Wales offers a virtual model for Farrell’s ‘urban rooms’

The Design Commission for Wales’ new website aims to empower communities, says Carole-Anne Davies

One of the main themes of the Farrell Review is the need for a new level of public engagement through education and outreach in every village, town and city.

There was a specific recommendation for “urban rooms” where people can inspect how the past, present and future fit together.

The importance of allowing lay people to review, evaluate and feed into how their places change is something that we have championed, as the Design Commission for Wales, for a number of years.

No_place_like-Home_WhalesIn 2005, we devised and launched My Square Mile, a framework for engaging young children in the investigation and understanding of their immediate environment, providing ways in which they can engage in the issues affecting the built environment. The project was piloted in 30 schools throughout Swansea and Carmarthenshire and is still in use today. In fact, the concept has spread to other areas of Wales, Kent and even across the globe to Spain and California.

No Place Like Home followed in 2010 aiming to eliminate jargon and help people engage with planning and design policy in Wales, along with urban design principles for residential development. It has been widely used by local authorities and is currently being updated.

At the end of last month, just a few days before the Farrell Review was published, we launched Shape My Town, the culmination of a number of years of research and pilot projects with partners across Wales.

UntitledShape My Town was created in partnership with architect Matthew Jones of Coombs Jones Architects & Makers, to provide local people with more tools and know-how so that they can bring their knowledge, skills and ideas to the development debate, and have a greater say in the way their communities are shaped.

It aims to provide practical advice on setting up “town teams”, exploring what makes neighbourhoods special, shaping and communicating ideas to decision makers and finding ways for more voices to be heard in debates around the future development of villages, towns or cities.

It complements our emphasis on the participatory and on the importance of sharing information and resources. We launched entirely via social media and the response has been incredible in just a week or so. Oh yes and we seem to have invented “Townloads”!

Engaging people in the future of their communities is not a “nice to have”, it’s an essential. And the more that we can do this, whether this is through the use of online toolkits or urban rooms, then the better our built environment, and the spaces in-between it, will become.