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_THE NEGOTIATED CITY _____
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_We Made That_____________
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Negotiation is everywhere in our lives right now. In the projects we’re working on in the practice, yes, and in our national politics (don’t mention Br*xit). Perhaps this is particularly acute since our work is focused entirely on the public sector. It’s a rewarding way to work – but it results in a bureaucratic approach to decision-making, involving multiple departments with different views, multi-headed client teams, and joint commissions between organizations with no shared leadership. Not to mention the wider public that has a stake in our work. Negotiation in such complex scenarios seems to produce total chaos: Who’s in charge here? Why didn’t we ask this question sooner? Will we keep going around in circles forever? Can we ever get to an answer?
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We shape our cities in a similar way. The UK planning system – unlike US zoning – has very few hard-and-fast rules for what’s permissible. Everything is subject to haggling, argument, and personal taste. The process is imperfect, for sure. It is frequently influenced by those with power or, worse still, money. In fact, this system is often cited as one of the key factors contributing to the UK housing crisis; the “complexity, unpredictability, and inconsistency” of planning processes are often blamed for the difficulties of getting new developments off the drawing board and off the ground. [1]
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But rather than despair, we can embrace the power of a negotiated outcome. Let’s really argue over our cities! Differing opinions are unavoidable, especially when it concerns something as important and contested as the cities we live in. We can welcome a process that allows more people to chip in to the conversation. In fact, we wish more people would chip in. Too often, architects have made people and communities doubt that their voices matter. There’s nothing more dispiriting than asking a community member’s opinion about an area, or plans to improve it, and hearing someone say “I’ve given my views before and nothing changes, so what’s the point now?” Effective communication reveals differences of opinion, but it can also spark prioritization.
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Although it might feel like mayhem, arguing means considering all angles and perspectives, seeing views that may not have been visible before. Those views that are held dearest are fought for longest and hardest. A clear, linear route from start to finish might be more comfortable for us as architects – helping to preserve the hallowed “concept” of a scheme – but let’s not pretend that ever really happens, or that it’s the ideal process. We have decided to welcome the tussle.

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[1] Tom Knowles, “Planning Red Tape Snares Small Developers,” The Times, May 1, 2017.

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