"Consultation", "participation", "co-design" and "community" is the growing mantra of responsible city development - and politically en vogue.
In recent years, the development sector in the UK has started to embrace this as 'community engagement': a process of talking to local people about the nature of a possible development.
Sometimes the process is practised as if it were "empowerment" but in practice, it is product marketing or the sampling of public opinion to support product development and the winning of regulatory approvals.
This business to business transaction, masquerading as consumer choice nicely chimes in with one of the earliest moments in the development cycle when investors can capitalise upon their asset.
But if the purpose of engaging people in development is to generate longer-term markets and capital receipts, a return to taxpayers, as well as institutional investors, and if the first port of call for a rioter is to torch property - as happened in the UK last month - the development sector evidently has a social contract to fulfill beyond talking to people, both as a protective measure and strategy to win a 'licence to operate'.
Understandably developers want to minimise their costs. By and large, 'the people' are not their clients, or prospective tenants. And in essence, they are entrepreneurs who need as few barriers as possible between them and the generation of profit.
Problem is that while the riots were about theft and opportunism, there is evidently a group of people out in the cold, untouched by conventional 'public consultation', 'grassroots enabling' or the benevolent custody of local government - the tools in place that are supposedly designed to make our cities more equitable.
How to bring these people in to the process?
Countless statutory initiatives in the UK just now seek to hardwire 'ordinary people' in to the process of urban development.
But just as one gets excited over a new spirit of shared value, tempers calm with short-termist engagement of the public in the name of 'place-making' and the reluctance of the real estate industry to commit to community investment in a hardcore way - for instance, accepting broader social allocation of finance raised by a new local tax like the Community Infrastructure Levy.
"Community" remains a subset of design and communications, rather than a front-line currency of economic growth.
A progressive strategy in the United States has been to establish community coalitions - and it would be game-changing for a real estate developer or local authority here in the UK to seek to foster this approach in their involvement of the community in development.
If this were a guiding policy, what would be the headline actions?
- Foster an alliance of urban activist organisations that campaign for human rights & equity in the life of the town or city
- Support this alliance and create an organisation/Foundation that would be funded by a consortia of stakeholders who have an investment in the safety and security of urban life - and that would include the property sector
- Draw this coalition in to the formation of local plans by local government
- And on big schemes, promote direct negotiation between this coalition and real estate developers and the agreement of a series of local benefits, in return for a non-contested application for building approval
Think of this as a Coalition of the Bold, where the real estate developer/owner is a civic entrepreneur and part of the solution, rather than an organisation whose assets need to be defended by police when society implodes.
Where's the evidence that this approach works?
There isn't any - except that stable cosmopolitanism, open mindedness and a genuine sense of participation in public life consistently feature as key ingredients in 'smart', successful, innovative economies.
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