I was asked by Glass-House Community Led Design to join their debate around “To a more Ambitious Place” and the question “is our view of Place too short-sighted?” and was one of their speakers at their Bristol event 11th February 2015 which was written up by Maja Jorgensen in their Blog. As a continuation to that debate I post the following:
I’d like to begin by referring to couple of blogs I wrote a while ago “Sustaining Sustainability” and “Engaging Sustainability” about the need for achieving a broader and long term perspective to project preparation. It is therefore encouraging to hear that in Wales the role of Place Coordinators is to build productive relationships and to help break down the barriers between communities and services. Even though their role isn’t about urban design it’s worth reflecting that we usually get caught up with just the designer’s notion of Place and lose sight of what should be behind Place at a societal level. Moreover, we tend to take for granted the very means by which we connect to Place at an individual level, namely our senses.
Frequently the word Place is used in a coupled or compounded form and connectivity is implied, such as Places of Worship, Workplaces, Dwelling Places and the Market Place. But what makes Place really work on a societal level? For example, a Place of Worship may arise through a movement and a mission (passion for service) and start to enfold a membership, and yet too easily becomes a monument! The very place that was intended to facilitate service becomes an “idle idol” – drawing attention to itself and not the purpose for which they it was built. Without serving a purpose, passion and connecting with people, places cease to function as they were intended. Furthermore, some historic and even modern environments (that we are inclined to cherish) still present physical barriers because we put the fabric of Place before people. But what about the sensory / neurological barriers that people encounter?
I have been taking particular interest in what I refer to as “Design for the Mind” and towards this I recently wrote “Place Working vs Open Plan” in which I sought to make the connection between our sensory needs and the tasks we undertake in the Place of work. I believe that similar observations can be applied to urban realms and other Places albeit with different design solutions.
The work of Dr Jean Ayres and more recently Dr Zoe Mailloux and Dr Winnie Dunn would suggest that we have differing sensory processing needs and respond to physical and social environments in different ways. These needs are significantly influenced by vestibular, proprioception and tactile comfort and activity, the ability to access stimulating sound or cut out extraneous noise and our need to be able to choose locations with different degrees of human presence, outlooks, lighting, smells and even associations with taste. For some these sensory processing needs are known to be more acute than others. It also turns out that our visual field also plays an important part in our memory as with the act of going from place to another tends to wipe our memories; relocation from one place to another tends to be more difficult in older age. Familiar environments tend to support memory and orientation. Positive human presence can also help make us feel secure. We need therefore to take more account of the dynamics that makes us feel stressed, calm, insecure or secure. For many our psychological needs go unnoticed, since many of us learn to “make do” – but at what cost?
I believe that we could be achieving better places, if we paid attention to Service Design principles and really paid attention to people’s physical, sensory and neurological needs – by engaging communities and those who provide inclusive design support.
Steve Maslin RIBA NRAC Consultant
Director of Building User Design
Research Fellow the Schumacher Institute for Sustainable Systems