Hong Kong designers reimagine the city’s pocket parks

In a megacity where public space is scarce, local parks are often called ‘three-cornered shit pits’. Now a group of Hong Kong designers is hoping to make them more inclusive, playful and celebratory of the city itself. Mary Hui reports

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Hong Kong’s pocket parks, like this one in Hill Road, are officially known as ‘sitting-out areas’

Dotted all over Hong Kong are small parks — officially known as “sitting-out areas” or “rest gardens” — etched deep into the urban fabric of this densely packed city. They are often located in the most unassuming of places: under flyovers, tucked between two buildings, squeezed into a leftover parcel of awkwardly shaped space. Together, they fill in the gaps of the urban landscape.

Though they vary in size, the parks are generally quite small. Whereas the typical pocket park in London is between 2,000 and 4,000 square feet, Hong Kong’s average is about 1,000 square feet, according to Susanne Trumpf, an assistant professor of landscape architecture at the University of Hong Kong, and who has studied the city’s pocket parks extensively.

To an older generation of Hong Kongers, these parks also go by a somewhat more explicit name: “three-cornered shit pit”. That’s according to Hoyin Lee, the co-founder and director of the Division of Architectural Conservation Programmes at the University of Hong Kong, and who first heard the phrase from his nonagenarian father.

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Hamilton Street Rest Garden, located in the Yau Tsim Mong district of Hong Kong, the most densely populated neighbourhood in the city

“Three-cornered shit pit” initially referred to public toilets built around the city from the early 20th century onwards, after a plague swept the city in the 1890s. Because the Chinese quarters, where the plague broke out, was by then already quite built up, the government had to make do by squeezing the toilets underground or onto leftover sites that couldn’t be developed because of their small size and awkward configuration — typically a triangular shape — hence the name.

Many of those early public toilets have since been demolished. While there may not be a direct link between the toilets and today’s pocket parks, both are built on small, awkward scraps of land. In fact, as old Chinese-style shophouses known as tong lau were demolished in the city’s post-war building boom, it left behind small interstices in the urban landscape. Now, those interstices are where many pocket parks stand.

Sitting-out areas have become an important urban planning tool for a city that is constantly rebuilding, occupying spaces where old buildings once stood, filling irregular gaps between new complexes, or added to comply with new setback requirements, explains Trumpf.  “The most common case would be with the smaller sitting-out areas in Central which are literally squeezed between two tong laus,” she says, referring to old Chinese-style shophouses. In other cases, a large block of old buildings is knocked down, and with new planning and building guidelines, sitting-out areas have to be added into the mix. In this sense, the sitting-out areas become a little bit like a historical record of what the city was and how it has changed. “In Hong Kong, things get rebuilt so constantly and regularly,” says Trumpf.

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Sun Chui Estate sitting-out area. Image: Creative Commons/Prosperity Horizons

The parks also serve as an important and much-needed breathing space in the hyper-density of the city. Within urban Hong Kong, residents get roughly 30 square feet of open space per person, less than half of what residents in Tokyo, Shanghai, and Singapore get. Of course, this doesn’t take into account the 40% of Hong Kong’s territory that is protected as country parks. But within the city’s urban heart, open space is a scarce resource.

“If you’ve got people in a very closely packed environment, they’ve got to have some space,” says Jason Wordie, a local historian. The sitting-out areas “provide a bit of the social value” and make use of otherwise unpromising areas.

Visitors to these small parks also tend to be older, according to research conducted by Civic Exchange, a local think-tank. This doesn’t surprise Wordie. Densely built areas tend to have more subdivided accommodations, and these in turn tend to have an older, single, male demographic in them. “So if your choice is between sitting in your cubicle in your bunk bed or sitting under a tree, well, then that’s that,” he says.

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Sha Tin Tau Village sitting-out area. Image: Creative Commons/Underwaterbuffalo

The parks are as abundant as they are homogenous. On Hong Kong Island alone, which makes up a mere 7% of the city’s territory, there are some 169 such parks. Managed by the government, they all feature the same set of standardised features and furnishings.

“Uniquely generic, the sitting-out area is the quintessential Hong Kong urban typology,” Trumpf and her co-authors wrote in an academic article in 2017. To Trumpf, the sitting-out areas represent an under-tapped potential for the city to provide a network of public open space.

Now, a group of design professionals are looking to rethink the role and future of Hong Kong’s ubiquitous pocket parks. Working in small teams under the Design Trust Futures Studio program, part of the local NGO Design Trust, they came up with new designs for four pocket parks in different parts of the city. They recently rolled out prototypes, and have been working closely with the city government to build the new parks.

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Conceptual designs for a park under a flyover, by Aron Tsang, Andy Cheng, Jose Fu, and Zoey Chan

The goal, says Marisa Yiu, co-founder and director of Design Trust, is to re-make the parks as a representation of the city’s rich cultural heritage, history, and the diversity of needs and demographics.

“We have such unique neighborhoods,” she says. “Why not utilise something to present the local flavour instead of every park being the same, with the same equipment and the same furniture?”

Over the past year, the design teams conducted extensive research and site analyses to come up with designs that more closely reflect the city’s layered narratives, and that provide inclusive spaces for rest and play.

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The redesign of Portland Street Rest Garden provides more seating, and uses bright pink to revitalise the park

At a somewhat drab and gritty park located directly across a betting station and frequented by horseracing gamblers, the designers noticed a shortage of chairs, with many of the elderly men sitting on or squatting by planters. So they have added bright pink moveable seats and tables.  At another park, located under a flyover, the designers opted to play with vertical height, installing an undulating LED installation and perhaps even climbing nets.

The design teams unveiled their 1:1 prototypes and scaled models at an exhibition in January. Each was completely different and tailored to the geographic, historic,  demographic context of each site –– a marked contrast to the uniform designs of the parks currently. And in March, prototypes were displayed at one of the parks, drawing curious passersby as they tested out the bright pink chairs and tables.

