It makes obvious sense that the people who live, or are about to live, in a place that’s being built or radically changed should have some say in its design. But although it makes obvious sense it hardly ever happens. We’ve all been to or heard about ‘public consultation’ events where a community is shown what are effectively final drawings and are told what will be happening and when by housing officials who expect them to then be grateful – or at least quiet.

Well we were once a part of something that attempted to change all that, on quite a large scale, wonderfully.

Let me tell you about ‘Places by design’.

Trafford Hall, in between Chester and Ellesmere Port.
Trafford Hall, in between Chester and Ellesmere Port.

Beginning in 2001, around the same time as all that social enterprise work I wrote about in the last episode, people start arriving from all over Britain and Northern Ireland at a country house near Chester. Groups of people from up to 5 or 6 places at any one time. Places in the process of change. And over the next 3 days, at a more or less free event, they learn from each other, us and the other people they work with – urban designers and architects – plus the places we take them to visit, about how to be properly involved in the changes about to happen in the places where they live. Not just about how to respond to the plans of others, but how to create their own proposals and take part in something we all eventually call ‘Community led design’.

Over the next four years many of these events are run and hundreds of people come on them. It’s often hard, messy and emotional work, with so many people from so many places in one place, at the same time. But practical learning gets done, eyes are opened, minds are changed and, eventually, places are changed and buildings are built, in ways different to how they might have been if the community hadn’t got involved.

And looking back on it all now, it’s some of the best work a sense of place is ever involved in.

Getting ready to start.
Getting ready to start Places by design, me, Neil and Charlie.

It all starts with an idea and a person. Enter Lindsay Nixon.

Since our very first gig, back in 1995, we’ve been working on and off at Trafford Hall, then called the National Tenants’ Resource Centre, all the time feeling that there’s probably more we could be doing together than we are, that we haven’t quite found our niche there yet.

Recently though, they’ve taken on Lindsay Nixon to run their Events Programme – and she seems particularly interested in us and how we work.

So one day I come in from somewhere to find Lindsay and Sarah on the phone, deep into a discussion that seems to be about us running workshops on architecture and something called ‘urban design’. Sarah, as ever, is being blithely confident about it all, so I manage to hold myself back from butting in with the fact that we effectively know nothing about either of the subjects they’re discussing.

Turns out we don’t need to. Lindsay’s idea is that we’ll co-ordinate these events she’s planning for an architectural charity called ‘The Glass-House’ and work with design professionals to do all the stuff I’ve mentioned earlier. Her reasoning is that while all of the professionals she’s got in mind for the work will have worked with people from one place at a time on their own place, they won’t have worked with people from several places all at once, as we have.

So it’s our people and co-ordination skills, together with their professional and technical skills that she wants to put together and see if it works.

And it does. Not at first and not with everyone we try working with. But it’s a new way of working which most of us get steadily better at. And by the time the programme is brought to a close four years later, we know not only that this is some of the best work we’ll ever do, but that these professionals are some of the best people we will ever work with.

David Rudlin
David Rudlin

First Lindsay brings us together with David Rudlin and Charlie Baker of URBED, the urban designers. And, edgily, we all create ‘Places by design’ and start running it.

PBD02Early days we try out different ingredients and visit different places, eventually settling on a steady mix that suits the hundreds of people who then come on ‘Places by design’ over the years.

People bring maps and photos of their places, set up their displays and work areas, and we then film each of the groups introducing their places and ideas to the rest of us.

David and Charlie then show people how cities and towns have developed and begin to introduce ideas about  how good urban design works, like the importance of all streets leading to other streets – before the work begins.

Three days of debating, collaging, study visiting and turning analysed 1:500 scale plans of what is into detailed models of how it all could be. Filming and photographing as we go.

Sarah with Charlie Baker. Helping a group from Anfield analyse their place.
Sarah with Charlie Baker. Helping a group from Anfield analyse their place.
Yes, that’s a map of Granby in Liverpool. A group from Hatherley Street.
Off on the bus to Manchester.
Off on the bus to Manchester.
Home Zones at Northmoor, in Longsight.
Home Zones at Northmoor, in Longsight.


