Taking the ‘Con’ out of Consultation
September 2016
By Robin Farmer

As an architect, the point of community consultation should be to use collaborative design as a way of making spaces and places mean something to the people living in them. On one side, it provides an opportunity for local residents to be involved in shaping their own localities; on the other, it provides a vital touchstone for architects to assess, enrich and iterate their ideas. 

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So it is always a source of disappointment when you hear about communities who end up feeling conned by the whole consultation process. The RIBA’s Guide to Localism, issued in 2011, set out a blueprint for a more considered and optimistic approach to public engagement that addressed ‘designing with, rather than for, communities’. At Archio, we share this view, and additionally, we believe that the consultation process needs to be ‘designed’ with the same level of planning, consideration and sensitivity that makes good architecture come alive.

In order for community engagement to be meaningful, it needs to happen across the whole design process. Consultation can play a key role in defining a brief with a far greater level of specificity and intent from the outset. Having clear objectives for consultation is a good first step, and careful time management during consultations is crucial to strike a balance between ensuring every voice is heard and preventing over-long, rambling discussions that can often prove counter-productive. But the sensitivity of consultation comes from listening to communities and really involving them in decision making, and being able to demonstrate, through design, that their inputs, ideas and hopes are manifesting in a scheme.

We believe a community-led design process must be above all engaging, and whilst the subject matter is serious, we have found that a fun and playful approach assists in consultee engagement. In the past we have used a number of devices to support consultations from ice cream vans and laser cutters, such as at the Bloomsbury Festival, to more formal presentation boards for Dolphin's Community Centre. In June we opened our offices as part of the London Festival of Architecture for our Archio Plantotype Workshop which encouraged children to actively engage in place-making through designing and modelling planters for their streetscapes. Recently, we participated in, and won, the ‘Pick an Architect’ workshop for London Community Land Trust in Sydenham, using large-scale maps, post-its illustrating residents hopes and fears for the project, and architectural playing cards as prompts for ideas, which actively involved the community in the activity of mapping.

These kinds of methods seek to make the consultation process lively and enjoyable, as well as immensely useful; they look to take the ‘con’ out of consultation.