‘Co-design’: what’s in a name?

Co-design and collaborative design have become buzzwords within the architecture, design and planning community. However, as with the word “sustainability”, their increasing usage does not imply meaningful engagement with the fundamental principles.

Southwark Council’s co-design initiative around Peckham Rye Station square, which kicked off with such high hopes and fanfare in August 2014, feels like it has fizzled out during its second stage of architectural engagement into a flaccid facsimile of what co-design should be, as exemplified in the four pointless workshops conducted by the station square architects, Landolt + Brown, which concluded in July 2015.

It all started so well, with the co-design “call to arms” last autumn. Hundreds of local volunteers were encouraged by the co-design project leaders – architecture practices Ash Sakula and what if: projects – to embark on a three-month schedule of workshops and activities, making models of the station buildings to better facilitate discussions, and canvassing hundreds of opinions from local businesses and residents.

Their feedback and insights were shared and visualised through mapping exercises, opinion forums and articles which were posted online and through printed magazines. At the end of the three months, the most pressing themes and concerns voiced by Peckham’s population were summarized in an Atlas of Aspirations, which was then handed to the nine architecture practices selected to compete for the station square re-design, in order to inform their schemes.

The selection of the architects, in my opinion, is where it all went wrong. Many of the shortlisted practices have a track record of commitment to collaborative design – Duggan Morris, for example, whose outstanding Ortus building in Camberwell, created after long engagement with all the stakeholders, has achieved a genuine break-through for the Maudsley, in generating a truly democratic gathering place for local resident groups, healthcare users and practitioners.

Rather than pick one of them, a practice was selected which, judging by the workshops they then hosted, either believes residents and communities are not capable of a useful contribution (which is rich, given Peckham’s high concentration of designers, architects and community activists); or, at best, that it’s simply a hassle they don’t have the skills, time or budget to entertain seriously.

We can’t blame the architects for the flawed commissioning process or the frustrating shifts in scope and budget. But all their workshops achieved, ultimately, was to inform us what theirs and the clients’ preferred option was.

Peckham residents and business owners’ participation was limited to a number of facile exercises: where would we like the loos, for example? What kind of businesses do we imagine occupying the spaces designated? (As if we have any control over that). How many planters and benches would we like and where would we put them? (Though what we really wanted was trees). They had preselected the topics they felt were within our intellectual capacity to debate, while avoiding any conversation around more substantial and contentious issues. That’s not co-design. That’s barely ‘consultation’.

But Peckham’s is not the kind of community that rolls over and gives up. We have to assume that Southwark Council really does want the qualities that characterise Peckham’s current strengths – a creative, entrepreneurial and egalitarian economy with a distinctive, historic and extrovert appearance which expresses and supports many different ethnicities and demographics – to be maintained and preserved. So we must volunteer our own voices, energy and time to create other mechanisms for ensuring that what we value is retained.

If you want to have a say, visit any or all the community groups currently active within Peckham, from Peckham Vision to the ongoing Weeklies group that emerged out of the co-design consultation. For more information, visit www.peckhamvision.org or http://peckhamweeklies.org.uk

Veronica Simpson is an architectural writer and environmental psychologist who has been involved throughout the co-design process.