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The playground design for Yi Pei Square adds colourful graphic patterns to the flooring, creating a sort of carpet for children to play on

Although people generally thought that the bright pink colour of the proposed design was positive, there were worries that the use of steel may attract thieves given the material’s higher resell value compared to cement, stone, or recycled plastic. Another prototype, featuring a slide and a tunnel for the Yi Pei Square Playground site, proved very popular with people of all ages, especially young kids because of the sense of discovery that the equipment encouraged.

The Design Trust is now pushing to make the proposed designs a reality over the next 1–2 years. “Our aim is to guide, disrupt, and challenge the question of what public space is and what it can do for the community,” said Yiu. “The parks are a representation of how we respect our space.”

Mary Hui is a freelance reporter based in Hong Kong

 

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How Leith took on property developers – and won

When development plans in the Edinburgh district of Leith threatened to displace locals, the community successfully mobilised. Eve Livingston reports

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Campaigners at 2018’s Leith Gala Day: Photo: Save Leith Walk/Deborah Mullen

When you ask residents of Leith, the waterfront neighbourhood to the north of Edinburgh, to describe their community, there are a few words which come up again and again: family, creativity, diversity, close-knit community. ‘I’ve lived in a few different places in Edinburgh and never felt at home until I came to Leith,’ says 26-year-old charity worker Clara Boeker, originally from Germany.

The neighbourhood might be best known to outsiders as the setting for Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting and The Proclaimers’ hit song-turned-musical Sunshine on Leith, but it has undergone something of a transformation since the early 90s, and its depiction in these cultural milestones. Today, Leith boasts Michelin-starred restaurants and an array of fashionable bars and local businesses – but crucially, it has also managed to retain the working-class community spirit and artistic tradition which have always defined it.

Leith residents have protected their community for years, enjoying the benefits of development while resisting the creep of gentrification. But in early 2018, its delicate balance came under threat when Drum Property Group proposed a £50 million redevelopment project on the iconic Leith Walk, the central road which links the area to central Edinburgh.

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106–154 Leith Walk

Mirroring the contentious expansion of university buildings across Edinburgh itself, the proposal included plans to demolish 106–154 Leith Walk – a 1930s terrace of red sandstone buildings housing a range of local shops and businesses, community hubs and social enterprises – to make way for student accommodation for 532 students and a 56-room hotel, both operated by the University of Edinburgh. The shops and businesses were invited to take the new development’s retail units but at higher rents than they are paying, meaning most would be displaced.

“There were a group of us who had already worked on a right-to-buy community campaign nearby,” says 27-year-old local Frances Hoole. “We were tipped off to a community council meeting where [the redevelopment plan] was being discussed and when we got there, there were just far too many people to fit in – obviously because they all wanted to discuss this particular issue. So a meeting was set up and everything went from there”.

The ‘everything’ to which Hoole refers is the almost year-long community campaign Save Leith Walk, of which she and Boeker are both members. The group’s tactics involved a central petition to stop the demolition; encouraging and equipping community members to lodge planning objections; several community workshops and even a guerilla light projection to raise awareness of the issue.

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A packed-out community meeting. Photo: Save Leith Walk/Deborah Mullen

While the campaign focused on retaining the spirit of Leith and the local importance of the businesses housed in the threatened buildings – the food shop Punjabi Junction, for example, also trains up Sikh and BAME women to help with employability and social exclusion – it has also sought to articulate concerns about a planning system rigged in favour of developers.

“It’s in a conservation area,” points out Hoole. “You have to test what that means at a planning level and in a committee vote. This development would have begun changing the face of Leith Walk. When buildings are maintained by private developers you get rent increases for new businesses. It would have changed who it was for – no more small, local businesses or young musicians renting practice space.”

59-year-old musician Ray Neal became involved in Save Leith Walk because his partner’s business – much-loved local beauty salon Lovella – sits directly opposite the development. Having moved from New Haven, Connecticut, he could immediately spot danger when it emerged the University of Edinburgh would be the development’s single biggest tenant: “Yale University bought the whole city [of New Haven] and threw out all the local shops – it’s like a Disneyland for students,” he says. It’s a view which is supported by research showing that Yale has become New Haven’s largest commercial landlord. “Leith has a certain energy and character, a creative vibe. I was worried about that being lost.”

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Campaigners in front of the community-led vision for Leith Walk. Photo: Save Leith Walk/Deborah Mullen

“I didn’t know a single other person when I turned up,” says Boeker says of her participation in Save Leith Walk, which she describes as her first taste of activism. “A lot of people didn’t. But the meeting was full of all different people – different nationalities, ages, people who’ve lived there forever and people who’d moved in. We always say in the campaign: ‘We’re all Leithers – it doesn’t matter when you arrived or where you came from, we’re all Leith’”.

This diversity and energy set the tone for a community organising campaign which saw artists provide artwork and merchandise, local businesses donate products for auctions, and venues host workshops free of charge; there were at least five musical benefits held in support. Community support even included an anonymous “yarn bomber” whose crocheted protest signs persistently popped up around the area. The campaign also attracted support from Leith heroes Irvine Welsh and The Proclaimers as well as political figures like Jeremy Corbyn and Edinburgh-based Mercury prize-winning band Young Fathers. Ultimately, the community group collected 12,500 signatures on its petition and over 3,000 official online objections to Drum’s plans, totalling 15,800 objections.

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‘Still want to know why is Edinburgh University developing properties instead of minds?’ Photo: Save Leith Walk/Deborah Mullen

In January of this year, the group won. Drum’s planning application was rejected unanimously. “The day of the council meeting was incredible,” says Neal. “Councillors even laid into the arrogance and entitlement of the developers. We were stunned and elated.”

