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Conversation with Finn Williams (Sub-Plan, Friends of Arnold Circus, Croydon Council &c)

Sub-Plan

We were fortunate to have Finn Williams in Helsinki recently, courtesy of a WDC event called Unbuilt Helsinki (organised by Nene Tsuboi of NOW etc. and Benjamin of Åbäke etc. with the Museum of Finnish Architecture.) Finn is part of the urban design team at Croydon Council in the UK (one of the largest London boroughs) as well as running his own practice, Common Office.

I caught up with Finn to talk Brickstarter, NIMBY to YIMBY, planning policy and law, Big Society and numerous other things. Quick hits follow.

Croydon, like many London boroughs, is large, complex and diverse. Unlike most, however, it has a strongly defined large commercial core – almost a “CBD” in US/Australian terminology – and as with most CBDs, there are attempts to create more of a mixed use environment (read: introduction of residential.) This is one challenge. But the borough is diverse in numerous ways, and was particularly hit during the London riots last year. That indicates quite another challenge.

In this context, and that of a major rationalisation of UK planning guidelines (see below), we spoke at length about transforming the culture within British (actually English) local governments, particularly in terms of working in design, and particularly in terms of the need to work “strategically”. Finn laughed that he hadn’t done a stroke of “traditional” urban design for a couple of years now, instead focusing on redesigning the context of the problem, helping shape the organisation, moving backwards and forwards between citizen and institution (familiar language to us, even if a different context.)

As with everyone these days, Finn is involved in numerous ventures simultaneously. One such productive sideline is Friends of Arnold Circus (FoAC), a community group based in London’s Boundary Estate public housing (known as “council housing” in the UK). The Boundary Estate was the first publicly-funded social housing in England, and replaced the notorious Old Nichol slum in 1897. Old Nichol was 1400 houses in an area less than 370m2, with around 9 people per house, and so infamous that police refused to enter it.

The Old Nichol, early 1890s

A street in the Nichol, 1890

Plan for the new Boundary Estate

The centrepiece of the new Boundary Estate was Arnold Circus; originally a delightful small garden and bandstand, this was always in murky, dangerous disrepair when I lived around the corner a decade ago.

After months (years?) of negotiation with the local council (Tower Hamlets) the FoAC have agreed to provide basic regular maintainance and programming for Arnold Circus from within the community – essentially the lighter, daily/weekly work that they can do, as well as organising events – with the municipality doing the more heavy-duty long-term maintenance on the space. FoAC’s website says *we garden, work with schoolchildren and volunteers and run events.”

Arnold Circus

That this simple arrangement took months indicates the basic “social-contractual” problems we have got ourselves into, a form of negative dark matter blocking proactive engagement from communities whilst locking civic spaces in stasis (they actually deteriorate.). Yet its success is redolent of the observations I made in this recent post about a Brickstarter research trip to Berlin last week. (More on that here soon.) There are some things that are better done through productive collaboration and agreement between citizens, civics and institutions.

Arnold Circus

Finn is both a local resident and trustee of FoAC, and tells the story well. He reminded that maintenance is almost always the key issue around such ideas. Planting, building, opening – these are the easy bits. Maintaining is where the cost is, particularly for municipalities, and the lack of thought around this stops many potential developments. FoAC addressed this very directly.

(In a sense, this could be seen as an example of the controversial ‘Big Society’ policy initiative that the current UK government is promoting. Yet it predates this by many years, and is not new in approach, reflecting instead the collaboration, hard work, perserverance and civic pride that successful communities have always been constructed from. There seems to be little new in policy terms here, just as, ironically, most critiques of the Big Society have also suggested that there is no there, there.)

FoAC is a strong example of ‘Yes In My Backyard’ (even if it is a renovation of an existing yet defunct bit of civic infrastructure rather than a new development.) Our project is about taking such examples and making it easier; but importantly, “making it easier” by using such collective voices and activities to reshape ‘dark matter’ (governance, legislation, culture, attitude, stance) such that it reflects the holistic and collective desires of communities. In this way, it reinforces the role of democratic governance through a more proactive and responsive social contract, rather than trying to sidestep it; can we make public decision-making more holistic, and so sustainable, by working with increased diversity, and so also more resilient?

(Note: here’s the community’s website for logging and sharing ideas about how to use the space.)

Finn had some strong ideas about how such activities might fit within the “localism” agenda also on the UK policy table at the moment, indicating the need to rework the various levels that planning is enacted at. UK planning law has just undergone radical surgery, with the national planning guidelines slashed from 1000 pages to 52. Apparently, despite a very close call involving the Treasury, the guidelines are generally thought to be better. (Read The Guardian’s Simon Jenkins on the somewhat fraught process thus far)

Another touchstone for Brickstarter is “legibility”, enablng a kind of user-centred redesign of policy, regulations and procedure. Precedents here would include Candy Chang’s work, such as the Tenants’ Rights Flash Cards and Vendor Power! as well as Center for Urban Pedagogy.

Tenants' Rights Flash Cards

In this context, the reduction of planning documentation by 95% could well have been done through this more user-centred approach; I don’t know. Most of the discussion has been about how the reduction itself must surely be better (and perhaps that’s right; at some basic level, the sheer weight of the previous documents was a barrier) but there is more to “user-centredness” than simply reduction. Reduction would be an outcome of such work, almost certainly, but alongside many other aspects. Finn was great on this aspect, and talked convincingly about the need to follow this reduction with a concerted rethinking of all levels of planning in the UK (not necessarily reduction, but rethinking). Within such a centralised governence culture, but with a desire for increasing local agency, the real issue is a systemic redesign up and down the scales.

