Co-creating a sustainable future

3rd September 2020

This excerpt is taken from our recent publication, Ideas on Co-creation. To read more, you can find the publication here.

How can all parts of the built environment work collaboratively to ensure that communities are involved in—and benefit from—new development? Sarah Cary discusses with Alan Shingler how her experience in both private and public sectors has shaped her views on co-creation, and how strategic engagement can be harnessed to promote strong development ethics. Sarah explains how early, thoughtful engagement can encourage a shift in attitudes from both social and environmental perspectives, playing a vital role in evolving development processes as issues surrounding climate change become increasingly pertinent.

Sarah Cary is the Executive Director of Place for Enfield Council, and Alan Shingler is a Partner at Sheppard Robson. Written by Adam Branson, Journalist, Writer and Editor, specialising in the built environment

When it comes to co-creation, it is self-evident that being able to consider a project from as many different perspectives as possible is highly valuable for the professionals involved. The problem is that most people spend their entire careers in one silo or another, be it in the public, private sector or voluntary sector. On that front, Sarah Cary is rather different.

Brought up in Dallas, she attended the University of Texas, graduating with the American equivalent of a first in just two and a half years on what is meant to be a four-year programme. A move to the UK to pursue a career in the built environment followed, in addition to further academic studies (she holds a doctorate in addition to being a qualified planner). Then, after a brief career in consultancy, Cary joined British Land in 2008, rising to become Head of Sustainable Places in 2015.

Around two years ago, however, her career trajectory took a different direction when she decided to take up the role of Executive Director, Place, at Enfield Council. While the path from public sector planning to private consultancy is well trodden, moving from one of the country’s best respected developers and landlords to a job in local government, however senior, remains highly unusual.

As a result, Cary is better placed than most to comment on how all parts of the built environment need to work collaboratively and across sectors to ensure that communities are involved in—and benefit from—new development. Alan Shingler, Partner at Sheppard Robson, met her to discuss how her diverse experience has shaped her views and how co-creation can lead to better outcomes, both socially and environmentally.

Shingler opened the discussion by asking Cary how she went about embedding sustainability into British Land’s development pipeline and what lessons she had carried over to her work at Enfield. “When I was at British Land, I tried to make sustainability everybody’s job,” she said. “So, having a framework where architects had to think about it, structural engineers had to think about it and getting the construction company to have their own concept of it, rather than having somebody whose job it was to be the sustainability person.”

She added: “That’s something that I have brought here—it’s everybody’s job. I don’t think you can build a better city by having one expert. Cities take a lot of expertise and, particularly in a local government context, we have to manage a lot of the things that we build for a long time afterwards. We have spent the last two years breaking down the silos between the different built environment disciplines.”

However, Cary is also clear that involving all professions is necessary but also insufficient: true co-creation will only happen when the communities affected by development are brought on board at as early stage as possible. To that end, Cary referenced the recently released report from the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, which urged local planning authorities to engage the public in strategic planning, rather than simply asking for their views on individual projects. Cary referenced Enfield’s work on its local plan as a case in point.

“We did a lot of engagement around our local plan and we did it in lots of ways,” she said. “People could write formal submissions, but we also did a lot around social media and held quizzes. We asked which buildings people liked out of a series of five. We had a lighter touch website where people could just leave comments and see what others had said. That was good, but we can still get better.”

Quite apart from just being the right thing for a democratic body to do, Cary said that engaging communities in strategic planning can help people understand that planning and development is a delicate business and one that involves often incompatible priorities. “If you bring people in at a strategic planning phase, they have to make choices,” she said.

“Residents who are opposing a development often don’t understand that by saying no to one development they have to say yes to something else. It is much easier to engage people in a strategic discussion about an area than it is by looking at an individual planning application. You’re going to get a better outcome, but you are also going to have less hassle in terms of all the different ways in which a development can be stopped.”

