Book Review

Desire Lines

A Guide to Community Participation in Designing Places
Lesley Malone

This book promotes the practices of consultation, participation and collaboration in placemaking, and therefore it is welcome. But I do feel ambivalent about it: the author’s background is in social research, not in design. While she brings a great deal of expertise to the subject, her language is very research-oriented, dense, at times rather abstract, and not free of jargon. Throughout 'user experience’ is irritatingly called UX, yet one of her key summary points is ‘Use clear and unambiguous language, avoiding jargon, design-speak and technical terminology’. At times I sense a distance between the book’s very thorough rational advice and the unpredictable, untidy reality of discussion with sceptical residents around a model, or in front of a display screen.

The clue to this distance is, I think, where Malone writes in her introduction that her book ‘…..offers guidance to designers’. It is meant to be read by urban designers and architects to help them to organise participatory design processes with lay people. But I have always understood that part of the philosophy of participatory design is the blurring of boundaries between professional designers and the recipients of design, recognising that everyone has knowledge and skills in placemaking, although maybe latent. I would not recommend this book to a residents’ group that was intending to select an urban designer with whom to redesign their housing estate. I think they would likely be baffled.

There is a big contrast between this book and Nick Wates’ The Community Planning Handbook which Malone strongly recommends: it is very accessible and userfriendly, and does go some way to removing barriers between professionals and residents. It explains what Planning for Real and other participatory techniques are, and how to use them. Malone’s book mentions Planning for Real once, but a reader not already familiar with it would end the book being no wiser as to what it is.

There are other issues. Jan Gehl’s three categories of outdoor activity are mysteriously reduced to two. Sherry Arnstein’s famous 1969 8-rung Ladder of Participation is needlessly replaced by a 6-rung Spectrum of Participation of 2014 which is similar but less specific to environmental design. Many photographs are uncaptioned, and others have baffling captions (Affinity diagramming?). A Space Syntax analysis of pedestrian routes in Nottingham’s Market Square fails to convey the information which the caption claims. On the positive side, there is a very helpful schedule of types of bias which may occur in various situations, of which we need to be aware. I suspect I have been guilty of most of them.

URBAN DESIGN 151 Summer 2019 Publication Urban Design Group

As featured in URBAN DESIGN 151 Summer 2019

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Desire Lines Publication Urban Design Group
Reviewed By
Joe Holyoak, architect and urban designer