

Following on from Paul’s final challenge, Hugh Mulcahey recognised that presenting the business case for development is a core part of design, but is often not integrated into the design process. He considered his position to exist because 'the disciplines don’t do their job'. Each profession is idealistic relating to its design approach , and seldom considers the financial impact on the city of its operation (whether successful, partly successful, or unsuccessful). Hugh presented the case of designs for an environmental city in Saudi Arabia, a country consuming more oil than it produces, and 30% of which is used to make water. 10 years to catastrophe. The environmental city will generate energy and reduce consumption, and also make money for the economy - it will give back more than it takes. It keeps replenishing the biscuits. In budget shortage, Hugh recognises that is a false economy to ‘de-spec’ the design and drop disciplines from the design team. This always increases running costs. Professions must make sure that everyone has a place at the biscuit plate, and that there is integrated effort to consider the longterm financial situation over the capital cost. As a final comment, Hugh remarked that the more democratic a country, the less likely you are to get an holistic approach to development. In UK, the triple bottom line of sustainable development is not integrated into government policy. Projects are assessed according to a 'value for money' agenda, which is an entirely subjective matter.

Wednesday 20 November

Sustainability in the Built Environment
Jim Kitchen, Director of Sustainable NI

Strategy as asset realisation
Hugh Mulcahey, Concerto Strategy Performance and Project Management consultants

National Trust for Northern Ireland
Andrew MacDowell, External Affairs Consultant

Jim Kitchen introduced the Sustainable NI agenda as the specific engagement of NorthernIreland local government authorities in the sustainable design of the builtenvironment. If the global quantity of productive land and sea is linked to the global population, a ‘fair earth share’ is 1.8 global hectare per person. Our Northern Ireland ‘ecological footprint’ is unfairly heavy - somewhere between 4.9ghpp (UK in 2008) and 6.3ghpp (Republic of Ireland). The unfair earth share is a recent phenomenon: since 1960 the estimated number of planets required to sustain humanity has risen from 0.5 to 1.4. That figure is based on average global consumption: if everyone adopted Europeanhabits, three planets would be required to keep us going. Rather than being about economic wealth, thirteen years of working in Africa has led Jim Kitchen to believe that prosperity is about people: all architecture and built environment projects should make it easier for people to live well - and as we’ve only got one planet, living well means treading lightly. However, since the closure of the UK Sustainable Development Commission in 2010, of which Jim Kitchen was the Northern Ireland Director, such principles are no longer to the fore in government. Instead of economic development being undertaken to nourish people’s well-being, built environment developments are causing ‘death by 1000 cuts’ - each one nibbling away at the quality of the environment which sustains and resources us. Nonetheless, Jim Kitchen brought an interesting result of the economic downturn to our attention: far from procurement of sustainable design implicating additional cost, and being not enforceable whilst there is no demand from occupiers: Northern Ireland’s construction companies have successfully tendered for and implemented work in England, to much higher sustainability standards than required in Northern Ireland - demonstrating they can and are willing to apply such principles for economic profit. A fair earth share for economic, environmental and societal prosperity demands this higher regard to sustainability is applied and actioned also in Northern Ireland.

