Sam Cassels reflects on the paradox that a brief for the city reflects both the grand sweeps of policy and the worms eye view of the neighbourhood. The power of words and elegance of writing are an artistic statement as much as the design of the built statement being discussed.
A day in New York in early spring. The avenues and streets crowded with short stories, torn fragments of Hopper paintings and Mapplethorpe images, kaleidoscopic stills from a thousand movie clichés flickering on skyscraper screens.
A fractal place that can be grasped only by curating your own experiences through the lens of your own story – or, by categorising and ordering the data into more approachable fields of enquiry. One is the sound of a million voices, the other an echo of a thousand models. The important question is how does power get exercised in response to these competing stories of reality – and how does a brief arise which reflects the voices and informs the models.
Broadway New York, Hamilton the Musical: a song in Act II with the refrain – “no one else was in the room where it happened”. Being in the room when decisions are being framed is at the very core of meaningful engagement and briefing.
In cities such as New York the resolution of the individual with the community and with those in power is often scripted as a cinematic struggle – Jane Jacobs versus Robert Moses. However, the reality is often more to do with urban complexities and the need to reshape them for policy formation and delivery. In any discussion about a person in a place in a city, there will always be a mountain of priorities and plans which can ultimately override the consequences for individuals.
The people in the room at a community workshop know this. If their narratives are to be heard then they first need to get the right people in the room, and secondly get their message to the people outside the room.
Morning in a small place in Scotland in late autumn. The choreography of familiarity on the main street. Three hundred years of history in every close. Neighbourly buildings struggling through another mid-life crisis. And between the buildings, in the near distance, views of the surrounding blue, green, grey landscape.
A local get together with the key stakeholders: individuals, representatives, influencers, and those responsible for the delivery of services and the stewardship of assets. People in the room who know the place at a granular level and have the power to inform, influence, and change, decisions about its future. A conversation from which can arise an authentic narrative – a brief with honest intent which sets the condition for success and forms the basis for action. At the end of ‘The Power Broker’, Robert Caro describes the older Robert Moses pondering ‘Why weren’t they grateful?’ at what he had done to their city. There is a fundamental difference between cities and smaller places, beyond the obvious impact of scale, and that is the exercise of power. Cities are powerful global laboratories for change. But perhaps they also have a lot to learn from the briefs that small places can create – and the opportunities that can be seized when power brokers and the people they serve are in the room together when it happens.
Sam Cassels is a strategic designer and facilitator with a focus on collaborative storytelling and place-making – helping people to make well informed decisions about shaping the future. He is currently the Place Principle Adviser to the Scottish Government.