Cary admitted that it is “impossible” to get everyone on board, but added that the potential for conflict can be minimised if planning authorities take the time to explain how concerns have been addressed and treat planning documents as things that should be a source of civic pride. “It’s not just about receiving information—it’s about communicating back,” she said.

“After all the engagement we get everyone who has been involved together and say ‘this is what we have agreed and we would like you to come and celebrate’. We don’t just adopt planning documents; we try to have an evening celebration about them. When we adopted our heritage strategy, for example, we had a party to launch the document.”

Shingler agreed that engaging early and explaining how feedback has informed the decision-making process is essential. He referenced Sheppard Robson’s work with Places for People and Balfour Beatty on the East Wick and Sweetwater development in Olympic Park, which will ultimately deliver 1,500 homes over five phases on a site adjacent to Hackney Wick. “When we embarked on that, we engaged with the local community in Hackney Wick and they were worried about gentrification,” said Shingler.

“They didn’t want bridges connecting East Wick and Sweetwater to Hackney Wick. They see themselves as their own little live/work environment and they don’t want prices to go up. At the same time, they want to benefit from the park and houses need to be delivered, so how do you start to engage with new people that are moving to the area, existing communities and businesses?”

The solution, Shingler explained, is to make use of modern technology to engage with as many people as possible. “We started looking at smart data, so apps that encourage consultation and communication between new and existing residents and local businesses,” he said. “It seems to me that there is an opportunity to use the collection of data to pick up common threads and then communicate back through the same platform and show that things are changing.”

Cary agreed. “The use of apps is good and it does engage with people who wouldn’t show up at a public meeting to oppose or support something and who are actually pretty neutral about it,” she said. “They are never going to write in and oppose or support something. A lot of people just think ‘it’s fine.’ Apps can encourage people.”

In terms of public attitudes, Shingler added that there has “been a shift in consciousness around values for sustainability and not just climate change” in recent years, pointing out that the issue has rocketed up the agenda. Has that had an impact on Cary’s thinking?

“When I first got into masterplanning and design work, even before British Land, the mantra was sustainable development and the definition everyone used was about living and acting and making decisions as if you were making decisions for the next seven generations,” she said. “So, it was thinking about the long term—not wasting resources so that future generations could have them.”

In the last year, however, Cary has re-examined that analysis in light of both climate events and high-profile campaigns, not least by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg and activist group Extinction Rebellion. “It’s not about seven generations anymore,” she said. “It’s about the house being on fire—it’s about today. It used to be that we were doing development but in the long term we will have a positive impact. Now, I don’t think we can get away with that. The weather is weird and it’s going to get weirder.”

Ensuring that developments are as sustainable as possible obviously involves paying close attention to both the energy performance of new buildings and the materials used in construction, but Shingler added that it is also about how design can influence new residents’ behaviour.

“From my perspective, when you’re looking at masterplans, the long-term objective is to change behaviour for people who live in communities, so they just think differently from an environmental perspective,” he said. “So, you choose to walk or cycle rather than get in your car; and you plan the community so that it encourages this choice. It’s just having a more sustainability-conscious lifestyle.”

However, Cary urged that architecture as a profession— rather than Sheppard Robson per se—needs to think more carefully when it comes to the embodied carbon contained in building materials, especially concrete and steel, as well as how they have been manufactured and by whom.

“I would also say architects need to think more about the impact that their buildings have, whether that’s embodied carbon or where materials come from and who makes them,” she said. “I do think it’s weird how you are trained. You’re taught to think about how people inhabit them, but not where the stuff comes from.”

On the co-creation front, though, Cary added that her experience of working with architects had been positive, both at Enfield and at British Land. “Maybe I have been lucky, but I feel that the architects I have worked with in London set a very good standard for co-creation or at least listening and taking on different views,” she said. “We can always be better at it, but I would say you should celebrate what you already do and refine it and make it even better.

Alan Shingler RIBA

Chairman, Partner

Sarah Cary

Executive Director of Place for Enfield Council,

Adam Branson

Journalist, Writer and Editor, specialising in the built environment