Returning to the series, Hugh Mulcahey commented that whilst his practice is to ‘get things done’ for government, often his advice to his clients stops projects before they get any further off the ground. (Is this development necessary or can the goals be otherwise met; is it in the right location for the long term and piggy-back benefit; can the first stage provide income for subsequent stages? Or don’t proceed.) Professional consultants are often short-sighted and narrow-visioned regarding client projects, by not including the cost of operation arising from both internal and external factors in project design. In fact, whilst there is financial incentive to design teams to expand a brief and increase development size, a building operating at half-empty renders meaningless the BREEAM rating it is designed to achieve. Also, it was never considered that, in addition to cutting journey times, London’s Crossrail will transform population, uses, and economic built development demand of the areas around its stations. In Hugh’s experience, it is the small immature countries who bother to consider sustainable and integrated development through strategic whole-life modelling; such joined-up thinking is usually lacking in developed countries such as the UK. A country with a young population and an unsustainable lifestyle that guzzles a colossal 10.7 global hectares per person, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia uses 50% of the oil it produces for its own consumption and 40% of this to manufacture water from sea water. Saudi’s commitment to sustainable development comes not from a concern for CO2 emissions, but from a real concern for reduction of energy consumption. On commissioning a ‘sustainable city’ to assist it out of certain ‘death in the desert’, the Saudi government expressed surprise at its cost, until financial modelling of its sustainable design measures enabled payback times and figures to be calculated, proving that the proposed 125, 000 population city would actually generate income to cover its cost. At the flick of an energy dependent PowerPoint slide, we were transported to inner city London, and Ken Livingstone’s ‘do whatever you like so long as its carbon neutral’ brief for London’s largest regeneration project at Elephant and Castle. This challenge actually proved too much, until whole-life costing enabled development of a local multi-utility service company to generate and distribute heat, power and water within the regeneration area and remove the financial risk of imported energy at the same time as balancing the sustainability energy agenda.

Andrew MacDowell explained the National Trust agenda as ‘looking after special places for everyone’. Reflecting that everyone has a different ideal of ‘special places’, the approach is to enhance and maintain the ‘special’ in everything; experience suggests this is usually achieved through learning to live lightly with it. Why then, when economic benefit and environmental enhancement can gohand in hand, does our political mindset prioritise economic development that implicates destruction of environmental quality? Secondly, even when aesthetic and operational design is well achieved, why is location generally so ill-considered to thedetriment of the development’s sustainability? And lastly, in light of this summer’s stalling of the Northern Ireland Planning Bill by Environment Minister, Mark H Durkan, due to concerns for its legality following amendments relating to processes for development for economic purposes, why is our government at Stormont challenging his position and seeking to enshrine short term economic primacy in legislation? Relating to the Runkerry Strand Golf Resort planning approval, following the overturn of a Judicial Review brought by the National Trust against the decision, Andrew MacDowell commented that in fact the Giant’s Causeway is Northern Ireland’s longest term economic draw: during the ‘dark days of the Troubles’, tourists who otherwise kept clear of Northern Ireland still ventured to the Giant’s Causeway for a specific trip before returning south of the border for the rest of their vacation. Despite this, the long-term vision is not generally considered by our politicians. Projects (like the now-total-economic-failure Lough Erne Golf Resort) are given full support without consideration of long-term durability of local and regional employment or economic income. Practice appears to eclipse the creation of long-term economic detriment by condonement of short-term economic benefit.

If our progression to inevitable death and detriment is self-inflicted by democracy, and the least democratic countries are the most far-sighted, how are our politicians to be opened up to longer-term thinking? If it is the natural environment that contains, sustains and provisions us, and yet the President of Zambia propounds that the environment is a luxury that only the rich west can afford, what hope is there for fair earth living if this same ‘rich west’ prefers to ignore rather than cherish this luxury? Place-connectivity for both local and global benefit requires not only informed clients and informed professionals, but also informed users. Regarding the conspicuous consumption of the Arab lifestyle in oil-rich countries, the critical requirement is that a ‘walkable lifestyle that treads lightly’ (much like the traditional lifestyle which has functioned successfully for centuries but it now completely alternative to their norm) must have ‘must-have status’. ‘Death in the Desert’ and ‘Death by 1000 cuts’ are not just the beguiling titles of virtual wargames…

Wednesday 27 November

Northern Ireland Environment Link
Stephen McCabe, Policy and Projects Officer, NIEL

Ministerial Advisory Group for Architecture and the Built Environment in Northern Ireland (MAG)
Emily Smyth, Member of the MAG

Institution of Civil Engineers
Richard Kirk, Assistant Director ICE Northern Ireland

