IAPS Conference: lessons for the practice of making places

The 22nd International Association of People-Environment Studies [IAPS] Conference in Glasgow closed last Friday. With over 400 delegates from across the world, the conference successfully drew together researchers and practitioners around the broad theme of Human Experience in the Natural and Built Environment: Implications for Research Policy and Practie.

At the closing ceremony, Diarmaid Lawlor presented reflections on the conference from the point of view of A+DS as sponsor and patron. He referenced the public sector reform agenda in Scotland, and in particular the work of the Christie Commission. The graph of income versus demand in public sector services over time is a key challenge for communities and service providers in Scotland, and it is a challenge which also cuts across how we think about building new places. The gap between income and demand in Scotland, according to Christie needs to be place based, outcome focused, working with people and communities.

The challenge is how to achieve this. Learning from the experience of others matters to making an impact on this challenge. This learning how, and understanding what this means for how we structure the built environment was a key motivation for A+DS to get involved in the IAPS conference.

At the opening of the conference, Karen Anderson, Chair of A+DS asked three questions of the delegates, in terms of how their work relates to the specific challenges in Scotland:

  • How do we make place: what is the scope?
  • What scales work best?
  • How do we achieve impacts in a place setting?

Reflecting on these questions, and the proceedings of the conference, Diarmaid Lawlor observed a number of themes which seemed to emerge in the discussions, and a number of implications for practice.

The key themes which appeared to emerge around collaboration between research for impact related to the ideas of rhetoric, rigour and relevance. It is important to clearly identify the story being told for change; in some cases, transformational change is promoted on the back of credentials like achieving environmental performance in a building but failing to engage with the wider community, or make best use of existing assets. 

The rhetoric of change needs to be interrogated further in terms of why, what, and for who. Nabeel Hamdi suggested that in this context, it is important to change the nature of practice in delivering change, and in particular there is a need for both researchers and practitioners to be concerned about being less rigorous about things that do not matter, and more relevant to things that do.

The themes of rhetoric, rigour and relevance informed some key issues for the practice of making places, working at the right scale and achieving impacts. First, place and placemaking is a political process. It involves people making decisions, and negotiating tensions about what is the best way of delivering the best opportunities for people. There are tensions and conflicts. It is not a benign process. Second, there needs to be greater clarity about the purpose of what it is people involved in the making and keeping of place do. Finally, the nature of impact can be understood broadly in two ways; in terms of changing behaviours and in terms of adapting environments to the lives of people. The order is important; people shouldn’t have to adjust their lives to a set of man made environmental contexts that do not consider their needs.

A+DS, together with IAPS, University of Strathclyde and University of Dundee will prepare a short lessons learned report on the conference over the summer months, for publication in the autumn.