Thought Pieces on the Limits of Design: #15

Reflecting on our position in a contested development site in Deptford, design is inherently political, with new buildings, spaces, infrastructures emerging and affecting the communities they are forced upon.

However the decisions that have manifested themselves spatially are not made by designers or citizens but by legislators, policy makers and the flow of global capital in London. These decisions are not made on sites or neighbourhoods but at the desks of city municipalities and global corporations. 

My experience in Deptford has been that of an architect (designer), facilitator, activist and now ‘planner’ as the community develops a Neighbourhood Plan. It is through the legislation of the 2011 Localism Act that a community of local citizens now wants to reclaim some of the power that affects the decision making on the future of Deptford.

This shift from resistance to planning has arrived following the failure of campaigns and the marginalisation of a community’s voice over the development of their neighbourhood. My personal role has been to articulate an alternative development plan on behalf of local stakeholders. However this proposal has fallen on deaf ears, as adopting changes this late in the process would be prohibitively expensive for the developer and a headache for a Labour council determined to build. Essentially the resistance came too late, as key planning and policy decisions were made in 2007 – before any spatial configurations had been proposed. This incoherent process is consistent with nearly all major development, regeneration or gentrifying schemes across London.

A community’s hopes of power and influence now lies in the hands of the Localism Act, an austerity driven ideology utilising voluntary labour to provide a public service. Despite this there is radical potential waiting to be unlocked; allowing communities the right to build, manage and plan within a defined territory. This is a process where the odds of success are stacked against communities (intentionally so), as voluntary organisations always struggle with work capacity and fatigue, as well as a distinct lack of planning expertise within these neighbourhood forums. Despite this, I am still overwhelmingly optimistic about finding the voice of local communities in key decision-making and the development of a new paradigm in community-driven planning.

The latest involvement of public works is Trade Deptford; a collaborative art project with Deptford Neighbourhood Action (Forum) and Assembly (artist collective). Though the creation of a physical forum and the hosting of public events in this arena, we are beginning to build evidence for new community-driven legislation. Whilst no projects are completely democratic or participatory our project offers a chance for local opinion to become political. Our concern now is to turn this voice into legislation – and to allow the design of our built environment to be political in the future to come.