Leeds School of Arts

The history of participatory design in Yorkshire and the post-pandemic possibilities for architecture

Yorkshire, Leeds and our university have a rich history of people collaborating in order to create buildings and shared spaces that work for everyone. Dr Craig Stott looks at this history and how co-design may help us with urban planning in the post-pandemic era.

Uni students and older people working together on designs

As the UK emerges from a global pandemic the intrinsic instinct to rush and reboot life as ‘normal’ overlooks an opportunity to reconsider what the built environment is, and what it can offer every individual within it. Participatory Design is an approach that would facilitate such a reappraisal for it places end users centrally within the design process, usually working with architects and other professionals through engagement and collaboration.

Lockdown, isolation, working from home, teaching at home, have all brought into clear view the importance of support networks and community. By choosing to hold onto local communities when the understood world crumbled underfoot, it stands to reason everyone would greatly benefit from focusing more on those places and relationships in the future. Therefore, is it not time to empower local people and divert investment from the no-longer lucrative city centres toward the localities in which we live and commune?

Yorkshire has a strong history of such endeavour. Patrick Nuttgens, founding Director of Leeds Polytechnic and Professor of Architecture from 1969 helped develop radical hands-on teaching methods, including establishing a project office led by Bob Berry, where students engaged, designed and built with community groups resulting in numerous buildings such as a neighbourhood hall in York, and a homeless person’s shelter in Leeds.

Architect Eddy Walker devoted his life to improving housing conditions for the under-privileged in Leeds, setting up the technical aid centre, Arcaid in 1978, before forming a national association and helping roll the idea out across the country. Widely respected amongst both the architecture community and within the neighbourhoods he worked, Walker, with architect colleague Norman Arnold, helped design and build the New Wortley Community Centre in 1982 which was funded by residents ‘buying’ a brick for 50p.

A desire to expand their service provision in 2009 led New Wortley Community Association to work with the Leeds School of Architecture at Leeds Beckett University (formerly Leeds Polytechnic). A new age of collaborative community engagement ensued with students working on over 30 projects for 18 non-profit organisations to date. Project Office was reincarnated in 2013 under the guidance of Dr Simon Warren and Craig Stott, helping to deliver the new New Wortley Community Centre in 2016, this time funded by BIG Lottery rather than local donations.

Group of people working on garden area in front of a building (New Wortley Community Centre)

New Wortley Community Centre

In 2019, Project Office’s method of working was recognised by Universities UK as one of the 100 most important breakthrough projects in a campaign showing how universities improve people’s everyday lives and communities across the UK. The MadeAtUni list demonstrates how UK universities are at the forefront of some of the world’s most important discoveries, innovations and social initiatives. 

The post-pandemic world offers an opportunity to redefine cities to be people-centric as opposed to profit-driven, and in so doing address the climate emergency and expanding poverty levels. Imagine the beating heart becoming one of art, music, culture, education, and anything else local people desired, rather than the bleak monotony of chain retail and faceless corporate entities of yesterday. The heart connects through green corridors of active transport, replacing the swathes of tarmac now underused given reduced commuting, to countless hubs working in tandem with each other providing camaraderie, wellbeing and hope through local business support, local produce, and local endeavour.

Craig Stott

Senior Lecturer / Leeds School Of Arts

Craig Stott (MEng, BArch, MA, ARB) is a Project Office co-director, Architect and Senior Architecture Lecturer at the Leeds School of Architecture, Leeds Beckett University.

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