I talked to James Hennessey, architect at The Paul Hogarth Company about the placemaking his team undertook in Ballymena, to turn around the High Street areas of the town. The approach that James took impressed me on how bold this was for an architect’s firm to embark upon, going far beyond the usual leaflet drop and exhibition of architects drawings in a town hall that can all too often represent public consultation in this sector.
It’s common for an architects or planning practice to have a ‘light touch’ approach to public consultation – in simple terms, seeing a leaflet drop, an open day with some boards in a community hall as ‘consultation’. I do generalise here, but only to ask you why, with Ballymena, you decided to approach it a different way?
A number of reasons lay behind our client’s decision to undergo a more comprehensive consultation process to inform the Ballymena Town Centre Public Realm Strategy. These were namely:
1) Past experience –like most places, the town has experience of consultation processes in the past that had little uptake from the public. Whilst these ‘ticked the box’ in terms of consultation, they meant that the respective projects did not have the impact they should have done.
2) Big issues – it was recognised early in process that to fulfil the objectives of the strategy, some potentially controversial subjects, like the town’s extensive on-street car parking, would need to be addressed. Little faith could be placed on traditional ‘light touch’ consultation methods to adequately provide space for public debate and opinion forming regarding a change to the way in which the town centre operates.
3) Right people – the appointed design team brought a track record of conducting meaningful consultation processes. The local authority client was further supported by the input of an arm’s length government body: DCALNI Ministerial Advisory Group on Architecture and the Built Environment.
What was the response in Ballymena to what you were doing? Not only in terms of ideas for the place, but also response to being asked for their opinion?
The consultation process involved a range of different techniques. These included what could be considered standard approaches, such as information boards, surveys, press releases and stakeholder workshops. Although more familiar in format, great attention was made to content, timing and delivery of these processes. The workshops in particular proved very successful, during which officials, traders, residents and others worked with the design team to reach shared conclusions about the most appropriate town centre interventions.
The consultation process also involved non-standard engagement approaches. A series of outdoor ‘events’ were organised around the town centre including street Olympics, urban farm, duck race and an overnight street makeover, where parking spaces were paved over and landscaped for a day. These were deliberately not advertised in advance, thereby stimulating an instant reaction from the public and creating the context for discussion. Responses were generally positive, with people recognising the potential of new activities in the town centre. However and as intended, events created space for debate, with some people taking the opportunity to articulate their resistance to change.
From the public engagement, what then were your challenges in translating this into a plan that worked for the brief? Or did the engagement change the brief in any way?
These are good questions and critical for those looking to instigate similar processes. To answer them in reverse order, the engagement process most definitely shaped the brief for the public realm. For example, the flexibility of spaces to hold events became an important aspect, as did the need for a balanced approach to car parking provision reflective of the wide range of needs across the town. If the brief hadn’t been refined in response to the consultant process, its integrity would have rightly come into question.
Fully translating the findings of the consultation process into the project did, however, come with challenges. Despite exceptional coverage across the relatively small town centre, individuals and organisations emerged late-on with opposition to change. However, it was found that the evidence base built by a comprehensive process of public engagement helped the project to proceed far more smoothly than it would have done otherwise.
What have you learnt from this process, and taken forward in your practice to other projects?
This project has greatly influenced the approach of our practice to consultation, acting as a marker against which others are measured. It has demonstrated to us and consequently, to others with whom we work, how comprehensive and meaningful consultation makes an impact and can greatly help in achieving project objectives. Admittedly not all clients are prepared to make such a whole hearted commitment to in depth consultation and participatory practices. However for others, Ballymena has encouraged them to go that extra mile.
The process has also generated interest far beyond the humble banks of the River Braid. In May a delegation from Ballymena were invited to present the project to an audience of EU municipalities in Dubrovnik, Croatia. This led to sharing of experiences and ideas, whilst also helping to bolster pride back home in what has been achieved thus far.
James’ approach has brought great results and is a challenge to many of what type of placemaking can be done and by whom. The next post will pose questions to Kevin Logan, Associate Director at Maccreanor Lavington of the very nature of the placemaking definition.