Some years ago, a British newspaper reported on the death of an elderly gentleman in Hackney,London.  Apparently, among the deceased’s belongings were personal maps made of his walks around the neighbourhood.   These intimate spatial portraits of the relationship between an individual and his locality reflect the (often underestimated) significance attached to place in everyday life.   For this senior citizen it seems the project of generating what Edward Relph describes as ‘existential significance’ was deeply connected to a sense of place.

Place-making is a process in which we all engage to one degree or another.   Over the life course we develop loyalties and attachments to certain places, places that may even seem sacred to us although they are ostensibly secular.  The built environment forms a significant backdrop upon which we often inscribe our sense of place, our sense of the past and our projection of ourselves into an imaged future.

Place-making is of particular concern to professions whose work is intimately tied to the built environment.  Architects, planners, designers and social scientists amongst others are involved variously with the design and execution of buildings, project management, environmental sustainability and the assessment of quality of life and work for those who ultimately inhabit them.  But frequently these various disciplines work in isolation rather than in tandem with each other. The opportunity for knowledge sharing and creative cross-fertilisation is lost.

Today, June 27th Minister Willie Penrose will open a unique Summer School atNUI Maynooth which will challenge “silo” thinking within built environment professions and create a template for inter-disciplinary interfaces between the aforementioned disciplines.   The aim of the “Making the built environment work” Summer School is to foster exchange and knowledge transfer between architects, urban designers, planners and social scientists in order to address current challenges in the urban environment.   The pedagogical rationale is to promote the principles and practice of inter-disciplinarity between those professionals and practitioners who shape the places in which our everyday lives are encased- home, work, leisure facilities, service institutions, public and private spaces.  We hope to initiate a dialogue that will continue long after the week long deliberations are over.  While the Summer School was conceived primarily as a vehicle to broaden the horizons and strengthen the skill set of advanced undergraduates and postgraduate students, the School has attracted a range of participants from across public and private practice in architecture, planning, design, local government and the NGO sector.  The level of interest speaks to the prevailing consensus that we need to develop new creative ways of thinking about solutions to the myriad problems that this country now faces.

In the wake of the massive housing boom that took place around the turn of the twenty-first century, and the transformation of cities, towns and villages across Ireland public concern has (legitimately) been expressed about a range of physical, environmental and social issues including for instance, weak regulation of  peripheral urbanisation, scarring of the rural heartland by excessive holiday home building, inappropriateness in size and scale of downtown developments, the prospects for diminution of quality of life arising for those living in what Rob Kitchin has termed ‘haunted landscapes’ and the fear that trends in the built environment (for example,  gated communities) may further damage civic integration.

Over the last decade a considerable body of research has been undertaken by academics from a range of disciplines that contributes to an informed understanding of how the built environment in Ireland is being produced at a range of spatial and temporal scales, and how these are reflective of complex processes and relations that are economic, social, cultural, political and aesthetic in nature. More recently, research including applied data and mapping analysis by NIRSA has graphically highlighted the legacy of developer-led planning on the Irish built environment. Other studies have investigated the attitudes and values underpinning life in urban, suburban and urban/rural fringe settlements all often pointing the continuing importance for people of ‘a sense of place’ in their everyday lives.  The arts have also trained their lens on the built environment providing both an aesthetic critique (for example,  Anthony Haughey’s photographs of ghost estates and Martin Cregg’s photographic chronicling of the Midlands) and a resource to communities grappling with regeneration change (for example, the arts practitioner Ailbhe Murphy’s Tower Songs project).

Much of this work however, has been conducted within disciplinary boundaries-or silos.  Academics and practitioners have few opportunities to reflect on each others research and practice and think creatively about how knowledge garnered across the spectrum of professions can be stitched together for the benefit of all. The forthcoming Summer School creates an opportunity for learning across disciplinary boundaries so that new inter-disciplinary skill-sets, tools and working methods can be identified, evolved and ultimately incorporated into pedagogy and practice.  In turn, this will generate greater synergy in how we respond to the design and management of the built environment.

The fast pace of development during the Celtic Tiger years resulted in built landscapes across Ireland that are often incongruous with receiving settlements and countryside, and also with people’s desires and expectations for their places of living, work or recreation. This was reinforced by a tendency to look to international ‘best-practice’ for examples of building and open space typologies, and by a frequently minimum standards approach to planning guidance. Furthermore, the abrupt halt to development with the onset of the current economic recession has created a set of very problematic conditions in urgent need of solutions. Given this context, the coming together of the different disciplines is both necessary and timely. New templates for use in research, practice and design are required that incorporate more localised knowledge of spatial, geographical, demographic and sociological understandings of place, space and landscape. Moreover, building and open space elements that are sensitive to people’s everyday aspirations, needs and lived practices are likely to be more sustainable in the long term.

“Making the built environment work” provides a unique opportunity to integrate the insights, processes and practices of   ‘research-based’ and ‘design-based’ disciplines.  Built environment experts from theU.K., theNetherlands,France,Germany, theU.S.andAustraliawill work with their Irish counterparts to think ‘outside the box.’ Together with staff and students from third level institutions across the island, they will focus on generating solutions to specific problems associated with the collapse of the economic boom- such as ghost estates and incomplete developments. But more than that, the Summer School aims to generate a new template for engaging with and re-imaging the  Irish built environment over the longer term, securing a ‘sense of place’ for the next generation.

The Summer School is funded by the Irish Council for the Humanities and the Social Sciences RDI and is supported by the Irish Social Science Platform. For more information see.

Mary P. Corcoran