Stephen McCabe brought our attention to the increasing juxtaposition of extreme weather events with concentrations of urban populations. Indeed, the chances of such events causing damage to urban infrastructure has doubled; the impact on public health is massive. Observed data over the past 60 years inIreland reveals increasingly wet weather, and Stephen presented examples of the interaction of our atmosphere with our built fabric. St Mark’s Church in Dundela, Belfast, the stone black from accumulated years of soot in our urban atmosphere, was cleaned in 1999. In 2001 it was dirty again; this time green from algae growth on saturated stone. Four weeks after construction of a building in Derrygonnelly (Northern Ireland’s wettest location!), moisture had penetrated to a depth of 5cm; after 6 weeks of wind-driven rain, penetration had increased to 25 cm depth. Beyond the environmental capacity of the surface to dry out in sunshine and wind, the wall remained saturated. A half-metre thickness of stone wall could be saturated in 2 months. The soil of the city and its whole urban population, is also increasingly saturated. The baseline of flood management is infiltration into the soil, which depends on the soil’s wetness before rainfall. This is exacerbated by increased surface-water run-off from increased extent of developed land; parallel decrease of accessible soil area for filtration; deforestation reducing the soil’s absorptive capacity; and river-channel alterations causing waterflow disequilibrium over extensive time, river length and water catchment area. In accumulation, each development action impacting urban hydrology is a pubic health issue: the cost to replace the utility of this ecosystem service is inconceivable.

Returning to the series, Emily Smyth, introduced current discussion between the NorthernIreland Environment Link, the MAG and other organisations, relating to the establishment of a strategy for Northern Ireland’s landscape. Landscape is the term used to encompasselements of the human, built and natural environment, and the processes of interaction between them. Together these create a composition that can be visually, physically and culturally sensed. This ‘landscape’ is in fact our lifestyle. It is our wealth and is valuable to us. It changes continuously depending on its human, built and natural elements, and their interaction -through time, and between scales from very local to regional and beyond. All of it and all parts of it matter to its value, which we can seek to destroy or to enhance, depending on the monofunctional or mulitifunctional nature of our actions. Very approximately: 20% of Northern Ireland is designated for multifunctional ‘landscape’ purposes (but only 60% of this is actually managed multifunctionally); an additional 8% is designated for natural heritage purposes only; and less than 0.5% is additionally designated for built heritage purposes only. A government advisory Land Matters Task Force could champion recognition of the environmental, economic, social and cultural benefit of landscape value to society; seek understanding why landscape value is strong or weak in different places; and seek that all development actions should enhance landscape quality. These objectives could be assisted by comprehensive evaluation of all Northern Ireland landscapes, awareness of the impact of the actions of all government departments on landscape, consistent definition of the term ‘landscape’ in all government documentation and policy, a planning system serving all landscapes rather than focusing on special landscapes, and a durable and economically successful Northern Ireland achieved through nurturing rather than destroying landscape value. This is the basis of a landscape strategy to guide landscape change for enhanced value in all landscape, according to principles of green infrastructure.

Richard Kirk, also returning to the series, transported us to Meghalaya in North-East India, where essential infrastructure connections over deep and wild river chasms are developed from living strangler fig trees; the branches trained to grow over the river as the bridge platform structure, and the roots reinforcing the river banks against flood surges. Requiring maintenance and tending on an annual basis, these development projects cannot be completed in a single human lifetime. The strength and durability of these bridges over hundreds of years requires understanding and nourishing in perpetuity the living processes and natural resources of the ecosystem to be passed on from generation to generation. Returning to Belfast, understanding ‘risk’ (a function of the impact and probability of something happening) is the basis for the Northern Ireland Strategic Flood Map. Developed on the floodplains and confluences of several rivers for the purposes of the linen industry, there is a medium probability (ie. 1:200 years, or a half-percent chance of it happening in any one year) that coastal flooding will overcome most of the city of Belfast. Belfast is at risk now. Surface-water flooding, on the other hand, is something we can alter by our own development actions to avoid unnecessarily increasing that risk. However, given that the infrastructure of our culture is generally underground, awareness in each individual person of the role they play in its successful operation and durability is slow. In stark contrast to the communities of Meghalaya, our society has adopted a dependence on government to ‘do everything for us’. Maybe imposition of water charges might alter perceptions of our role and the impact of each individual’s immediate actions on the longterm success of our infrastructure?
BBC documentary on Meghalaya Living Bridge:
Northern Ireland Strategic Flood Map:

