Escaping the silo

What aspects of city-making get left out in the gaps between the professions and who is responsible? Often the physical spaces in between - the public realm. It is simply undervalued. And secondly - since a city is made up of both hard and soft infrastructures -social, cultural, psychological and sometimes even economic domains get overlooked.

Professionals can become entrenched in silos. Being a professional shapes a person's self-identity and, allied to the 'natural' tendency to act tribally, are the traditional views of more hierarchically based management. Knowledge and specialism silos can ossify without proper communication to outside learning and development communities as there is little discussion and challenge of assumptions. Such silos see the world from their own point of view. It becomes difficult to make bigger-picture strategies. Criticizing silos does not mean we should all know a little about many things without deep knowledge of a particular subject. Instead it implies that more important, higher-order forms of thinking, understanding, knowledge, interpretation and behaving exist that should shape how the silo works. This will make silos more porous and permeable and give them the lifeblood they need to develop and expand.

The play of similarities and differences between insights is central to good city-making and the differences should be exploited as they enlarge the whole. The best professionals know the other silos well and allow themselves to be influenced by other insights.

Some solutions have been proffered in response to a series of crises of confidence in the main built environment professions. These have been attacked from various quarters about what they have done to cities over the last 30 years. Urban design emerged as a discipline and profession and sought to put the fragments together again as a means of giving coherence and continuity to urban developments. Urban design highlights the need for collaborative working too, but still remains largely a physical discipline.

There is a new wave of change occurring in Europe, North America and Australia. In Britain is was initiated by the Richard Rogers' Urban Renaissance report and the development of Regional Centres of Excellence as well as the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister's 'sustainable communities' agenda and the Egan Review of New Skills for Sustainable Communities. They all have been helpful in shifting the debate and setting out its new terms. The Egan Review16 reminds us usefully that nearly all of us are part of making sustainable places, from the core professions whose fulltime job it is, through associated professionals whose impact is also great, to the wider public. It outlines a set of generic skills, behaviours and ways of thinking that are requirements for moving forward, such as 'inclusive visioning', team-working, leadership and the ability to manage processes and change. Crucially, they are not discipline specific. The review lists over 100 jobs cutting across several dozen professions. The first group includes those whose primary concern is planning, delivering and maintaining sustainable communities, including the elected and appointed decision-making classes, from politicians, members of regeneration partnerships and agency leaders to infrastructure providers. The second group consists of those whose contribution is very important, such as the police or health professionals. The third wider public group includes those whose active engagement is important, such as local residents, the media and school children.

This agenda has also begun to impact on the more enlightened parts of the development community and professions, because seeing the world through a sustainable communities prism reshapes not only goals and priorities, but also how to get there. The tide is turning positively even though there is much to be done.

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