Hoole puts the success of the campaign down to the diversity of tactics utilised, with activists deploying their skills in artwork, street stalls, drafting planning objections and facilitating workshops. “And it was a symbol of a much bigger problem,” she adds. “So many people have felt a lack of agency in their community – they were excited that a group had managed to make their voice heard.”

Campaigners are quick to point out that the fight is still on: the developers still own the property and have a chance to appeal the decision (when approached for a response, Drum said it was considering its options and had no comment). Save Leith Walk’s original petition had the clear – and now, realised – ambition of stopping the demolition and retaining the businesses, but it continues to advocate for any development to be put to community use, and campaigns more broadly for better provision of social housing. But for the activists, everything has changed.

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Staff from local business RS Coachworks in front of a campaign sign. Photo: Save Leith Walk/Deborah Mullen

“I’ve got a family now that I didn’t have a year ago,” says Neal of his fellow campaigners. “And it’s shown the community that their faith in their voice has won out.”

“I think everyone agrees the world sometimes feels messed up,” Boeker agrees. “It’s been great to channel all that energy in a way that feels productive locally and shows people what is possible.”

 

Eve Livingston is a Scotland-based journalist specialising in social affairs, activism and inequalities. You can find her on Twitter or her website 

Preserving public art in a city of earthquakes

Mexico City’s public art is an integral part of the city’s identity and history. But in a country prone to devastating earthquakes, what is the fate of these creative monuments, asks Martha Pskowski – and is meaningful preservation possible?

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Centro SCOP’s vibrant mosaic murals before the 2017 earthquake. Photograph: Thomas Ledl

Mexico City is a bastion of public art in the Americas, with murals, mosaics and monuments lining its most important streets. Yet the city is also highly vulnerable to earthquakes. Currently Mexican historians, artists and architects are contending with a unique predicament: What do you do with historic public art, when an earthquake can bring it tumbling down in a matter of seconds?

When a massive earthquake hit Mexico City in September 1985, roughly 10,000 people died. Alongside this devastating tragedy, hundreds of buildings were also destroyed – among them, some of Guatemalan artist Carlos Mérida’s defining works. 

“I think to some extent it was fortunate that the maestro Mérida died before 1985 and did not see the destruction of the work that he was most proud of,” wrote Alfonso Soto Soria, artist and curator, in his 1988 book on Mérida’s work.

The work he was referring to is the bas-relief figures that once adorned the exteriors of the Benito Juárez housing complex in the Roma Sur neighbourhood of Mexico City. Mérida employed dozens of stoneworkers who chipped and painted Mesoamerican figures out of the housing complex’s concrete slab blocks, designed by architect Mario Pani in the early 1950s. 

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Carlos Mérida’s work on the Mario Pani-designed Benito Juárez housing complex in 1985, before the earthquake that destroyed it. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Mérida was an exemplary proponent of integración plástica, the mid-20th-century artistic movement which sought to merge sculpture, painting and architecture in public works, and brought a distinctively Mexican twist on the otherwise typical modernist apartment blocks. The movement coincided with the Mexican government’s biggest investments in public works and public art, and so has become the most emblematic style of the city – a part of its identity.

32 years to the day after the 1985 disaster, in September 2017, Mexico City was hit by another major earthquake. Hundreds were killed. Again, important buildings and works of public art were damaged. One of these was the Morelos apartment complex, originally completed in the city’s Doctores neighbourhood in 1971.

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A remaining tower of the Morelos apartment complex following the 2017 earthquake. Photograph: Martha Pskowski

At Morelos, architect Guillermo Rossell de la Lama enlisted the Arte en Acción collective, led by muralist and leftist activist José Hernández Delgadillo, to design murals built into the sides of the apartment buildings. After sustaining structural damage during the 2017 earthquake, two buildings in the apartment complex were demolished this year, destroying over 100 apartments as well as the Arte en Acción murals.

Another structure, the Secretariat of Communications and Transportation building in the Narvarte neighbourhood (known locally as Centro SCOP), is an iconic example of Mexican modernism by architect Carlos Lazo, inaugurated in 1954. The building is covered in 20,000 sq m of celebrated mosaic murals, designed by Lazo in collaboration with artists Juan O’ Gorman and José Chávez Morado. Despite suffering damage in the 1985 earthquake, the art and architecture was rebuilt following a long restoration project. But following renewed structural damage in 2017’s earthquake, the building is now condemned to be demolished, and the fate of the sprawling mosaics remains unclear. 

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Centro SCOP before the 2017 earthquake. Photograph: Pablo López Luz/Archivo Diseño y Arquitectura

A suggested plan to relocate the murals to a new airport on the outskirts of the city has been interrupted as the construction of the airport itself was (controversially) cancelled by Mexico’s new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, in October 2018 following a public referendum and criticism from environmentalists and urban planners. A new airport, on a smaller scale, will most likely be built at the Santa Lucía military base. Overshadowed by the controversy surrounding the airport, there has been no further discussion of relocating the Centro SCOP murals.

Some had argued against the relocation of these unique works of art, however. “The murals were conceived as part of the architectural whole of the building,” wrote Renato Mello, director of the Institute of Aesthetic Research at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), in an open letter addressed to federal officials in April 2018. “It would be difficult to conserve their value as cultural and artistic patrimony in a different architectural context, in which their function would not be the same as in the original.”

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Centro SCOP under scaffolding following the 2017 earthquake. Photograph: Martha Pskowski

Integración plástica remains a celebrated age of Mexican art and architecture, when the country’s top architects were employed to build homes for Mexico City’s middle classes, instead of the super wealthy. Mello believes relocating the Centro SCOP artwork from a public building in the heart of the city to an airport an hour away, which aims to attract tourism and international investors, would fundamentally disrupt its meaning. “It’s a difficult dilemma, because the building is seriously damaged,” Mello says when I speak to him. “Yet at the same time its cultural importance is staggering. We have to seek solutions that consider these two realities.”

