If you were to fly over north Liverpool in a helicopter you wouldn’t see much of significance in a patch of grass and mud in front of a dilapidated terrace, sandwiched between two arterial roads. You might even conclude it would be best got rid of.
Look at the same piece of ground from local people’s point of view, and you’d see something very different. You’d see a summer playscheme that keeps kids out of trouble. You’d see an adult learning project, Rotunda College, which has raised hopes and aspirations for the last 20 years. You’d see an art initiative that will turn the green space into a community park and an organic garden during Liverpool’s Capital of Culture celebrations. Fast forward a few years and it’s hard to predict the future of this scrap of ground. Part of it has been earmarked as the site of a Barratt estate. The Georgian terrace may be refurbished – or may still be peeling and decrepit.
Liverpool Council and its partners in the city’s housing market renewal scheme have great plans for the north of the city. They involve thinking on a grand scale, making strategic decisions about investment and building.
That strategic thinking has to happen. But visiting Rotunda College last week to take part in a short film for the British Urban Regeneration Association conference, it was clear that grand thinking that is not informed by an understanding of what it’s like to live in a place that is being regenerated can bring anything but grand results. Planning and regeneration are difficult and complex – but nowhere near as difficult or complex as trying to live an ordinary life in a place that has fallen under the planners’ shadow.
Helicopter views fail to appreciate the value and meaning of places. They cannot comprehend the hopes and fears, the relationships and networks, associated with them. And without that understanding, planning becomes little more than a sterile exercise in describing and predicting seemingly appropriate land uses.
Planners are not bureaucratic Beelzebubs sent to torture the rest of us, but for those who live in areas blighted by planners’ decisions it can feel like that. It wouldn’t take much to change their reputation: just the thing that so often falls off the agenda, which is to spend time listening to people and discovering what really matters to them.
Julian Dobson, editorial director, New Start Online magazine