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A word... Expectation

By Tim Waterman

© Agnese Sanvito

The means, the processes of design, are a busy occupation with the future. In design for the landscape, the future is also an end, since what we build will grow, change and adapt. It will, we hope, also get better. This is why it is so important to engage with the trinity of human intentions that we call needs, desires and expectations. These terms are so commonly encountered, particularly in community work that we rarely pause to consider their full meaning. If, as geographer Élisée Reclus stated in the late 1800s, ‘humanity is nature becoming conscious of itself’ (l’homme est la nature prenant conscience d’elle-même), then it is simple to understand the first, our needs, in the largest and most ecological context. We need food, shelter, water, exercise, reproduction – and all of this is ensured by acting on behalf of a healthy biosphere and the greatest possible diversity of species. 

Our desires are more complex, because they are impossible to fully quarantine from needs. Is art a desire or a need? Pleasure? Many philosophers have written that these are basic needs and that the superfluous is hardwired into human consciousness. Indeed, our favourite landscapes, whether to visit or to live in, give us much beyond the basic satisfaction of needs. Play is certainly essential to human development, as it is in so many other species. The immense expense of effort by squirrels, puppies, caterpillars or humans in play cannot be explained in rational, quantifiable terms of efficiency and statistics. Other ‘needs’ are just as hard to separate from desires. What about internet access, motorcars or libraries? 

Not all desires are useful or acceptable, of course, and desires can get out of control. A delight in objects may be perverted by acquisitiveness and greed, for example. We might benefit from separating negative desires such as these from positive ones, such as the desire for play. It is less clear that it is worthwhile to separate positive desires from needs, because the ‘bottom line’ might dictate that we cater only to needs, which for a superfluous species on a superabundant planet, is a form of starvation. Years ago I was laughed at by a roomful of bureaucrats for insisting that inhabitants of the Isle of Sheppey were entitled to beauty because they all assumed beauty was an expensive thing. The much-maligned Isle of Sheppey is a place that is already full of moments of great beauty that, in fact, cost little if anything, and I was only asking that these be recognised and amplified through good design.

That entitlement to well-designed places brings me to the last category, expectation. Expectation is ‘to look outwardly’ toward the future – to ex-spectate. People’s expectations are, of course, bound up with their desires and their needs, and also with their experience. Experience tells us we should expect, someday, to die, for example. This is an example of one expectation that is ineluctable. Most other expectations are more nuanced than this, and this is where designers need to manage expectations. Fatalism is a form of expectation. A community might expect to continue to live amidst violence and pollution, for example, which is by no means unavoidable, and is a situation that requires, amongst other ameliorants, design. Another community might expect its children to attend Eton and Oxford or Cambridge. Such situations are also preventable. 

Ultimately, the work of the designer is to provide for all of the needs of a population and their environment, working in as many positive desires as possible, and then a few more for good measure. Then expectations are to be managed and, importantly, alternatives sought. Every designer should give, if not what people expect, then something different and better, with an eye on a rosy future. 

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