Wednesday 4 December

Belfast School of Architecture
Ciaran Mackel, Architect and Senior Lecturer, University of Ulster

Belfast Healthy Cities
Laura MacDonald, Health Development Officer

Dr Bill Thompson, Architect / philosopher

Ciaran Mackel introduced the proposed Belfast City Masterplan, prepared by Belfast City Council, and currently open for consultation. Following the 2004 vision for Belfast, prepared by Colin Buchanan and Partners, Belfast is recognised as the economic driver for the region: makeBelfast work, and the success of the region will follow. Subsequently a driver for government, it took politicians a long time to recognise that the 2004 plan only took into account a wedge of Belfast centre, from Queen’s University Belfast through the city centre to Titanic Quarter, excluded north, west and east Belfast, and only dealt with lands owned by Belfast City Council. The current proposal adopts the three areas of the wedge as the city’s economic core (titled ‘University’, ‘City Centre’ and ‘Titanic and Harbour’), and specifically details two priority areas to strengthen it physically. It does not, however, make any reference to neighbourhoods or their related issues - such as peace walls or overcoming shatterzones to link to the economic core - without which Ciaran questions how the plan can be about the success of a city, let alone its region. Whilst making no attempt to transform how the city works, the plan succeeds with a two-part investment plan: £10m for ‘strategic projects’ in the economic tripartite wedge, alongside a further £10m for ‘neighbourhood projects’ in surrounding residential areas. The first time that all Belfast City Councillors have agreed on an investment plan for the city, Ciaran suggested that this approach, with six local policy agendas, might actually change the face of the city. However, not in isolation. Firstly, Belfast (just like Venice) boasts a shrinking population, yet there is no plan for growth; no conversation to double its population from 270,000 to 500,000. Secondly, meaningful success to the city of the six strategic areas requires neighbourhood housing and connections within and across them to be addressed. And finally, there are 30.5km of ‘peace walls’ within 30 minutes walk of the city centre blighting 87ha, or one-third, of the city land, but these are not even mentioned (nor by the proposed DOE’s Living Places Urban Design Guide currently undergoing consultation). How can a plan for the city manage not to talk about these matters?
See both 2004 adopted Belfast City Masterplan and 2013 proposed Belfast City Masterplan at:

As secretariat of the global Healthy Cities network, international research carried out for the city of Belfast shows the best economic strategy for a city is: ‘people live here’. Laura MacDonald explained how this has led Belfast Healthy Cities to develop an agenda for better neighbourhoods through healthier neighbourhoods for children: a city which promotes a children-friendly environment attracts families, which support amenities and services, and provide workforce, alongside people who care for their place. Laura also provided evidence that physical activity beings economic benefit, through augmented mental and social development, and increased risk-taking and entrepreneurship. An assessment in England and Wales calculated that cities based on ‘active travel and walkability’ would save the National Health Service £17m in 20 years. In Brooklyn, New York City, traffic reduction of 35% is cited as the reason for its now-prospering retail economy. The city of Kuopio in northern Finland calculated that a ‘walking city’ strategy increased its population from 9000 to 12,000 people. Noting that the best examples come from the car-organised nations of USA, Canada and Australia, Laura suggested that Belfast, the UK’s most traffic-congested city, also pay heed to the benefits of child-friendly active travel measures. Laura’s closing comment was that in Portland, Oregan, the ‘must-have’ ‘skinny latte’ (a global indicator of economic accomplishment), owes some of its success to a new network of ‘must-have’ ‘skinny streets’ through the neighbourhoods of the city - streets which are being reduced in width in order to permit walking or cycling ‘active-travel’ only.

