More than just buildings – Open House Impact Study

OHWW Impact Study 2017 External_Final

Stepping down as Director of Open-City last year, but continuing as Founder, was the opportunity for me to have some much-needed space and time to reflect on the extraordinary growth and popularity of the Open House concept and more importantly what were the ingredients for its success. Open House London – the original event which now reaches 250,000 people every year in the capital – celebrates its 25th anniversary in 2017, but over the last two decades many individuals and organisations in other cities worldwide have approached me to find out how they can develop and implement the Open House concept in their own cities. As a result, Open House now take place every year in 32 cities* on five continents, with three quarters of a million people participating. Each event is developed by its local community, but the Open House cities – now within the ‘family’ known as Open House Worldwide – share one core common principle: inviting everyone to experience architecture for free and by doing so enabling them to become better informed and champion better design for their cities.

Why has the enthusiasm for this model of public engagement become so widespread and why is it so easily translated across countries and cultures? .

In the age of global urbanisation –when more people live in cities than ever before – there is ever-greater awareness of how the built environment impacts on our daily lives, and the need to support sustainability, liveability and wellbeing is common to every city, no matter its location.

A new impact study has been produced with the aim of showing how the ‘Open House’ concept has been developed and examining how and why it has been so successful around the world.  The Open House concept no doubt enables people to engage with the built environment on their own terms,  one key reason being is that Open House does not rely on specialist knowledge or indeed language – it is open to all, free and democratic and – well before the emergence of what we now call the ‘sharing economy’ – it is also collaborative and inclusive, crossing boundaries and cultural divides.  In addition by providing an independent platform – but one with significant private and public sector support from a wide range of disciplines including planning and infrastructure as well as architecture – it has become a powerful conduit to influence policy and decision-making about the built environment.

For example Jules Pipe, the Deputy Mayor of London asked how under-represented groups can have a greater stake in shaping London’s future, and remarked that Open House has a “set a benchmark for engaging people of different ages and socio-economic backgrounds in architecture and regeneration of London … work like this will be fundamental to encouraging diversity in the built environment industry, but also in supporting young people to be the decision makers of tomorrow and have a greater stake in the future of their City”

But what makes it work? Behind every Open House programme is the idea that direct experience leads to engagement, empowerment and advocacy. Physical experience of inspiring examples allows people the opportunity to explore how architecture, landscape, public realm and infrastructure actually work in real time, and focusing on high-quality design opens people’s eyes and minds to the ‘art of the possible’. Face-to-face, unmediated interactions with volunteers and professionals on hand to explain the ideas and development of their projects encourage dialogue and questioning on site, showing a building or space in context and how it relates to the wider city; this is also extended through debates, talks and other satellite events.

And so by being better informed, people feel empowered to participate more, and are better placed to influence policy decisions, to advocate for better design, and to take a more active interest and role in how their city is shaped.
Watch this space as the Open House Impact Study develops but also let me know if you have examples you want to relate directly connected to Open House or studies that reinforce our belief in this model of public engagement as would be good to share with everyone!

*London, New York, Dublin, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Helsinki, Oslo, Melbourne, Barcelona, Brisbane, Slovenia, Chicago, Rome, Lisbon, Perth, Thessaloniki, Limerick, Gdynia, Buenos Aires, Vienna, Athens, Monterrey, Cork, Vilnius, Prague, Madrid, Belfast, Porto, Lagos, Milan, Zurich and Stockholm

Truly Public Space: The Key to a Liveable City

With the ever-increasing demands on space in London as the city grows, the debate around ‘private’ vs ‘public’ in relation to our outdoor spaces continues to rage. (see Anna Minton’s article http://www.theguardian.com/cities/2014/dec/30/what-i-want-from-our-cities-in-2015-public-spaces-that-are-truly-public-boris-johnson-london. That this subject can generate such passionate responses was also shown by our recent Open-City poll on this subject, which generated more than 1500 responses in just half a day, and the discussions at the recent RTPI event on ‘Who has a right to the city?’ at which I was one of the speakers.

The importance of a well-designed public realm has been creeping up the developers’ agenda over the last decade, and we’ve seen this come to the fore especially in the past 5 years with new schemes such as Granary Square and The Leadenhall Building. When we see children playing in the fountains at King’s Cross or on the South Bank, there is some indication that we are on the way to achieving a liveable city – as Jan Gehl has so succinctly put it, when children feel safe in our public spaces, we are making a city for everyone.

