Ahead of this year’s Open House Dublin organised by the Irish Architecture Foundation, meet Metropolitan Workshop, the architecture firm investigating how to best involve communities in housing and planning.
Most Dubliners will know that the topic of development is a sensitive one. Organisations like No More Hotels and Give Us The Night frequently protest the loss of cultural spaces in favour of hotels, while local groups are often pursuing legal challenges against new developments in their vicinity. It’s an area laden with strife—yet one Dublin architecture practice is working to forge a new path that promotes innovative methods of community engagement into development processes.
Metropolitan Workshop was founded as a vehicle for productive collaboration, consisting of architects, urban planners and designers who are based across both Dublin and London. They have worked on urban design projects such as the Ballymun Regeneration Masterplan, Herberton (formerly Fatima Mansions), Adamstown District Centre, and more. As part of Open House Dublin, Ireland’s largest architecture festival organised by the Irish Architecture Foundation, Metropolitan Workshop will exhibit their latest research project, People Powered Places.
I caught up with Ozan Balcik, who has been an architect at the organisation since 2018, to tell me more about the project. “Alongside our regular architecture jobs, which includes large scale affordable housing, estate regeneration and town renewal, we run a series of practice based research projects,” he tells me.
The first of these was A New Kind of Suburbia, which was exhibited at Open House Dublin in 2019. The practice-based research programme “was an opportunity to interrogate our understanding of the challenges faced by existing and new suburban residents” and applied design thinking principles to modern suburbia.
The COVID-19 pandemic shone new light on their previous research and the team at Metropolitan Workshop felt it was necessary to re-examine their own practices. They set out to study emergent, collective and participatory models in order to find out how to best help communities thrive.
After that project, Ozan tells me, “the research team were asking themselves what part of our existing practice we wanted to build on next and seeing what the most pressing issues were of the moment. Where we landed was on the side of engagement and community participation.”
This sparked the formation of the People Power Places project in 2019. The project aims to interrogate best practice for community engagement. With the project, they hope to one day formalise community engagement into the architectural process, much in the way design and construction phases have already been universally established.
The first outcome of their work was a working paper. On conducting the research, Ozan tells me: “We took a series of questions that built on findings from our research, then worked with different practitioners. They weren’t always architects, but sometimes social enterprises, community engagement specialists, and residents themselves.”
The project investigates the concept of community engagement through interviews, case studies and stories from practitioners across Ireland, the United Kingdom, and Germany. Their aim is to develop policy, undertake community-led development, and enable participatory practices to help communities realise positive change. The project also hopes to address the current disconnect between communities and the current planning conventions in place.
Ozan tells me that “what that led to was a series of conclusions and reflections on this process and what architectural practice currently caters for, what policy exists, what some designers are doing, what others aren’t, and most fundamentally, what we can do better.”
The paper was launched in 2021 alongside a series of virtual talks and discussions. These “expert-led practice workshops” further explored emerging issues relevant to community participation in planning and housing. Topics discussed included the emerging concept of social value, engaging young people meaningfully in community participation, and socio-economic constraints affecting development outcomes.
The talks hosted during the pandemic were part of a greater goal: to establish People Powered Places: A practical guide to community engagement. According to Metropolitan Workshop, a core aim of the research project is to critically appraise their own approach to community participation. Using expert-led workshops, internal practitioner focus groups, and expert interviews, their practice guide will outline a series of principles to underpin their particular approach to working within communities during planning and housing projects.
In the guide, they outline a series of core values to support more meaningful processes of community engagement and then suggest possibilities for how they might be applied in practice.
Ozan tells me that the guide is “essentially a step by step guide of best practice principles for each stage of the development process. It gives recommendations and examples of how we can better engage with communities we serve at each stage of the project with more participatory methods. These methods will support the creation of proposals that better reflect local needs and aspirations, and thus contribute to the development of lasting community resilience and empowerment.”
Involving community members in development projects from the start seems obvious—after all, they are the people who have to live there—but the practice is not always used adequately in Ireland. Ozan tells me that most of Metropolitan Workshops’ initial studies are conducted in the United Kingdom, due to the higher level of policies that engage communities in the statutory planning process. As part of Open House Dublin 2022, they have replicated this research into an Irish context.
“The value of looking at this topic, in our view, is around the critical importance of driving up the social sustainability of our cities. The dialogue around this topic often lacks structure, which can become a barrier to success. This is what we’re hoping to address with People Powered Places.”
While groups such as Metropolitan Workshop are actively working to promote the benefits of community engagement, it isn’t an easy job to get everyone on board. Irish housing developments are often taken to judicial review due to opposition from community groups, highlighting that they were likely not as involved in the process as they would have wanted. However, it is hoped that things are beginning to change.
“In our opinion, if you engage communities first and talk to them, it saves a lot of time later on. You know what they may have a problem with or things they really want to see. And then you can begin to incorporate these observations, where possible, into your project from the start. We are promoting this way of working in several of our projects in Dublin and Kildare.”
Words: Kerry Mahony
Metropolitan Workshop will exhibit their findings at Open House Dublin, Ireland’s largest architecture festival, brought to you by the Irish Architecture Foundation, from October 14-16. openhousedublin.com
You can follow Metropolitan Workshop’s work and research at metwork.co.uk
Feature Image: Metropolitan Workshop will be exhibiting projects both from the practice and others that can provide exemplars for engagement. The image above is from an engagement event in Balham, London seeking ideas from residents in the town for its regeneration.