Monday, 5 May 2014


Just under 40 years ago, I met an academic from Nottingham University, who to my young eyes already looked a bit over the hill and with all the delightful eccentricities of someone who lived in another world. He had come to the north London council of Haringey in the summer of 1976 to try out ‘The Game’ on a unique experiment for then and now: council housing tenants were invited to volunteer to form a tenant management cooperative, and commission their own new build scheme to their own design for their own self-management. The then Housing Minister was Reg Freeson, for the Cooperative Party. It seemed an obvious thing to do.

‘The Game’ was based on a large scale map of an area, and small cards with hand written words or pictures describing all the ingredients of the everyday life experience of your home neighbourhood… dog mess, litter, local shop, park, beautiful tree, kids hanging around, nice neighbours, noisy neighbours, traffic noise and so on…and plenty of blanks for people to fill in other things that they liked or disliked about where they lived, and then what they would like to see.

As the room was set up, you could see the puzzlement of both residents and the professionals. A game? With childlike picture cards? What has this to do with ‘design’? But it hardly took a moment for one of the residents to speak up and tell a story about something that had happened to her, and then another story followed. ‘Now put your card on the map, and see if anyone else has had a similar experience in that place’, instructed the academic. In about five minutes, the room was full of noise and laughter, with cards piling up in hotspots where many had had a similar experiences, and odd outliers with a unique story that quickly built a comprehensive picture of all the ordinary and extraordinary things that happened in this place.

And that, of course, was the trick, the neatest simplest trick about ‘The Game’; everyone can tell stories. Lay people and professionals both tell stories in pretty well the same way. Telling stories about your life and where you live provides rich material that both binds future neighbours together with a shared story of place, and gives designers insightful information about the context for their design, as well a foundation for understanding their many clients.

At this time, Oscar Newman’s theories about ‘defensible space’ were gaining widespread currency amongst architects and planners. You might even see a design drawing with areas shaded as ‘defensible’ or not, as the designer perceived it. As part of the architect’s briefing, residents asked to go around other council projects to see what they did and didn’t like. Accompanied by the host tenants’ association, they delivered the most comprehensive critique of the designs as lived experience, describing not the theory of defensible space but what each part of an estate actually felt like in terms of security, safety, pleasure, danger and exposure.

Residents did not need design training or to learn the long words. Designers didn’t need to go into complex technical explanations. The telling of and listening to stories is the most effective form of communication; everyone is speaking and hearing the same language. Which is not to say that this language cannot also be challenging. ‘We don’t want this place to look like council housing’ was a priority requirement of the brief. But, working out what council houses did or didn’t look like proved a challenge too far: so we all agreed to leave it and see what happened.   
Part of the output of 15 simultaneous mini-neighbourhood
Planning for Real events as part of the East Brighton
New Deal for Communities programme October 2000

Since this time, many similar games have been invented with more elaborate and ambitious scenarios, more beautiful cards and clever design ideas. They are OK, in their way, but they all miss the point of 'Planning for real', as ‘The Game’ soon became known. The point is not to provide a platform for the professionals to produce a ‘better’ more informed design, it is the way into a quite different way of working: the co-production of place. By making it together, the clients and the architect could see that design was not about achieving a finite realisation of all the clients’ expectations and wants; satisfying the ‘perfect moment’. Design became the starting point for possibilities, for adaptation to how the residents might want or have to live in the future. The physical and psychological occupation of space is the ongoing activity of ‘design for living’, in which most professional designers will only exceptionally play any part. That is a great loss for professional learning and the accumulation of greater understanding of what design is about.
The morning after the night before: trying to put the East Brighton map together again after community party, October 2000 

As the coop residents themselves said, when questioned again, as the scheme was ready to go for planning, ‘Why don’t these look like council houses?’:  “Oh, haven’t you worked that out yet? It’s not what they look like; it’s the fact that we made them.”

This eccentric academic was, of course, the wonderful Tony Gibson, who died just recently at the age of 94. His long life was filled with the games that he invented to help people navigate and make more sense of our complicated and sometimes difficult lives.

Back in 1976, I could not have been more wrong in every part of my initial assessment of him. He was forever young, and it was us who lived in another world, and him who enabled us to find a way to connect to each other in the real world of lived experience, and to experience our common humanity. His whole life was dedicated to the process of changing lives for real, and for the better. That experience changed my own ideas about what the real professional task was; not just about design or high technical standards. These are important, but the real question is 'how do we create more democratic places in which to live?'. There are plenty of economic and social consequences that fall out of trying to answer that question, and that is at the heart of this Churchill Fellowship research. I’ve thanked you before, Tony, but it won’t hurt to say it again. Thank you for a life changed.

Now he has gone, it feels quite scary. Maybe I’ll have to join the grown-ups?

Stephen Hill, May 1st in Liberty Gardens, a community park created by the residents of the North Liberties neighborhood in North Philadelphia.