Earthquakes have fundamentally shaped Mexico City’s urban landscape, erasing iconic buildings and influencing a strict building code. The vestiges of collapsed buildings are quick to be built over, to meet the housing need of a burgeoning population. Mexico City is going through a construction boom, but a public art programme on the scale of the integración plástica movement is unthinkable in an age when developers are more interested in minimising square-metres and maximising profits than beautifying building exteriors. 

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The Centro SCOP murals alongside a Mexican flag, before the recent earthquake. Photograph: Oswaldo Bautista

Mello believes that the spirit of the movement has not been entirely lost, though. “The great architects of that era were the teachers of the important architects over the next decades,” he says. “On an ethical and conceptual level, there was a lot of continuity.”

What’s more, Mello cautions against a purely nostalgic view of integración plástica. The movement was promoted alongside vast public works projects, overseen by presidents from the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in the mid-20th century. “These buildings are testimonies to a specific era,” says Mello. “But admiring them does not mean abandoning a critical vision towards that time period, because the government was very authoritarian.”

The PRI government may have spearheaded major public works and housing complexes, but it was also deeply undemocratic. The 1985 earthquake also shook the country’s politics, as the PRI’s failure to contain the tragedy spurred a citizen movement against one-party rule. People were disillusioned; the seeds of opposition to the PRI had been planted.

On Mexico City’s unsteady ground, buildings and monumental art are ephemeral. Not all the lofty ideals of mid-century architects can coexist with the city’s seismic activity. The public art of mid-century Mexico City must be preserved not to glorify it, but to understand a defining moment in Mexican history. 

Authentic Anren: How China’s largest museum split a city in two

When culture-led regeneration commercialises heritage at the expense of authenticity, a city suffers. Barclay Bram Shoemaker reports on how tourism has transformed, and divided, the Chinese town of Anren

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Part of the large-scale regeneration of Anren, tramway tracks have become a physical marker of a divided city. All photographs: Barclay Bram Shoemaker

Anren, in China’s south west, is a small town with a big museum. An hour’s drive from Chengdu, the provincial capital of Sichuan, Anren is the site of the Jianchuan Museum Cluster, China’s largest private museum set across a sprawling complex of 35 museum buildings housing over 8 million items, including a 28m-tall decommissioned intercontinental ballistic missile.

Before the arrival of the museum in 2005, Anren was an unremarkable Chinese town; a few dilapidated, early 20th century, republican-era manors in various states of disrepair and an old street — 树人街 (Shuren Street) — with a series of shops, restaurants and tea houses, largely unaltered from their original state By the time I first visited in 2015, it had already been completely transformed.

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Shuren Street mid-transformation

When Fan Jianchuan, a multi-millionaire entrepreneur, arrived in the early 2000s to build his eponymous museum, he quickly purchased many of the republican-era manors and a number of the more impressive storefronts on Shuren Street. In 2008, he sold up to the Chengdu Culture and Tourism Company (Wen Lu, as per its Chinese name) making a tidy return on his investment after the tourist potential of the town started to become clear as curious visitors started to visit the new museum. Wen Lu quickly set about renovating the old town.

One of the company’s first schemes was to build an Art Deco-style cinema at the top of Shuren Street, and a tramway that ran close to the museum and a recently completed Sheraton hotel. In laying the tracks, however, the company inadvertently cut Anren in two. On one side is the old town, where many of the inhabitants still live. On the other side is the museum, Shuren Street and the increasingly commercialised tourist hub of the city — in other words, the new-old town.

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Anren’s tourist-oriented neighbourhood

Small towns all over China are latching on to obscure pieces of local history — or inventing them entirely — to try and lure domestic tourists with “heritage” sites. (Chinese tourists embarked on five billion domestic trips in 2017, generating over 4.5 trillion Yuan (nearly £500bn) in 2017.)

The city of Lijiang in Yunnan is emblematic of this trend. The ancient city was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1997 and subsequently over-restored for the tourist gaze, at the expense of the diverse local population. Despite this, “lijiangification” 丽江化 is a term often trotted out enthusiastically by local officials.

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The ‘Art Deco’ tramway

In Anren, this trend has manifested itself most clearly in the tramway in the centre of town — boxy and sleek with vague allusions to Art Deco chic. The only problem is that Sichuan never had trams, and it is Shanghai — a city over 2000km away — which is the home of Chinese Art Deco. What’s more, the design of the tram was based on a model that ran in Harbin, a city so far to China’s North East that it’s technically in Siberia and was once part of Russia. It didn’t come cheap either; Anren’s tram is reported to have cost roughly 27,000,000rmb (£3,000,000).

Philosophically, China’s new-old towns represent an interesting problematic to our concept of authenticity. Much of the historic fabric of these towns was destroyed during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution (1966–76) when the policy of “smash the Four Olds” (old customs, habits, culture and thinking) saw the wholesale destruction of much of China’s millennia-spanning material culture. What was left has often been swept away in the madcap pursuit of growth and development.

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Mass-produced ‘authentic’ sculptures

As such, 古城 (new-old towns) are sometimes constructed directly on top of the scant remains of genuinely old areas of town — as in the case of Anren’s Shuren street which directly incorporates original architecture — and in others, like Shanghai’s Xintiandi shopping district, they are built entirely from scratch; Potemkin antiquity.

When I asked Wei Jianmin, the head of publicity at the Jianchuan Museum who had formerly worked on the development of Anren as part of the Jianchuan company, about whether the lack of authenticity in some of the developments bothered him, he shrugged. “People like to have a good time,” he said, “and now there’s lots of ways for people to enjoy themselves here.”

