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The Urban Room as a Driver of Planning Imagination and Civic Participation

Lookup NU author(s): Dr Dhruv SookhooORCiD, Professor Mark Tewdwr-Jones


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The recent Farrell Review of Architecture and the Built Environment calls for every town and city to have an urban room, where the past, present and future of that place can be explored by its communities. Farrell’s proposition envisages exhibitions centred on city-models being capable of reengaging stakeholders and communities in better place-based decision-making. Potential UK precedents include New London Architecture’s member-funded display with its interactive London model and Open Blackburn’s use of live, three-dimensional printing to initiate arts-led regeneration. Speculation about the format of urban rooms provides planners and architects with an opportunity to reassess the value of the city exhibition as a means of promoting urban change through civic participation and the implications for their practice of a potential resurgence of a method so confidently deployed by their predecessors in the early twentieth century. This paper critically explores the Newcastle City Futures exhibition and event series as a case study of a temporary urban room curated and designed to promote city-wide dialogue between communities, practitioners, elected members, developers and institutions. Our exhibition was part of an ongoing urban foresight project initiated by Newcastle University, which uses futures methods and city-wide participation processes to consider the long-term future of Newcastle and Gateshead. We attempted to enhance public participation by adopting a visual, multi-media approach to communicating urban change and decision-making, and avoiding the policy-laden syntax of planners, design mystique of architects and hidden alliances of politicians and elected members. By juxtaposing models, city plans, photographs and oral histories of built, demolished and imagined developments from public, private and community collections, and collecting responses to straightforward place-based questions, we encouraged speculation about future urban scenarios grounded in the present realities and past narratives of Tyneside’s communities. The case indicates the potential of the urban room as an exhibition format to support meaningful, public conversations that can reveal tacit understanding held by those affected by development and create the civic collaborations necessary to complement professionally generated, scientific knowledge and institutional networks normally associated with long-term strategic planning. Beyond its use as an innovative data collection method within the foresight project, the participatory nature of the exhibition and discussion forum has created a legacy that raises important questions about the potential role of planners as curators, and the use of exhibitions to promote urban change, forge new partnerships and educate future practitioners during a period of increasing professional uncertainty, dwindling public trust and shifting policy context necessitating interdisciplinary practice. The exhibition led to the formation of City Futures Development Group, a partnership between Newcastle’s universities, Newcastle City Council and the Local Enterprise Partnership, to evaluate and apply research to urban change issues. By generating valuable, alternative planning practice knowledge the exhibition served as a key precedent for an undergraduate design project intended to prepare undergraduates capable of operating across planning and architectural disciplinary boundaries to promote enhanced civic engagement and community participation.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Sookhoo DA, Tewdwr-Jones M

Publication type: Conference Proceedings (inc. Abstract)

Publication status: Published

Conference Name: Research on Display: The Architecture Exhibition as a Model for Knowledge Production

Year of Conference: 2015

Print publication date: 30/11/2015

Acceptance date: 05/10/2015