Picture the scene. It’s mid afternoon, and you stand in the queue for the urn of tea and a familiar selection of biscuits. You’re in a large conference room at a four-star chain hotel. “Isn’t it good to be back out and in person post-Covid” someone mutters, eliciting a chorus of approval. This is an occurrence all too recognisable to many of us. How many towns and cities have you been to, only to see the inside of a conference centre or hotel complex?
A large part of our job – and the job of many of our clients – is to facilitate and create the places of the future. We want to help deliver spaces and buildings that fire the imagination, bring about a sense of wonder, that are desirable to live in, work in, and thrive in. Yet too often, when we get together to discuss and imagine the future of a town, many attendees barely experience it, except from the window of a taxi between the station and the conference hall. To transform places, it makes total sense that we should see, feel, and experience them.
There is a different way to approach this station – cab – hotel urban experience, one I was lucky enough to be part of last month. I joined our partners the Academy of Urbanism at its annual Congress event – three days where placemaking and urbanism experts gather from all over the world to share knowledge and ideas, and challenge one another to improve the way we design the towns and cities of the future.
Locations, locations, locations
This is not a conference in any traditional sense. The annual location is chosen based on leadership in urbanism, and how that place is realising opportunities and tackling the problems it faces. This means the location – Cambridge this year – is integral to the event.
The first day is dedicated not just to meeting and greeting, but giving time to get under the skin of the city: unique guided tours that draw out fascinating and underexplored themes and areas often far removed from normal placemaking topics. For instance, I was taken on a journey through Cambridge’s literary past – a walking tour of its writers and poets, and what inspired and enthralled them.
By the time we settled for the Congress’ first talks, even first-timers in the city knew many of its secrets, we had all had our creativity unleashed, and we were offered vital context and understanding for the discussions that followed. To prevent stagnation, and encourage us to see different angles of the city, each day and element of the event was hosted at a new landmark venue – from the Guildhall to the Corn Exchange and the Union Society.
Shoe leather cost
The workshops and talks at Congress covered a wide range of important themes to Cambridge with lessons for many other places across the world. How to balance history with innovation. How to plan for good growth that doesn’t fuel inequality. How to manage progressive partnerships between private organisations and public authorities.
What made these discussions more powerful was that between the presentations and workshops, we were able to go and truly explore the places and developments we were discussing. By foot, by bike, and by bus we crossed the length and breadth of Cambridge – experts, residents and volunteers showing us the latest co-housing schemes, science parks, houses for the homeless, community initiatives and sustainable projects.
There is no substitute to seeing real reactions to genuine innovation – what works, and what needs improving. The issues we face for the future are too important to be left to armchair urbanists. Let’s get out there, burn through that shoe leather, consult on the real impact and create places to be proud of.
Thomas Parfitt, senior account manager