Fiction as an urban design tool

8th September 2020

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

Communication is a vital element of the co-creation process. In order for communities to weigh in on potential changes to their neighbourhoods, they must first understand what has or has not been proposed. This requires going beyond conventional engagement strategies— primarily supplying CGI renderings or technical documents—to promote genuine understanding. What tools and techniques then, can we use to promote communication between designers and communities? Rory Olcayto explores the role of fiction as a communication device during the co-creation process, drawing on 'Brent Cross South: The Handbook' as an example of how narrative can be used to envision future places and the people that will inhabit them.

Rory Olcayto is a Writer and Critic and the former Chief Executive of Open City.

What if we used fiction to build our towns and cities? What if design and access statements—the front end of every planning app—were more like short stories? What if, instead of having a section in your development document referring to policy D4 of the London Plan, and relying on terms like ‘outdoor amenity space,’ you came across a passage like this:

"In the evening, my Mum and I will go up onto the roof terrace at the top of our building to watch the sunset. It’s amazing because the whole city is spread out in front of you like a giant picnic. If it’s clear, we’ll be able to see Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament which is my Mum’s favourite building. That’s why she gave me my name.

‘You’re my little Ben,’ she says."

That’s a whole lot of what ifs, some more fanciful than others. Yet one thing links them: they’re not actually what ifs at all. In fact, they’ve all been ‘done’, more or less, by Argent Related, the fruits of which—including Little Ben by Elizabeth Day, an excerpt of which appears above—can be found in Brent Cross South: The Handbook.

The handbook, a bold experiment using fiction as an urban design tool, was conceived and produced by Open City and Beispiel for the team forging the vast (180-acre) mixed-use neighbourhood on the fringes of the English capital. It sets out five citymaking principles for the new town project, each backed up by a 600-word short story. The handbook also deploys pop-art ‘posters’ and colourful collages depicting architectural and urban situations, which together reinforce the principles of this groundbreaking manifesto.

Consider the Little Ben excerpt: It describes a real home, a housing block with an apartment, accommodating a little boy and his mum, with rooftop views for miles around. It conveys a sense of place, a local neighbourhood, but in global city too, with world-famous landmarks. The details linger in your mind. Could it be that encoding hard facts into short stories really makes the information more memorable?

Using fiction in this way has been done before—Renault commissioned French artist Moebius to create a comic book story for internal use way back in the ‘80s—but Argent Related’s bold approach is noteworthy in the context of London’s property sector today. Though ostensibly a guidance document championing sound town planning, the handbook is also an illustrated short story collection by the best of London’s diverse writing and artistic talent.

Alongside Sunday Times bestseller Elizabeth Day, you’ll find Booker-longlisted Guy Gunaratne, Will Wiles (‘a British Kafka,’ says David Baddiel), Venice Biennale artist Marie Jacotey, and Kayo Chingonyi, last year’s recipient of the Dylan Thomas Award.

These expert storytellers render skew-whiff perspectives that inspire and destabilise simultaneously, a tension perfectly captured in Will Wiles sci-fi short, Save Brent Cross. It describes campaigners attending a public meeting sometimes in the 2080s, protesting against the demolition of the now 60-year old Argent Related scheme. As well as making a powerful point to the present development team—you’re building tomorrow’s heritage architecture—it contains powerful visions, like the passage below, of how London might be in the decades to come:

"Above, the Brent droneport was as busy as ever, shuttling packages and takeaways across northwest London. Beneath however was quiet. Tens of thousands of cyclists used the North Circular every day, but the cracked, ancient road was so wide it never appeared truly busy."

In Song Lines, Guy Gunaratne—remarkably, a local boy who grew up in Brent Cross—picks out the Babel-talk of London’s mixed communities and considers how it might give shape to the emerging townscape:

"A song of following footsteps and family and that. But still here. Still here, still singing. That’s what it sounds like. Sounds like circles. Circle inside circles. Like if you put this place in a bubble. And you shook it. And you held it up to your ear. It would sound like a new hymn."

Kayo Chingonye’s poetry and Marie Jacotey’s ‘comic’ are equally effective, relying more on precision and abstract imagery to build a powerful vision of place.

Marie’s story trips along like a daydream; we feel the narrator’s excitement as she remembers how the neighbourhood in which she lives with her young family emerged—“THE BOOKSHOP!”—around her over time. Kayo’s poetry also flirts with dream logic, but there’s forecasting there, too, with visions of how technology might shape the urban design:

"And all this took shape as an act of imagination, so now a line of graphite in a sketch pad is transformed such that here out of North London’s skyline structures rise like the stems of plants turning to face the light so when the light breaks cloud it catches and makes this place precious as true attention always does."

But you might wonder: Why bother? You’re building cities, not vying for the Booker. In truth, the stories are just one of the means to deliver on a three-fold plan: First, to forge an empathetic, people-centred, citymaking culture among the multi-disciplined Argent Related team; second, to soften the hard logic and ‘ultra-practicality’ of development (the number-crunching, the permissions, the planning); and third, to seed a new approach to —and relationship with—writing (something citymakers of all kinds, including architects, planners, and developers, actually have to do quite a lot).

Of course, public consultation has a key role to play as this ‘new town’ project takes shape. How real people view construction industry plans matters above all. However, dramatising the lives of fictional residents has proven useful in other ways. The process encouraged the Brent Cross South team to forge their own new perspectives on how to make a real place. It built empathy. The very act of handing over one’s own work to fellow professionals—the handbook’s novelists and artists—seemingly unencumbered by the pressures of property development, allowed them to make room for alternative, non-industry, ideas. These in turn cast their citymaking challenge in a new light. Long term development of this kind needs this kind of texture, this kind of thinking—the kind of thinking, in other words, you don’t often find expressed as a list of bullet points. Or as one of the campaigners in Will Wiles Save Brent Cross notes: “…when a place works, even its flaws fit in. You can’t masterplan the weird—I don’t think you can.”

Brent Cross South: the handbook was created by Rory Olcayto (Open City) and Sven Mündner (Beispiel) for Argent Related’s Nick Searl. Artwork by Filippa Hellsten.

Rory Olcayto

Writer and Critic