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Urban development in progress

One day in Anren I was curious about where the tramway led; I realised that despite weeks in the town I’d never seen it run. I followed it from its start outside of the Sheraton, through the new-old town, passing over into the actual old town. There was a tea-house full of elderly men playing majiang and smoking. Across the street a shop selling elaborate funeral wreaths sombrely kept watch. I continued, walking through a construction site until I finally got to the end of the line. I could see the gleaming trams in their depot. Nearby, a security guard watched me intently. I asked him when they were next scheduled to run. He looked at me quizzically. “I have no idea,” he said. “I can’t remember the last time we actually used them.”

From struggling football club to vital community hub: the story of CS Lebowski

Just outside Florence, the first fan-owned football club in Italy is working to support local communities and promote inclusivity. Chloe Beresford reports

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A recent victorious match at CS Lebowski’s home ground, Centro Sportivo Tavarnuzze in the town of Impruneta

When is a football club more than just a football club? This is a question posed by an amateur Italian team, CS Lebowski, based in the small town of Impruneta just outside Florence. Their supporters could find top-tier football just down the road at ACF Fiorentina, the Serie A powerhouse located in the city. Instead, they have invested everything in a project that benefits the entire community.

Centro Storico Lebowski was named after the Coen Brothers’ film The Big Lebowski, in honour of the main character, The Dude. The image of a slacker like him was consistent with a team that were the bottom of the lowest league in Italian football, a side that would lose every week by large scorelines. 

In 2004, a group of local disenchanted teenagers named Marco, Fosco and Duccio discussed their exasperation with the corporate world of modern football. They decided to become ‘ultras’ – an organised group of ultra-fanatical support – for CS Lebowski, a team that was, at the time, somewhat of a joke. What started as typical teenage anti-establishment sentiment soon grew into an unexpected initiative, and a far cry from the hooliganism that ultras are often associated with.

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Celebrating a win in ‘ultras’ style

Six years later, those teenagers had become young adults and had slowly attracted others to support the team. They had an ambitious vision to take over CS Lebowski and create a community-based and fully inclusive club that welcomed anyone who wanted to watch the matches or even play for the side – no matter their faith, gender, sexuality or ethnicity. Despite some progress, football in Italy remains a white, male-dominated environment; in some places, incidents of racism are not unusual. By actively promoting its inclusivity, CS Lebowski made it easy for minorities to feel welcome.

No-one stood in the way of the Lebowski Ultras when they came together to take over the struggling club, and form the first fan-owned, community-focused club in Italy. The idea of not having a powerful owner in charge was unheard of, even in the minor leagues, but among them these supporters could now boast qualified football coaches, doctors and lawyers, all of whom could contribute their skills towards the team. ‘Our club is not dependent on the fortunes and whims of a single owner, but is the expression of a collective project, economically and politically,’ explains David Ginsborg, a former volunteer for CS Lebowski and doctor of social anthropology.

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A community meal organised by the football club. ‘Ultimi rimasti’ means ‘the last ones left’, and refers to original Florentine residents

After establishing the team in its new form, these fan-founders drew in players from the local area to bolster the squad and improve the quality of those already in place. Even people in Florence and further afield, when they heard about what was happening, wanted to join in. This new and idealistic idea of pooling skills and creating a range of teams has seen the group of friends grow from three fans to thousands of supporters all over the world who identify with the unique community spirit of this project. 

However, the people who have really made a difference are those based nearby. A group of local volunteers give their time to CS Lebowski in order to make it into a welcoming social space to those in the area who feel excluded or displaced from society. On match days an army of people prepare the Centro Sportivo Tavarnuzze — the home of the team — and cook huge meals for the players and their supporters to share dinner together. Away from the pitch, the club hosts communal dinners and social events to unify the community. It has become known as ‘la famiglia Lebowski’ (the Lebowski family).

Where most minor league clubs are an escape for young, adult males, here nobody is pushed aside; women, children and elderly relatives are all actively encouraged to participate by contributing what they can in terms of practical help to keep the club running. ‘Being founded on the collaboration of many individuals means by definition we are open to involving as many people as possible,’ Ginsborg continues. ‘Indeed, the club is reliant upon this involvement in order to continue to exist.’

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CS Lebowski’s free football school in San Frediano, Florence

The work of the club is particularly important for the residents of the San Frediano district of Florence, a neighbourhood on the southern banks of the river Arno within the city centre. This is one of the only communities in the heart of the city still predominantly inhabited by locals, the others having seen Florentines forced out by the demand for tourist accommodation. Indeed, according to the Italian tenants’ association, Florence has the highest proportion of Airbnbs of any Italian city, and around 1000 residents of the city are forced to leave their homes each year as landlords turn their properties into profitable holiday rentals for tourists. Many residents of Impruneta were themselves residents of Florence before tourist-driven higher rents and housing scarcity pushed them out. 

In 2015, CS Lebowski decided to support the community of San Frediano by opening a football school, giving local children coaching free of charge. While Florence is a global attraction, the school is a purely local attraction, a part of town that is exclusively for local residents. The school is one of CS Lebowski’s efforts to retain and restore the ‘community soul’ of Florence, which they have seen disappear over the decades.

The project allows the members of CS Lebowski to build a bond with the area, a hub of remaining Florentines, as they work to protect it from large companies looking to construct yet more lucrative developments in the city. The club is also active in organising and participating in protests in Florence against the evictions of local residents.

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Children play football in a San Frediano piazza in the 1950s. CS Lebowski shared this photo as an example of the community spirit in Florence that has been lost with the decline of residents

Pulling together in such an inclusive manner is what CS Lebowski is all about, using football as a vehicle for community cohesion – both within the club’s town and within an urban area under threat of tourism. It also allows young people and their families to see the positivity that can be brought about by a game that so often draws negative headlines. 

Most of all though, it harnesses the power of the collective, the idea that so much can be achieved if many people give a little towards a common goal. And speaking of goals – CS Lebowski is no longer bottom of the barrel; last year the team finally achieved promotion. 