Barely containing his pleasure to be back in Belfast, Dr Bill Thompson, longtime lecturer on the architecture programmes on the University of Ulster, took up the mantle for city design thinking. Starting with the very room in which we were all seated, we were all able to contextualise the Black Box as somewhere tomeet and talk and discuss, and have coffee and cake and the occasional song. But, contextualisation of the social boundaries of any particular location is less facile. Articulating life through making structures and buildings, built environment professionals do not actually engage with city-making unless they also contextualise the social boundaries of their physical renditions. Rather than designing things, the built environment professional articulates a category of things; it is purely symbolic to make buildings for money rather than for social good and the sustainability of humanity. Recognising that problems are not overcome without social dialogue (and referring to his book-under-development, ‘Smile’: an existential primer for social therapy), Bill highlights the fundamental contradictions existing between the body, its social action, the environment within which that occurs, the construct of the dialogue, and the cosmology of all. If the architect’s design thinking is led by social concern, his practice must benefit the longterm and broad-reaching social dialogue of the city - or believe that protolinguistic symbolism is enough. Whilst each architect’s client has particular project objectives, we are all citizens of the city, which has no client; to fulfil our own advantage it is incumbent on us to serve the city’s broad and far-reaching interactive objectives.
View contents and prologue of ‘Smile’ at:

Wednesday 11 December

Michael Corr, Creative Director

Northern Ireland Environment Agency
Mansil Miller, Principal Landscape Architect, NIEA Natural Heritage

Royal Town Planning Institute
Richard Blyth, Head of Policy, RTPI

Carvill Developments
Christopher Carvill, Director

In just over one year, reform of public administration in Northern Ireland will reduce the number of local councils from 26 to eleven, at the same time as aligning them with new responsibilities, such as delivering local development plans. Michael Corr offered a comparison of the potential of Northern Ireland’s new system with his previous experience of the relationship of Design for London, the Greater London Authority and the London borough councils. Design for London achieved the Mayor’s objectives for the city through dynamic collaboration between the planners, the local authorities, and the development teams - catching and steering projects to implement big ideas through influencing a myriad of small steps, and improving design quality through better procurement and constructive design critique. Whilst not all borough councils sought collaboration with Design for London, Michael gave the example of Harrow Borough Council, where closure of a large Kodak site led to a rush of major housingprojects. To assist the design and delivery process, Design for London ran weekly design surgeries with the borough council and planners on the project proposals, were present at every pre-application planning discussion, advised the consultant procurement process, and ran project Design Reviews right through to construction stage. Michael explained that PLACE is currently appointed to take the Living Places Urban Design guidance document to councils for capacity building.

It seems an evolving approach to planning and development in Northern Ireland has over the years successively impacted on the Northern Ireland Executive’s landscape architectural capacity more than other remits. Previously housed in Construction Services alongside architecture and engineering, appreciation of landscape understanding as core to planning practice caused its move (and reduction of services) to Planning Service in 2006. Recognition that Northern Ireland compliance with the European Landscape Convention (legally binding since 2006) is naturally the remit of landscape architecture, alongside streamlining of central planning functions prior to transfer of responsibilities to local government in 2015, led to its relocation this year to NIEA. Possibly this has caused Mansil Miller’s critical concern about the impact of upcoming local government and planning reform. Public awareness of Northern Ireland’s democratic deficit often focuses on democracy at any price, but when the price is the quality of the places in which we live, the top question has got to be: will the new councils have sufficient capacity to undertake their new planning responsibilities which will suddenly becamestatutory and legally required from 1st April 2015? Specifically to facilitate councils in theirlocal development plan-making, NIEA have committed to review Northern Ireland’s Landscape Character Assessment evidence base and landscape quality objectives, to guide strategic green infrastructure design based on ecosystem services and designing with and for natural capital. A conference in January 2014 coordinated by NIEA, Craigavon Borough Council and Landscape Institute willpublicly discuss these issues. Mansil suggested that ‘we don’t need Boris’ in Northern Ireland, we can do it ourselves: the NIEA’s purposefully aspirational upcoming Charter for Northern Ireland’s landscape calls all individuals and organisations to commit to, and to act for, the quality of our own places. Additionally commenting that ‘landscape doesn’t recognise administrative boundaries’, Mansil’s next call is for a National Landscape Strategy to tie in with proposals south of the border.
Changing Landscapes conference, January 2014:
A Landscape Charter for Northern Ireland, launched by Minster for the Environment, Mark H Durkan, January 2014: Make your comments to the Minister via:

