There is a paradox at the heart of urban planning. Property developers, planners and consultants alike talk of the need to “plan for the future” and design schemes which last for generations. This is very good. But this also begs the question, why are the greatest beneficiaries of such developments frequently the last to be consulted.
Last month, I participated in a 24-hour ‘Hackathon’ challenge organised by the British Property Federation’s Futures programme. Eighty young people from across the property sector were split into teams, given the same town centre of Hyde in Tameside, and asked to mastermind a solution to breathe new life into this struggling town. The prize, £100,000 of seed funding to go to the Council to pilot the winning idea, with the money contributed by the Office for Government Property. The winner will be announced this month at MIPIM UK.
The result was twelve proposals for Hyde – each unique, but sharing common themes. It was inspiring to be surrounded by such energy, with genuinely original ideas and concepts constantly flying across the room. Of course, not all ideas are appropriate or deliverable. Perhaps covering the town in kinetic energy flooring and dedicating special lanes for driverless cars would be a stretch. But that really isn’t important. What made this event remarkable was seeing so many young people having the confidence to throw out ideas – good, bad or ugly.
If we are ever to breathe life back into our towns and cities – and let’s be honest, what we’ve attempted to date clearly hasn’t worked, we must give young people the confidence to feel like they are part of the conversation. That responsibility lies with those at the very top. The greatest leaders in the property sector, I believe, will be the ones who have the humility to take counsel from their juniors. And more than just listen, but actually giving them the time and space they need to think creatively and apply their learning.
Too often we see developers and planners scramble to engage ‘young people’. And they do so long after the chance to make any meaningful impact on a project has passed. Talking to the people in communities who would live most of their lives in these schemes is quickly reduced to a statutory tick in the box. What’s more, the brilliant young planners, architects and consultants who I speak with all become quickly dispirited to learn that they will face huge challenges to ever make their own ideas a reality.
The issue is not that we don’t know how to fix our urban centres. University campuses and think tanks across the country are abuzz with students and academics who are rewriting the approach to breathing life into our ailing town centres. And in fact, there have been some tremendous successes in recent years – take the Meatpacking District in New York or Altringham in Greater Manchester. The issue is that senior leaders in the property sector either cannot or will not hear the calls of the young people making them.
To make a real change we must ensure that the young people who stand to be the greatest beneficiaries of the sector’s efforts are at the heart of the planning process. The leaders who recognise this will be ones who reap the greatest reward – and what a reward it can be!