Our poll asked Londoners the question ‘Do you think privately managed public spaces in London isolate and exclude more than making a more attractive, safer city?’. 62% of people answered yes, and 38% said no. Many of the former shared the widespread and real concerns that privately owned public spaces have restricted access and control – sometimes more insidious because it is hidden – that means that using these spaces is a privilege rather than a right, ‘with skateboarders, the poor, dogwalkers, cyclists etc. excluded simply because the owner doesn’t like them’, as one person commented. And it seems that even the much-feted Garden Bridge will effectively be more a privately owned tourist attraction rather than a new public right of way across the Thames.

What can be done to resolve this situation, when Londoners often feel wary and unnerved by privatised spaces where it’s ‘business first rather than community first’ – as evidenced by the presence of private security guards? Many of our respondents, however, acknowledged that the problem is a complex one. They considered that some privately managed public spaces did feel more inclusive and welcoming than others, and that it is better to have private management rather than no management at all, which could conceivably happen with the enormous pressures on local authority budgets. Effective, transparent and light touch management was seen by the respondents as the key to making all public spaces, even if privately owned, work for London – as well as of course the quality of the design.   At the end of the day however, public space should be just that, public and without restrictions.

London: Designed for Healthy Living?

Since April 2012, public health in England has been re-organised. It is now led by Local Authorities through Local Health & Well-Being Boards (LHWBs), which are intended to bring together the NHS, public health and social care. So what does this mean? In theory, the same organisation now controls public health and the planning process. There should therefore be exciting opportunities to bring the two disciplines together to (for example) improve the standard of the public realm or to promote ‘active travel’.

Instead of the NHS ‘reactionary’ management to health-care can local authorities utilize their planning department and design preventative or even health-enhancing environments that negate the problem before it starts? Can ‘we’ (local authorities) commit to the logic of… more green space = improved air quality = reduced respiratory illness = reduced cost to health services.

Or can ‘we’ commit to… better cycle infrastructure = more people cycling = more active lifestyles = reduced health risks of inactivity and obesity = reduced cost to health services.

Over 97% of our public poll this month (205 entries) believe that well designed spaces effect positively on their mental well-being.

With Local Authority powers across planning and public-health, now more then ever, we can design for healthy living… so why aren’t we? Open-City debates just this –  ‘London: Designed for Healthy Living?’ at our inaugral Green Debate in partnership with the London School of Economics next Tuesday 16 September. Read more here – http://www.openhouselondon.org.uk/special/greendebate.html

Women in architecture: what is the way forward?

As a judge of the recent Architects’ Journal 2014 Women in Architecture awards I was of course delighted to see the achievements of so many inspirational women architects being celebrated and at last acknowledged at the Awards luncheon at the Langham Hotel last Friday.

But, the awards aside, what, as many observers have pointed out, is there to celebrate about women’s status in the architectural profession? Only about a fifth of practising architects in the UK are women, and even fewer are directors or partners.

The outcome of the AJ’s annual Women in Architecture survey this year represents a quite depressing picture – and, interestingly, more than 200 of those who filled it in were men. Two thirds of the women who answered say that they have suffered sexual discrimination, 11% once a week or more. And though women architects believed they receive equal pay to men, AJ’s research showed that they can in fact earn as much as £10,000 a year less. Again, two thirds believed that the building industry has not fully accepted the authority of the female architect.

In an age where gender equality is supposedly a given, this shows the scale of the challenge that still remains in the architectural profession, and indeed in many others. How can we respond? At the AJ Awards event, Patty Hopkins made the comment that ‘the role of an architect is so diverse. It can mean so many different things – working on projects with vast differences of scale, working in a big team for a big practice on big jobs, working for self or small office on small jobs … Perhaps the answer is in this diversity. There are roles for all.’

Currently our way of telling the story of architecture is to tell the story of individuals – and naturally because of this the focus remains on those male architects who have become world-renowned figures (yes, there is Zaha Hadid – but incredibly, she has only received this status over the last few years). There are of course other women too, but nowhere near enough. Perhaps what is needed is a greater focus on the variety of roles within the profession and the importance of teamwork and collaboration. Then we may see the contribution of women throughout the profession getting greater recognition, which may go some way further to closing the gap that still so obviously exists.