Build on good ideas

27th September 1996 at 01:00
Pauline Sharp describes how children were consulted when it came to planning the redevelopment of part of Chester.

Gone are the days when planning departments toiled in semi-secrecy and then unleashed their nasty visions on an unsuspecting and horrified populace.

Nowadays, major planning initiatives are always preceded by close community involvement to seek peoples' views and assess conflicts of interest.

Yet in all this zeal to reach the community, one section is persistently overlooked. Who listens to the children who will have to live with the planners' work?

This is the story of how one planning department sought the views and involvement of primary children living near an area due for regeneration.

Chester is familiar as a tourist destination and shopping centre. Originally founded as a Roman fortress, it boasts the only complete circuit of medieval town walls in Britain. Crammed with historic buildings, its image is one of affluence. To an extent this is true, but there are areas, even close to the city centre, which suffered as a result of planning decisions made in the 1960s and 1970s.

Gorse Stacks is one such site. It lies just outside the famous city walls and at one time was a warren of artisans' houses, small businesses, and warehouses. Pubs flourished around a cattle market. There was a bakery, mission house and a primary school.

Then, in the mid 1960s a new inner ring road was built, slicing through Gorse Stacks. Whole streets were demolished, the cattle market was re-sited - the old community was destroyed. Odd buildings were left standing: half a terrace of houses in a truncated street leading nowhere; a pub isolated in the middle of a car park. The area became a no-man's land, bounded by dual carriageways and dominated by car parking and an unprepossessing and underused bus station.

In 1995 Gorse Stacks was one of 21 projects selected for study by the Department of the Environment for exploring new ways of encouraging local collaboration and consultation about urban development proposals. Almost immediately, it became clear that local children needed to be involved. Two classes of 10 and 11-years-olds from the nearby St Thomas of Canterbury CE Junior School, agreed to take part. From the outset it was agreed that this would be no "paper" exercise; the children would work with professional planners, architects, urban designers and conservation officers and the ideas they generated would become part of the plan.

The first task for the children was to look at the site in detail and assess the severity of the problem. This involved examining both historic and modern maps in the classroom, and discussing how Gorse Stacks related to the rest of the city. Potential barriers to integration were identified: the inner ring road, the Roman-medieval city wall, and the Shropshire Union Canal.

Work on site required the children to observe and analyse an area most of them had been familiar with all their lives. It still threw up surprises. Most had not realised that there were impressive views towards the city walls; that an enclosed grassy embankment above the canal provided an oasis of green amid the tarmac. They had not appreciated the architecture of the remaining Victorian buildings. They looked at the dreariness of the bus station with fresh eyes - this was many visitors' first impression of Chester.

More discussion revealed dislikes common to everyone. They all hated the pedestrian subways: dirty, smelly and possibly unsafe. They were concerned about the volume of traffic and the resulting noise and fumes.

Consideration then turned to what Chester actually needed from a new development. Was it more shops? Was it housing for the homeless and disadvataged? Was it new sports facilities? Not surprisingly, the dearth of things for young people to do in Chester figured high on the list of priorities.

Back in the classroom, the children divided into small groups, working up their vision for Gorse Stacks on large-scale maps. Planners and architects worked alongside them, giving advice and pointing out the practicalities. Hard decisions had to be made. Would it be better to redesign the bus station or move it all together and, if so, where? What could be done to control the cars and what would be the implications for the rest of the city? How could new development be screened from the road? How could the physical barriers of the city wall, the canal and the ring road be breached? So many problems and no easy solutions. Negotiation, compromise, persuasion, argument, listening, co-operation all had to be practiced by everyone to reach resolution.

The culmination of the project brought 60 children back together to present their plans. Different approaches and ideas were listed and the children voted on their priorities. These were taken away by the planners to be incorporated into the community consultation programme.

In the end, the children decided the building should be a community leisure facility that included a sports centre. They wanted a building young people could use in a variety of ways.

For the teachers involved, the project proved to be a real cross-curricular initiative, touching history, geography, art, design and technology. It was also a challenging way to absorb the attention of Year 6 pupils at the end of their last term in school.

For the children it was exciting to work with professionals, knowing that their ideas were being taken seriously and could affect the redevelopment of the site. Confronting the complex decisions which have to be made in planning and design was a new experience. For many, the most difficult aspect was resolving differences of opinion while still remaining on speaking terms.

For the planners and architects, the whole excercise demonstrated just how environmentally concerned and socially aware young people are. The children were able to offer imaginative solutions to a range of difficult problems.

For the community, the lesson of Gorse Stacks should be that children care passionately about their surroundings and they have every right to be consulted seriously on the issues which affect them.

Pauline Sharp is education and special project manager for Chester City Council

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