Stories are powerful – they are perhaps the most meaningful way we learn.
So let me tell you a story. A story that explains why empathy is our most powerful tool to design better places that help the many people who have insufficient means to enjoy or have their needs met by the standard, modern city.
It starts with my own experiences in architecture. The most memorable lesson I have learned is that there is no right or wrong in architecture, there is only good and bad. In essence, we cannot make things right but we can make them better or we can make them worse. And as architects, we have the power and responsibility to always make things better, and that means better for everyone.
On reading Jane Jacob’s “the death and life of great American cities,” I realised there is no placemaking without empathy. We need empathy to understand the human experience of others and we gain this by watching how people behave, considering their fundamental needs and listening to their stories and lived experiences.
BDP’s founder George Grenfell Baines understood this implicitly, his ethos of a collaborative approach to design was born from the idea that we need more than one author to reach optimal designs. When asked to design a new town masterplan, in a time when contemporaries were designing tower blocks without thought to individual needs, GGB sought to expand his understanding by asking a social scientist “what does a town really need to be self-sustaining?” The sociologist answered: “Babies. At a most basic level you need a steady stream of babies”. Together, they designed a series of residential clusters to support a nursery, then a primary school and a local high street. It was a highly empathetic approach, ahead of its time.
Glasgow Queen Street Station, UK
But back to my story – its 2015 and I am a mother to two small children. The city is now more difficult to navigate. With a double buggy it can be a lottery. Will I, another parent or a wheelchair user get the one space available on each bus? People often assume that city centre accessible parking is the answer to inclusive design but as research by Rachel Aldred “Challenging Disability Environments” 2008 found; 60% of individuals living with a form of disability did not have access to a car. My empathy increases.
We need to reimagine our city transport networks to integrate key facilities at transit interchanges, to better meet the wider community’s needs. I am inspired by BDP’s work on future mobility hubs for city authorities which draws on the collaborative skills from our transport, retail and health sectors, with architecture, landscape, planning and urbanism disciplines working together to create a better place for all.
Roll forward two years and I’ve returned to my professional career, I am now an architect and a mother. My background is in the health sector working on BDP’s super hospitals and if there is any building typology that deals with the full spectrum of society it is surely the hospital, catering to everyone’s needs from first to last breath. Stakeholder engagement on these projects means hearing stories and experiences from a diverse set of users, almost all with some form of vulnerability, often with conflicting needs, all desiring a dignified experience. It all leads to a better design.
There is nuance in a story, nuance that leads to far wider understanding. Take for example our recent work on Glasgow Queen Street station. BDP’s acousticians modelled the space to ensure reverberation times were controlled such that voice announcements could be heard clearly. Stakeholder engagement with visually impaired users taught us that it was preferable to maintain a little noise around the entrance. The noise of the street is a key wayfinding marker for a visually impaired person. The street sounds get slightly louder and they are reassured that they are heading in the right direction. I am reminded that “what does ‘good’ architecture sound like?” is as important a question as “what does ‘good’ look like?”
The city that caters to its most vulnerable is the city that can thrive in the future. There are multiple reasons why perpetual GDP growth is not sustainable, perhaps the most compelling being the climate emergency. There is much sense in the theory of donut economics and the idea that living in the sweet spot, within our planet’s means, could drastically shift the power balance such that good design might actually fulfil its potential. In the meantime, if we continue to call on our empathy, expand our curiosity, listen to the needs of the people who live, work and play in our designs, we can continue to learn from their stories and keep striving to create the fairer city.