All images courtesy of Centro Storico Lebowski

The void deck: Singapore’s secret community infrastructure

An overlooked part of public housing in Singapore performs an undervalued role for residents – and now it’s under threat. Syafiqah Jaaffar reports from Singapore

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A typical void deck

The most unassuming places are often the ones closest to our hearts. For 80% of Singapore’s population who live in public housing, this takes the form of the void deck, an empty space located at the foot of a public housing block which serves as the main communal space. Perhaps this was why the recent disappearance of void decks elicited public anxiety about its future.

It began in 2016, when several of Singapore’s town councils installed railings to render the void deck unusable for ball games in some estates, a move which generated a whole slew of tongue-in-cheek articles on mainstream media such as The Straits Times and alternative news platforms such as Mothership about how the government is adamant to prevent children from having fun. It also led to a surge in art projects seeking to document the space, including by Singaporean photographer Nguan, known for his signature pastel-hued photos of everyday spaces in the city. Recently, as part of Archifest 2018, an annual architectural festival in Singapore, Kite Studio Architecture created a pop-up void deck for the festival’s Pavilion as a nod to how integral the void deck is for Singaporeans’ everyday life.

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Children play in one of the city’s many void decks

The void deck generally houses the lift lobby and letterboxes. For some larger blocks, it can also be home to amenities such as coffee shops, sundry stores, and public kindergartens, often staffed by and catering to residents or those who stay in the surrounding area.

Despite their emptiness, void decks have come to function over the decades as third spaces; not quite home, but definitely away from the workplace. The void deck morphs itself to be whatever its users want. Children turn it into a sheltered space to play. The numerous “Do Not” notices nailed authoritatively onto the walls do little to deter them. For families, the void deck can be transformed into an event space for weddings and funerals alike. It is also a convenient meeting point, a resting area for labourers assigned to nearby projects and, of course, shelter from the erratic Singapore weather.

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The spaces host all kinds of community events. Photograph: Choo Yut Shing

Since the void deck’s incorporation into public housing designs since the mid-1970s, following former Law and National Development Minister E.W. Barker’s push to have a sheltered playing area for children its most distinctive trait has been the flexibility of its open, uninhabited space. But with mixed residential-commercial complexes being the preferred model for newer public housing estates springing up across the city, the future of the void deck remains uncertain.

Clementi Towers, for instance, is a public housing development located in the western part of Singapore, consisting of two 40-storey towers. Instead of a void deck, these sit atop a four-storey shopping mall and a bus interchange. Residents access their flats via lifts within the mall. When the project was completed in 2011, it was hailed as the first of its kind, a groundbreaker for a new integrated type of public housing; but one that left its residents without their void deck.

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Clementi Towers, one of the new types of pubic housing without void deck spaces

Similar models have since been announced for future housing developments in other parts of the city. Northshore Plaza is a public housing estate set to be completed in 2020 in Punggol, an area in the north-east. Like Clementi Towers, it will feature public housing blocks integrated into a shopping complex and a direct link to the nearest train station. Communal spaces for residents would no longer be in the forms of void decks, but ‘precinct pavilions’ or rooftop gardens shared across the various housing blocks in the estate. However, being located between floors, or at the top of the building, in blocks restricted only to its residents, such spaces are not quite the same as the porous empty spaces of the void decks which are more accessible due to them being on the ground floor.

It would be easy to dismiss public reservations about the changing face of the void decks as simple nostalgia. But the void deck has indirectly served as a space for the private citizen to negotiate their relationship with the state and its economic ambitions. It marks the transition into a space where the individual is freed from the unrelenting demands of economic productivity expounded by the state that is tied to the workplace as well as commercial districts.

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Void decks perform many roles for residents

However, in integrated public housing blocks which are no longer developed and sold by the state, but by private developers contracted to do so by the state, and the latter’s tendency to convert empty spaces into profiteering spaces, where is the space of disengagement from the economic system to be found?

Perhaps the anxiety expressed at the loss of these void decks speaks of broader fear: the sublimation of neoliberalism into the private sphere. The mixed-use model is defended as a way to make sure that available land space in land-scarce Singapore is maximized and not ‘under-utilised’: code, of course, for not letting space go to money-making waste.

Void decks, as free spaces that constantly refuse to serve any single purpose exclusively, are thus anathema to such ambitions. The state’s push for mixed-use developments will likely spell the end of the void decks in future public housing. But in 2017, in response to the concerns expressed by citizens at the loss of the void deck, the state formally declared it part of the country’s community heritage. Who knows, in an ironic twist of fate, the politics of heritage might allow these void decks to stand empty once again.

Inside the decline of London’s youth clubs

Marcus Lipton Youth Club is one of London’s few remaining centres amid exclusionary regeneration and government cuts to youth services. Writer and youth worker Ciaran Thapar, who volunteers at the club, explores why such places are vital for London’s communities 

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Ira Campbell, managing director of Marcus Lipton. All photographs: Tristan Bejawn

The first time I knocked on the door of Marcus Lipton Youth Club in Loughborough Junction, south London, over three years ago, fresh flowers lay on the pavement across the road. Placed in memory of a murdered teenage boy, they remain there to this day, dead and drained of colour, a reminder of normalised tragedy in the contemporary city.

The community centre rests in the shadows of the modernist slab blocks of the Loughborough  Estate. It is a squat building with a thick, barred front door. The astroturf football pitch at the back sits next to an abandoned nursery, overgrown with weeds and a scrapyard piled high with the carcasses of rusting cars. Raised railway tracks nearby, upon which trains trundle past carrying commuters to and from the City, are lined with barbed-wire fences to resist invasion by graffiti artists and urban explorers.

