Public Practice co-founder Pooja Agrawal reflects on the 'ever-widening chasm' between built environment disciplines — and why architects and planners need to collaborate better
The recent furore over the proposed demolition of Amin Taha’s 15 Clerkenwell Close brought to light the growing hostility between architects and planners in the UK. My Twitter feed, a rare blend of both professions, was awash with polarising comments such as ‘why do architects think they are above the law?’ and ‘planners are ignorant, bureaucratic scum’. Without delving into the complexities of the case, what perplexes me most is the increasingly fractured relationship between the public and private sector, and the ever-widening chasm between various disciplines within the built environment.
Within architecture, the overused term ‘starchitect’ is symbolic of a culture where an individual takes all the credit, overshadowing a large team of architects collaborating with engineers, contractors and environmental specialists, not to mention clients. Within public planning, years of austerity have shrunk the public sector’s capacity and agency, leaving many people frustrated by a planning system that seems petty, slow and bureaucratic. It’s not that much of a surprise, then, that planners distrust the ego-driven ‘starchitect’ and architects default to planner-bashing.
This culture stems back to an education system in which antagonism is seeded and encouraged. I studied architecture in the same building as planners, but none of my peers considered venturing into the unknown territory of ‘the 4th floor’. My Part 3 seemed more about learning how to shift liability onto others than collaborate with them. The fact we can’t pinpoint what went wrong or who is responsible for the Grenfell Tower disaster is a devastating example of the dangers of this finger-pointing and uncollaborative culture. It is not only impacting the quality of what we are building today, but impacting how society views our industry as a whole.
Something needs to change, and we must start by blurring the boundaries of what architects, planners and other built environment professionals do. We need to actively encourage a collaborative culture not only across the industry, but also spanning the public, private and civic sectors. Together we can work towards a greater good, and this is exactly what Public Practice, the not-for-profit social enterprise I co-founded, is setting out to achieve.
A Public Practice research and development workshop for Associates. Photograph: Timothy Chase
Launched in 2017, Public Practice places built environment experts within public authorities. Our mission is to improve the quality and equality of everyday places and we are doing this by building the public sector’s capacity for proactive planning. Our first cohort of 17 Associates are currently placed across London and the South East. They spend 90% of their time on place-based roles, and 10% of their time carrying out collective research and development.
At Public Practice, we define planning in its broadest sense and see public planners as all kinds of built environment experts working in the public sector. The Associates are multidisciplinary, with a wide range of experiences. Alpa Depani, who is placed in Sutton Council, is an architect, artist, university lecturer and self-publisher. Kathy McEwan, who is placed in London Borough of Hounslow, is a town planner with 25 years of experience improving design quality across both the public and the private sector.
Public Practice is also creating more collaborative ways of working across siloed departments in local authorities such as housing, regeneration, development management and planning policy. This starts during the recruitment phase. To join the programme, councils must set up roles that cut across teams and demonstrate clear additionality.
Associates visit Stratford as part of their research and development. Photograph: Timothy Chase
The Research and Development Programme, meanwhile, represents an opportunity for Public Practice not only to develop research across the cohort and their authorities, but also with the wider industry, community groups and academic institutions. Three Associates from Old Oak and Park Royal Development Corporation, Greater London Authority planning, and London Borough of Bexley, recently organised a field trip to Brussels to explore ‘industrial intensification’. This gave officers a new perspective on best practice on the ground, as well as the space and time to discuss bigger issues that need solving across international borders.
By broadening the professions into a more interdisciplinary and shared practice, hostilities across the built environment can be disarmed. Mistrust needs to be bridged between sectors, and research facilitated that is distributed across the wider industry and the public. Collaboratively working towards a greater good will not only build society’s trust in our professions again, but will have a longer-term impact on the quality and equality of the built environment. And perhaps, it might also remove some antagonism from my Twitter feed.