Commenting that the series discussion seemed to have progressed ‘beyond design’, Richard Blyth’s key concerns at RTPI relate to achievement of sustainability (not through how a building is built but where it is located); perceptions of architecture (never just about buildings exclusive of the whole city and the spaces between); and need for appreciation of mixed use environments (buildings can house a mix of changing uses and are not stage sets to be disruptively torn down when their use departs). Our society’s inability to facilitate mix in our buildings uses is risking the future of our town centres: if internet shopping causes retail use to decrease, how can we use our towncentres? Do we still need them? Shouldn’t town centres have a multiplicity of uses? In parallel: why are so many of our public services (hospitals, schools - many of which are ‘centres of excellence’) often poorly accessible? Why is location of such services driven by profit rather than on society? RTPI undertook research on the level of governance at which it is best to make decisions: national strategies can only be correlated at Cabinet level, however the implications aren’t apparent until these are pulled together in a place, generally with no resources and insufficient competence. There are 95 national strategies in England alone, each one a different topic - housing, road, rail etc. Why not instead consider an approach where each of 95 areas across England makes its own single integrated strategy?

Once Managing Director of the Carvill Group, with offices in Northern Ireland, Scotland, England and Germany, building 540 homes a year, ranked 18th in UK, and which went into administration in 2011, developer-with-a-mission, Christopher Carvill, started again in his garden shed with Carvill Developments. Christopher’s belief is that development is about people: people support trees, support services, support shops; pleasant environments require density to sustain them, sufficient people within walking distance of any place to make an upward spiralling community. Insufficient density of people causes downward spiral of neighbourhoods to nameless places, economically and environmentally unviable; why permit their creation? Richard Rogers (Urban Task Force 1998) evaluated that a successful community requires 7500 people; has this rule of thumb ever been applied to Northern Ireland planning decisions? Just go to Europe: in Northern Ireland, we need to push for development, not penalise it. Places are multifaceted: when it is easy to identify places that are surviving and thriving, why does our practice and policy prevent other places following suit? Christopher’s experience is that developments which seek to create better places are harangued at every step through increasingly delayed planning processes of six years and more, whereas developments which non-controversially continue the status quo achieve permissions and are delivered on schedule. Initially excited to be on the ‘Living Places’ Steering Group, Christopher couldn’t hide his utter disappointment that a lack of collaboration and shared objectives between Northern Ireland’s government departments tasked with built environment design (except for low density coupled with ease of road transport) meant that what was intended to be a design guide for successful integrated urban places became watered down to become meaningless in decision-making. All who input into the design of places need to be skilled, and places need experts to lead them, yet Northern Ireland has a huge deficit of knowledge: let’s go to Europe and get our own Boris who knows what he’s talking about. Departments will not consider place design unless legislation requires it: Northern Ireland needs carefully designed and diligently applied regulations to enable ideals to be achieved. On the other hand, in 2005 New Zealand Ministry for the Environment published a voluntary urban design protocol with a toolkit on the web (somewhat like Northern Ireland’s Landscape Charter) to which organisations have been actively keen to sign up. Bringing the conversation back to upcoming Northern Ireland government’s local responsibility for planning: places are where you can try things out, where criticality can be applied according tosocial responsibility. We need to carefully select our democratic representatives so that objective expertise is not detrimentally overruled by zealous local councillors.
RogersStirkHarbour+Partners Urban Task Force Information sheet:
Living Places urban design guidance document:
New Zealand Urban Design Protocol:

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