Within the centre, a large hall with a table-tennis table, old furniture and games console leads through to a sports hall and small gym. On winter evenings, when local teenagers crave the centre’s warmth and electricity most urgently, food bubbles on the stove in the kitchen. UK drill music, the soundtrack to local life, blares continuously from a speaker. I’ve sat in the studio there, with boys I mentor, whilst they lay down their dark lyrics over rumbling instrumentals, narrating their hidden lives in adolescent catharsis. The centre is covered in CCTV cameras, all of which feed onto a live television stream in the office, where I spend most of my time speaking to staff.

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Helen Hayes, MP for Dulwich and West Norwood, holds an audience at Marcus Lipton

For local young people, Loughborough Junction is an unforgiving pocket of the capital; a long-deprived residential hinterland, wedged between the regenerating hubs of Brixton and Camberwell. Whilst volunteering at Marcus Lipton, I have met visitors of all ages: from 11-year-olds receiving football coaching and teenagers who have lost siblings to knife crime, to 40-somethings who have returned to counsel younger men. Here, different generations of local life pivot around the community centre.

“Youth work used to be a thriving game” says Ira Campbell, managing director of Marcus Lipton. “But under austerity, it’s becoming harder and harder. It’s funny, because everyone’s getting together – politicians and that – and saying these kids need somewhere to go. But what else are they going to do apart from sit on their estate and make trouble if there is no service available?”

In 2018, youth violence has soared across London. Young people from socioeconomically stretched families living in high-risk areas feel neither safe in public, nor comfortable at home, and thus require safe spaces to spend their time more than ever. Yet for those in charge of local organisations, like Campbell, providing this safe space has become increasingly difficult under the Conservative government’s funding cuts.

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Research released this year by Green Party politician Sian Berry has found there has been a 44% cut from London youth service budgets since 2011. At least 81 youth clubs and council-funded youth projects have been closed in the city, and 800 full-time youth worker positions scrapped. This equates to a state-sponsored stranglehold of young life.

To do youth work today, “you have to be a cook, cleaner, mum, dad, case-worker, policeman, mentor, and teacher, all in one,” says Campbell. “You’re stretched more and more in different directions, but have less time and money to do a proper job.”

Tania de St Croix, lecturer in the sociology of youth and childhood at King’s College London, echoes Campbell’s sentiments. “Young people, especially in London, live in more cramped accommodation and have less disposable income than ever before,” she says. “With the academisation of state schools, which has emphasised discipline and punishment, there is less trust in teachers. A gap therefore exists for youth workers to fill, as adults who children choose to go to for personal, non-hierarchical support. Youth services really are at a crunch time.”

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The Loughborough Estate

Alongside government cuts, community centres such as Marcus Lipton are threatened by rampant development in London. Like so many parts of the city, Loughborough Junction is experiencing the insidious creep of gentrification. New blocks of luxury flats pop up every few months alongside neglected council flat towers; artisanal cafes and extortionately priced gift shops brush shoulders with longstanding Jamaican bakeries and hardware stores.

As market forces compound to transform local life, it is difficult to see how institutions like Marcus Lipton will thrive, let alone survive. A stalled regeneration proposal for the area includes a plan to rebuild the centre and use the current land for new private homes. De St Croix says this type of insecure reality is especially bleak for youth-friendly spaces which have existed for many decades. “There is an assumption that young people need stuff to be bright and brand new,” she says. “But there is a space for the old-school youth club which has been in the community for generations. That brings something special.”

She believes the fundamental thing is simply having a basic space so young people can feel a sense of co-ownership and community around it, and laments the endless losses of well-established youth clubs due to local authority closures. “You’re never going to get those buildings back to public ownership,” she says. “That loss extends to the loss of an older generation of experienced youth workers, too, who aren’t being valued as mentors, or replaced when they burn out. Some people have put a lifetime into their communities.”

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On a recent visit to Marcus Lipton, I sat down with Campbell in his office to catch up. The early autumn sun streamed through the grubby window onto his face as he leant across a cluttered desk. I asked him what he thinks young people in communities like the one he serves need most from youth services. “The kids that use youth clubs are not well-to-do kids,” he says. “Why would a wealthy kid need to come here? They’re comfortable at home. Kids that come to places like this, it’s their escapism from everything else they’ve got going on in their household, in their school. The community centre is a place where they can be free for a bit.”

 

All photographs by Tristan Bejawn and all rights reserved.

Ciaran Thapar is a youth worker and writer based in south London. He is planning a book about life at Marcus Lipton Community Centre

 

How does place shape who we are?

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by Francesca Perry

Sometimes it’s hard to put our finger on it, but part of us knows that where we live, the places in which we spend our time, play a part in shaping who we are. A particular Winston Churchill quote is oft-cited — ‘We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us’ — and the point it makes of buildings can equally be made of cities, neighbourhoods or places.

As we shape our local area through physical changes and social activities, so we collectively define its identity; in turn, as stage sets for life, hubs for community and activity, these places piece together our own individual, and communal, identities. But what role does, or can, this people-place relationship play? Can engaging with the identity of place help it — or us?

While people’s relationship to place is in many ways practical, it is also very much emotional. In 2017, surveys undertaken by scientists at the University of Surrey for the National Trust revealed that ‘meaningful places’ played a key role in shaping people’s identity, across all ages; 67% of younger people said their meaningful place has shaped who they are.

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That our surroundings can shape our feelings, behaviours, and even sense of identity, has long been reflected upon, but became formally recognised with the rise of the field of environmental psychology in the 1970s. Since then, the interrelation between place and society has been explored by many writers and thinkers.

‘Because there is constant interaction between society and the urban fabric, we cannot tinker with our cities without making some adjustment to society as well — or vice versa,’ wrote Joseph Rykwert in The Seduction of Place (2000). ‘Any description of a city’s shape that can be gathered from a citizen’s comments,’ he continued, ‘represents a constant and intimate dialectic between the citizen and the physical forms he or she inhabits; this may influence [the city’s] image as radically as its economic or political life.’