Sub-Plan

In the hyper-local arena, the really interesting work Finn talks about is a short booklet produced out of a summer school that Finn taught at the Architectural Association in London, with David Knight and graphic designers Europa. Called “Sub-Plan: A Guide to Permitted Development”. Here’s an excerpt:

“SUB-PLAN is an exploration of this legal no-man’s-land; a guide that reveals ambiguous grey areas as openings for opportunist architecture. The study looks for semantic loop-holes and legislative cracks to develop examples of Permitted Development: architecture that limbo dances under the radar of regulations. SUB-PLAN highlights building possibilities hidden within a labyrinth of legal jargon and ambiguity. The guide inspires the householder to make the most of their new freedoms. How far can these new rules be exploited? And what might the urban environment look like if householders work collectively? SUB-PLAN investigates the moment when architecture appears to slip into insignificance – when it doesn’t even need a planning application. Are the implications of minor development more significant than planners imagine? “

(There’s a good review by FAT’s Sam Jacob here.)

Sub-Plan

Sub-Plan

Sub-Plan

Sub-Plan

It’s an excellent project: witty, accessible, quietly radical within civic constraints and genuinely thought-provoking. It describes all manner of potential development that might transform a municipality like Croydon (where the research was based). Yet it does this using entirely new tactics derived directly from existing legislation that seem near-impossible at first glance – at least based on how people have traditionally interpreted that legislation. It’s very smart.

Sub-Plan

Sub-Plan

Sub-Plan

Sub-Plan

This is not quite in the tradition of the semi-legendary “Non-Plan” manifesto, despite the name. “Non Plan” (produced for New Society in 1969 by Reyner Banham. Cedric Price, Paul Barker and Peter Hall) advocated for effectively no planning controls at all, an essentially libertarian position that would have been exploited by power interests (see Adam Curtis on the inability of self-organising structures to balance the effects of power and politics) and have left no strategic capability to address issues that stretch beyond individual self-interest.

Sub-Plan

Sub-Plan

Sub-Plan

Sub-Plan

“Sub-Plan”, however, smartly addresses the gaps in existing legislation, and works creatively within them (something like Renew Newcastle, discussed a few weeks ago.) It doesn’t remove planning regulations; rather, it looks to exploit the fact that they are generally poorly designed, and finds ways to create a denser, more diverse urban form within them, yet often taking orthogonal, almost absurdist positions. It’s a wonderful demonstration of working with dark matter as a material. It even proposes such an approach could scale to major buildings, well beyond the backyard alterations, and in keeping with central Croydon’s relatively unusual condition.

Sub-Plan

Sub-Plan

The UK Town and Country Planning Act is reproduced at the back of the book, and the contrast with the vivid front section could not be sharper where it rendered in pink neon or the medium of modern dance. One clearly feels like an enabler, the other a blocker. I’ll leave you to decide which is which. “Sub-Plan” is inspiring; you can buy a print-on-demand copy here.

The rest of our conversation circled around the specifics of planning in the UK; you’ll thank me for sparing the details, though it’s clear that austerity is pushing the UK – either through accident or by design – into some interesting areas (not that that compensates for the pain elsewhere, in my view). Finn has some great insights into what this could all mean …

Some core points then:

  • Maintenance: We’re determined to move beyond the pop-up, the installation, and towards the systemic, the ongoing. This means focusing on maintenance, lifecycle, even end-of-life issues directly. This is not something Kickstarter gets near, of course.
  • Persistence: FoAC also indicates the perserverence required when faced with opaque, outdated or oversized regulation or institutional culture. City-making is perhaps the slowest pursuit we have invented yet, yet the interventions one sees in Berlin indicate that small changes can come quickly and add up to systemic change — if citizens are also engaged in city-making as FoAC have started to do.
  • You can innovate within existing legislation …
  • …But existing legislation needs to be changed if we want different outcomes: Sub-Plan indicates the rich possibilities of manouvering within existing legislation (see also Renew Newcastle), and one would always want such activities to act as a form of loosely-joined “innovation system” to continually provoke and suggest potential improvements, but it’s the wholesale revamping of the planning laws that is of course the bigger deal, systemically. Here the challenge is to make good on the localism agenda in the UK, which will mean increased and skilled resourcing at that level, whilst reworking the more strategic layers above.
  • Make it legible: Finally, both the format and content of “Sub-Plan” suggest that there might be a different way of framing planning for citizens.

Why do I blog this?
Finn’s work is inspiring in many ways, not least as he traverses the local at the scale of a neighbourhood, as a resident of Arnold Circus, with the local at the scale of the city and country, as an urban designer in Croydon. As a result he is able to move freely from direct experience of working within communities to direct experience of creating strategic frameworks for other communities to work within. This balance of the particular with the systemic gives key insights, such as the role of legislation, or of the stance inadvertently conveyed by governance through its presentation of legislation, or the fundamental importance of accounting for maintenance, of persistently looking to enable small improvements within existing frameworks, or in enabling innovation by making things legible.

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One comment on ‘Conversation with Finn Williams (Sub-Plan, Friends of Arnold Circus, Croydon Council &c)’

  1. Thanks for the write-up Dan, and a useful memorandum of a fascinating conversation. One interesting sub-plot that neatly completes the circles traced in your post is that Croydon is often held up (along with Canary Wharf) as one of the few instances where NON-PLAN got close to being realised (or, in this case, pre-enacted). The Croydon Corporation Act multiplied by the Brown Ban on new office building in central London resulted in the abnormal speculative office boom in the 1960s that gave Croydon its claim to mini-Mahattanism. Ironically Croydon’s hangover from the no-holds-barred growth of the 60s – the acres of vacant commercial floor plates – now means Croydon has a rare supply of cheap available space for self-organising structures like social enterprises to occupy. High time for Brickstarter to kick in.

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