Filming in Hulme.
Filming in Hulme.
Homes for Change co-op in Hulme.
Homes for Change co-op in Hulme.


Back at Trafford Hall.
Back at Trafford Hall.
Sometimes working outside.
Sometimes working outside.
turning principles, learning and ideas into scale models.
Turning principles, learning and ideas into scale models.
All together.
All together.
Detailed models.
Wonderful detailed models.
For changing places.
For changing places the ways their communities want them to change.

Then before we finish each group does a final filmed presentation of their models, ideas and intentions. And afterwards get sent these films of everything they’ve done and seen to show everyone back home and help change to happen.

Afterwards, if we were in their area, we'd vivid people to see how they were getting on. Here at New Lodge estate, Belfast.
Afterwards, if we are in their area, we visit people to see how they are getting on. Here at New Lodge estate, Belfast.
We take the idea on tour too. Here we are in Glasgow.
We take the idea on tour too. Here we are in Glasgow.

Over time ‘Places by design’ evolves variations of itself to suit the needs of particular places. With URBED we do ‘Homes by design’ where full size homes get designed, laid out in tape on Trafford Hall’s ballroom floor (always handy to have a ballroom), and then built out of huge sheets of cardboard. This one’s a Charlie spectacular. Relying on all of his manic energy to hold it together.

Homes by design, Charlie's creation.
Homes by design, Charlie’s creation.

With URBED we work with David and Charlie and lots of others over the years, but most frequently also with Neil Corteen and Marianne Heaslip (now a qualified Architect and involved in both Granby and Homebaked here in Liverpool these last few years).

Look out. it's a man with an overhead projector! Marianne, on the left, looks on sceptically.
Look out. it’s a man with an overhead projector! Marianne Heaslip, on the left, looks on.

‘Places by design’ also spins off into ‘Buildings by design’ – this one about public and community buildings and involving us and various architect’s practices.

Prue, with computer, and Graeme with his back to us. Architects at Buildings by design.
Prue Chiles, with computer, and Graeme Sutherland with his back to us. Architects at ‘Buildings by design’.
Collaging ideas.
Collaging ideas.
And building models.
And building models.

And there are of course all of the people from all of the places. Far too many to mention, but I remember so many faces from places that sound like poetry to me now – Woodberry Down, New Lodge, Lansbury, Ravenscliffe and Greengates and so many more.

At Ravenscliffe, while their new community building is being built.
At Ravenscliffe, while their new community building is being built.

It’s hard and tiring work at times. Learning and designing so much so quickly. But we do have a lot of laughs. Like, going through the TV lounge there one night, to find a delighted crowd round a new programme that’s just starting its first series. “Look at this! It’s called ‘Shameless’ and we’re all in it!” laughs Anne Henderson from Ravenscliffe. Golden days.

Eventually the day arrives when Lindsay moves on from Trafford Hall (in fact moving to France where she is still). And ‘Places by design’ doesn’t carry on too much longer without her determined care.

But while it lasts it’s more than great.

Lyndsey, at the centre of the photograph, leaves.
Lindsay, at the centre of the photograph in black, leaves.

Sarah thinks the background here is a bit messy. So she Photoshops it up, and includes me, who’s taking the photo!

Louisa, Dan, Eve and Paul from The Glasshouse, David, Lyndsey and Charlie. Liz from Trafford Hall, Sarah, Dilys from Trafford Hall - and me.
Louisa, Dan, Eve and Paul from The Glass-House, David, Lindsay and Charlie. Liz from Trafford Hall, Sarah, Dilys from Trafford Hall – and me.

Let’s finish this episode of our story then, with a film of one of the places I mentioned earlier.

It’s now autumn 2006, ‘Places by design’ is well over but we’re still in touch with the people from Ravenscliffe and Greengates in Bradford. And that autumn we go and stay with them for a week  at ‘The Gateway’ and make this film together. The story of what they’ve done. Mostly with their own skills and determination. But also by using their learning and contacts from Places and Buildings by design. Because that’s what matters most isn’t it? What did people do next?