As such, so those physical places shape us. In a Field Guide to Getting Lost (2005), Rebecca Solnit wrote of the places in which one’s life is lived: ‘They become the tangible landscape of memory, the places that made you, and in some way you too become them. They are what you can possess and in the end what possesses you.’

Hastings pier, before it was successfully rebuilt through a local community-led initiative

Beyond simply a place’s physical form, it is what happens in it — the experiences inhabitants share, whether negative or positive — that start shaping communal forms of identity. Of course, identity — whether personal, collective, or linked to place — is not a clear cut and fixed thing: it morphs, shifts, evolves, much like the places in which we live. But within this flux lies certain characteristics, histories or memories, that continually inform the evolving identity.

What has happened in a place can shape, directly or indirectly, how people see it, feel about it, and create narratives around it; this can range from the collective pride felt from the success of a local football team or a well-known historical event happening nearby, through to communal grief experienced after a local tragedy. Such memories and stories are as much a part of the identity of a place as the bricks and mortar.

Local tributes following the devastating Grenfell Tower fire in North Kensington, 2017

Place identity in recent decades has been harnessed as a marketing tool, packaged and promoted as a means to generating profit. But the reason this takes place comes back to a truth that is far more innocent: engaging with the identity of a place — whether that be its physical attributes or social history — can help ground people to feel more at home. Cities are forever in flux, and their populations largely transitory; we seek out stories and markers of identity to anchor ourselves and create a comforting form of place attachment that in turn nurtures our own identity. Instead of promoting the identity of a place for profit, we can do so for social, and community, good. And the first step towards this is inclusive conversation.

In Loughborough Junction, south London, co-design studio make:good brought people in the area together to talk about the neighbourhood’s unique history, character, assets and needs, translating this into co-designed proposals for public realm improvements; improvements that would in themselves celebrate local identity. Conversations across the whole spectrum of the area’s inhabitants revealed that what people saw as defining the identity of the neighbourhood was its diversity and sense of community. By harnessing this into the improvements being made, people were less worried that the local identity could be lost to the changes.

Discussion and design workshops with the community, including over 100 local children, led to the creation of colourful lamp post banners and bridge decorations which celebrated the local area through stories of its history, as well as patterns referencing its assets, its past and the cultural heritage of its inhabitants.

make:good Loughborough Junction community workshop

As places change, and despite that change, engaging with memories from a diverse range of people can help embed a sense of place identity even for people who are new to the area. Engaging with stories of a place — discovering more about it — strengthens our attachment to it. And then, we go on to participate in making new local stories ourselves.

The original version of this article was published on the make:good blog, which has many other reflections about the nature of community, city life and co-design

Could self-build help tackle homelessness in the UK?

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by James Andrew Cox

A lack of affordable, good quality housing in the UK is affecting everyone; thousands of people are being priced out of their homes every year. For more than 78,000 households (a city the size of Wolverhampton), this means living in temporary accommodation — and for many more, on the street.

With a record number of homeless people dying on the streets or in temporary accommodation (a figure which has doubled in the past five years), its critical to look at innovative approaches to help alleviate homelessness. One approach is to explore the potential of self-build accommodation, supported by additional social infrastructure and training.

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A common misconception of homelessness is that lifestyle choices are a fundamental cause. According to recent research undertaken by Homeless Link, in England some 4,750 people sleep rough on any one night, an increase of 15% since 2016 and 73% in the last three years. This steep rise in homelessness reflects structural changes relating to housing provision and welfare reforms, including but not limited to the end of assured shorthold tenancies (2010), the introduction of the so-called ‘bedroom tax’ (2012), the tentative rollout of universal credit (2015), cuts to young people’s housing benefits (2017), a shortage of affordable housing more generally, and ever-soaring rents.

Despite this inexcusable rise, responses are slow, as we have seen with the £28m rough sleeping fund still remaining unspent and recent comments made by the new homelessness minister, Heather Wheeler, that she ‘does not know’ why numbers are up.

As professionals in the built environment, we can use our influence to create homes, places and cities that are designed to work for everyone. This belief was the main driver behind my post-graduate research project, ‘Forgotten Land, Forgotten People’, at The Bartlett School of Planning, UCL.

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In partnership with Trident Group, a Midlands-based organisation which aims to help the most vulnerable by providing good quality affordable homes, services and support, my thesis proposed a new way in which housing associations could better use small under-utilised pieces of land within their ownership (for example garage sites), as self-build sites for groups of ‘self-build ready’ homeless individuals and families.

With the pressures currently faced by housing associations (such as the 1% Rent Reduction, Right to Buy Extension and introduction of the Value for Money Standard) alongside the need for more affordable, adequate and secure housing, self-build may present an innovative solution for tackling homelessness through the built environment.

The process of self-building also has the potential to help alleviate many of the consequences of homeless­ness; it can equip participants with tools and skills that can enable reintegration into the job market. New technologies and systems such as WikiHouse have the potential to help support this outcome, through lowering the skills’ thresholds needed and the costs involved in building homes.

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The process of taking a ‘self-build ready’ group and enabling them to build their own homes is not a short-term quick win for housing associations. However, the benefits would be felt widely across the both the development and health sectors — and beyond — through providing new homes and opportunities for homeless people, cleaning up a previously under-utilised or unused and resented site, and delivering a marketable ‘product’. Whilst my project focussed on garage sites for permanent homes, further discussions indicate that this prototype solution could work for many stakeholders even if only on a temporary basis, for example as a meanwhile use for a development site which aligns with the new Draft London Plan policy (H4) on meanwhile use for a development site that responds to local need.

James Cox is a senior planner at Lichfields UK and recently completed a MSc in Urban Design and City Planning at The Bartlett School of Planning, UCL. This blog post is an edited extract of a post originally published on Lichfields’ Planning Matters blog