Design for the public good – shouldn’t we all?

IMG_3010Last Tuesday, the RIBA hosted an inspiring evening talk on what it means to design for the public good. In recent years, we saw the rise of the private sector (particularly private developers) in fulfilling ever increasing housing numbers.

The pressure on housing, and the desire for economic growth have resulted in a deregulated construction sector. At the same time, the amount of influence the professional has, especially the architect, has diminished with the introduction of different consultants, project managers, and administrators. Public Practice also conveniently points out that fewer and fewer architects now work in the public sector, as private developers have dominated the market. Events like the Grenfell fire highlight the desperate need for good design in the public sector, but how can we address the tragedy without overcoming the challenges within the industry first?

The talk invites us to question the current built environment, and learn from practitioners who work in the public/private boundary, and innovate within the system. An important point was raised on the common conflation of public and state, when actually the line between public and private have blurred in recent years, with more and more private practices working in the public realm. By engaging more directly with local authorities, architects and urban designers from the private sector are improving local planning and design under Public Practice. Ultimately, more support from the professions and a sustainable funding model are needed for local authorities to meet growing housing demands with well-conceived designs.

Other issues raised concerned the alternative ways to devolve responsibility, encourage creativity, and incentivise culture and policy change. The importance of the common (infrastructure, resources) has been stressed as infrastructure often increases public value, and subsequently private value. Design should be strategic and well-planned, and it should involve communities as much as professionals, simply because the built environment shapes everyone’s life. Overall, this talk has brought together interesting topics that have been discussed in different circles within the industry. Hopefully it will spark a renewed interest in designing for the public good from not only architects but other sectors as well.

There was a similar event that addressed issues around co-production vs. consultation, which ended with interesting questions on the distribution of agency amongst various actors, and new ways to interest communities to participate in design.