John Rawnsley, seated on the left.
John Rawnsley.

Whilst I’m writing this we get the sad news that John Rawnsley from Ravenscliffe has died. You’ll see him if you watch the film. A strong, steady, inspirational man seen here, on the left, the first time they all came to Trafford Hall. Always the group and then the Board’s still centre in times of doubt and turbulence. We go over to Bradford for his funeral and back to The Gateway afterwards. All glad to see each other. All sad for the reason why. Rest in peace, John.

Credits and links:
The Gateway

Lindsay Nixon
The Glass-House Community Led Design
Trafford Hall National Communities Resource Centre
Prue Chiles and Leo Care
Graeme Sutherland

In September 2014 it was announced that David Rudlin of Urbed had won the Wolfson Economics Prize for his design work, the second-biggest cash economics prize in the world, after the Nobel Prize.

And in our next episode? Put the message in the box, completing the story of a sense of place.
Read all episodes

Published by Ronnie

Writing about life, Liverpool and anything else that interests me. As well as working with others to make the world a fairer and kinder place:

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  1. Golden days indeed. Thanks for coming over to Bradford this week. John was very proud of all we achieved in Ravenscliffe. Without these courses at Trafford Hall we would never have got there.
    Thank you

  2. Thanks Ronnie for an excellent summary of this great project. My condolences to John’s family. I’m sure his guiding influence and steady hand will be missed.

    So great to see so many faces I recognise and the amazing work that went on at Ravenscliffe to build their centre. What a testament to the strength and determination of people to create in the face of overwhelming odds!

    What stares us in the face even more, yet seems to be overlooked is that this approach should be the norm not the exception. To capitalise on and invest in the energies and talents of people to create environments that they want to live, work and play in. Places by Design was an amazing success but not won without having to weather an incredible amount of scepticism and opposition behind the scenes and, of course, to hear more than once that demoralising little phrase ‘that will never work’. But there were enough influential supporters to get the project up and running. Ever grateful to those people, as they were seen as real ‘risk takers’ for having faith in us.

    I have to mention Rush Hamid here too, former manager at Trafford Hall, who unfailingly and enthusiastically supported me/us through what might have seemed the craziest ideas. He always trusted us and our ideas and allowed us to flourish too.

    Thankfully also, I was lucky enough to work with all of you, talented, creative, committed people and to meet many of those incredibly determined people from all over the country who lapped up the courses and then led the way by designing and seeing into being, their communities and their homes. It was an inspiration to me too, to be alongside people who saw the art of the possible, who pushed the boundaries to come up with bigger and better ideas, who were fired up by and committed to this amazing and demanding process. Testament to what can happen if you put the right mix of people together in a room (well, a ballroom in an old hall!) for a few days. You can create magic. That’s all I did. Put you, the best in your respective fields, all together with people who wanted to have a real say, not a token say in how their places should develop. The rest is history and a history that really, really should not be ignored but should be resurrected as a viable and egalitarian approach to regenerating communities.

    If only this approach could have been adopted before decisions to empty streets and close down communities, as we see in many of those photos you show us, Ronnie, of areas around Liverpool. Perhaps those communities would look a lot different today. Love to everyone who remembers me and the amazing project!

    1. Thank you Lindsay, for everything. And for all the politicking you clearly did in the background to create and keep clear the space for us all to work in.

      And yes, what a perfect vehicle we had there to have counterbalanced New Labour’s Housing Market ‘Renewal’ scam. Such a shame it was all over by then. But no surprise that members of the PBD team have continued to be so active in Granby, Anfield and elsewhere in recent years. We still have all the skills and determination, so who knows?

    2. And by the way, Lindsay, though direct discussion on here has been fairly light there’s been lots of talk on Twitter from loads of people including Charlie, Marianne and current Glass-House people. People seem very interested in what we all did here.

      1. Well you never know! A great & timeless product may well get ressurected! Hope so! Thanks, Ronnie, for keeping me posted. Suppose some day i shall have to dip my toe in & open a Twitter account.!

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