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  • Johanna Gibbons.
  • Angel Building, Islington (architect AHMM)
  • Bourne Hill, Salisbury (architect Stanton Williams).
  • The barn at Eastern Curve, Dalston.
  • The ‘toy box’ where play equipment is put away, Gillett Square, Dalston
  • Concept image of the Eastern Curve, Dalston

Engaging approach

There are alternatives to bowing to a process that too often ignores the needs of local communities, as Johanna Gibbons of J & L Gibbons has discovered.

Consultation may be a buzzword of today, but it is not one that Johanna Gibbons likes. ‘We don’t do consultation,’ she tells me. ‘We do engagement.’ To Gibbons, consultation is ‘often a top down process. It can also turn into PR rather than an end point where people will offer some sweat equity. People need to see that what they have bothered to say has been addressed.’

If this sounds rather idealistic — and Gibbons admits that it is not to every developer’s taste — then what is really admirable about her practice is that it has managed to make a living out of this approach — and be recognised for it as well. J & L Gibbons, which is over 25 years old, currently employs five people and is based in the north London house that Gibbons shares with partner Neil Davidson. The lavatory walls are lined with award certificates, with pride of place given to the 2011 President’s Award from the Landscape Institute. This was given for Making Space in Dalston, a project that would never have happened if Gibbons had stuck to conventional routes.

Her practice, J & L Gibbons, had been appointed in Dalston, a fast changing area of north-east London. to design the landscape at Dalston Square, a housing development benefitting from the new Dalston railway station. It rapidly became clear that the local community was not happy, and that it felt its needs were being ignored. Gibbons encountered Liza Fior of architectural practice MUF , which was working on a different project, at angry planning meetings. It soon became clear that the two agreed that a different approach was needed, and on what that approach should be.

They came up with an idea for a series of small-scale projects, addressing the needs and aspirations of local people. ‘We talked to about 200 people in small groups, developing a closer-grained idea,’ Gibbons explained. They received some money from Design for London to carry out a mapping project, identified that there was a need to do something, and wrote a brief. This went out for tender and fortunately the two practices won it. Asked to produce a list of 10 public realm projects, they came up with 76, of which the top ten then went ahead at a total cost of one million pounds.

Not only have these projects proved hugely popular, but the original proposals for Dalston Square also went through without a murmur. ‘If you have a groundswell of public support, nobody can resist it,’ Gibbons said.

The process of engagement cannot be rushed, however, which is why Gibbons is delighted that the practice has recently been appointed, alongside architect ShedKM, for a £100 million development near the centre of Brighton. This will see the redevelopment of a market and woodshed in a mixed-use scheme, including a number of arts uses, for developer Cathedral. Gibbons says that the practice stressed the community engagement aspect of the project very strongly, and that ‘we have just had the most wonderful brief from the creative director saying that the site is ours for 14 months.’

The engagement will not just consist of sitting in rooms and talking. Instead, the intention is to build a garden on part of the site and to use the process of creating and using it as part of the engagement process.

Unlike other projects on which the practice has worked, neither Brighton nor Dalston have obvious aspects of great historic worth, but nevertheless, Gibbons believes, it is important to work with what is present and to understand its significance. ‘Part of our thinking is to value what is there,’ Gibbons says, ‘not just listed structures but local features of significance to a local community.’

This way of working is certainly not the easiest. There is the frustration when the competitive process means that the practice works on the early stages of a project, only to see it pass to a competitor. While no practice likes this to happen, in Gibbons’ case it means that the process of engagement comes to an abrupt end, with members of a community who have invested time and effort possibly left feeling abandoned. On the other hand, successful projects never really end. By working with small groups, Gibbons gets to know them well, and people are likely to stay in touch which is both pleasing and tiring.

The route the practice has chosen is demanding but it shows that landscape architects do not have to bend to the will of a system and work in a way that they find unsatisfactory.

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Posted by Nic Shore - February 12th, 2014
Hello, Johanna, I heard you speak ages ago at a F.O.R.C. meet. Quick query, are you still involved with and how are things going re: Lea Riverside walkway, etc., in practical/realistic terms? With thanks, Nic ( I vol. on the Lea, involved with water quality testing, also Thames River Watch)

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