The activities of urban design and masterplanning – particularly the latter term with its potentially authoritarian overtones – are often seen to imply acts of superimposition on a place and its population by an author remote from that context.
By contrast, there are alternative design methodologies which overtly shape interventions through close engagement with those most immediately knowledgeable about a place and its characteristics, namely those who live there. 2020 Visions is focused on such collaborative approaches, specifically the creation of charrettes in which built environment professional teams work extensively with communities to test ideas and explore their implications. This is not, the author is keen to make clear, the same as the typical public consultation process which is normal (indeed statutory) within planning and design, and which can often become a token, tick box, activity.
Campion is a senior member of the architectural and planning practice JTP (previously John Thompson and Partners), an organisation with an extensive history of undertaking collaborative design through charrettes. The term has its origins in the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, where students worked up to the very last minute of a deadline (no different to today…) and deposited their submissions onto a trolley – the charrette – as it was wheeled through the school to take work for review. In contemporary planning practice, charrettes were popularised in a number of locations across the USA, and JTP have been particularly instrumental in its application within projects across the UK and internationally.
2020 Visions is a well-designed and strongly propositional volume, which develops the argument for the use of such exercises to meaningfully engage with communities and to shape design, drawing from the author’s personal experience and those of his colleagues alongside several other practices.
The book is very clearly structured, with introductory chapters that set out the historical context for charrette practice and advance the argument for their use. The main body of the book, its substance, is a series of 20 case studies. Each project is documented within a common framework, and this is very helpful for the reader to navigate, compare and contrast the projects and processes.
This comparison is assisted by a particularly clear matrix at the start of the main central chapter. In a grid it sets out the location, date, client sector, site scale, type (urban/rural), vision focus (planning, urban design, green design, architecture or governance). Across the 20 case studies, all of these headings are covered to varying extents, and this helps to reinforce the argument for the applicability of the charrette process to an extremely diverse range of situations.
Each study includes a short commentary under the headings of precis (overview), foresight (preceding context), vision and hindsight (reflection). The studies succinctly describe the processes undertaken and reflections afterwards. They include illustrations of sites, proposals and the process itself.
This is a well-written book which strongly advances its argument. Its weakness is that it is perhaps a little too passionate and pulls some punches in terms of self-criticism. More counter-arguments and a greater focus on the weaknesses and problematics would be helpful for the objective or sceptical reader. In particular, from personal experience, I would have found it interesting to have more discussion regarding the challenges of meaningful engagement in hard-to-reach communities and the imbalances of engagement within sectors of society, where those with time, skill and articulacy achieve greater agency than those who are, or who feel, disconnected from the shaping of their urban environment. Could digital technology (‘plan-tech’) help to assist and superimpose on traditional face-to-face processes to achieve the laudable ambitions that this book so strongly advocates?