Interview - Phil Heaton, director, CrackNell Landscape architecture & planning

Phil Heaton  - photo: HW
Phil Heaton - photo: HW

The idea of involving communities in the very spaces that are being designed for their use would not initially appear to be particularly controversial.

However, as landscape architect Phil Heaton found when creating a green space on a run-down site in Yorkshire, designers and communities can make uneasy bedfellows.

"A lot of designers believe that community involvement and high-end design are mutually exclusive and you end up with something mediocre," explains Heaton."But I think we should listen and translate communities' needs into designs rather than impose designs we think they need."

Regeneration buffs will be no stranger to the television programme the Big Town Plan, in which Grand Designs presenter Kevin McCloud follows a community-led scheme in the former mining town of Castleford in Yorkshire.

The series concluded earlier this month, but viewers are likely to remember Phil Heaton's approach to designing a new park - The Green - for the community in Ferry Fryston.

Heaton's hands-on ethos was in stark contrast to that of US landscape architect Martha Schwartz, who designed a £1m "village green" for New Fryston, Castleford, funded by the Government's national regeneration agency English Partnerships.

"Martha Schwartz is a wonderful designer but a bit of a prima donna," laughs Heaton. "It is good to have these figureheads within landscape architecture, but she doesn't seem to care about communities."

Residents who live in properties facing the space have even nicknamed the sculpture placed in the centre of the green Martha's Finger following dissent over Schwartz's plans and way of working.

"Designers need to listen before trying to impose ideas and that is where Martha Schwartz went wrong," adds Heaton. "But I don't think she really cared in the first place whether the community liked it."

For Heaton, the experience only embedded more deeply his desire to continue to create spaces that will benefit communities.

"This was supposed to be a bit of a pilot programme but it has showed the strength of communities," he explains. "If they galvanise into action then, with a bit of help, they can transform where they live.

"Green space is the one place where communities can get together and meet with all the barriers down. It doesn't matter where you are from or how much you earn; there is a tremendous diversity of people in parks."

Having established landscape consultancy Parklife with Alyson Salkild in 1996, Heaton, who is a member of the Landscape Institute and the Royal Town Planning Institute, helped secure £10m of lottery funding for parks in its first year of trading.

The firm has this year merged with Cracknell and the new company is working to improve the environment at housing estates in Islington, as well as delivering a flagship play area in Yeovil.

Heaton makes it a priority to get local youngsters involved in the projects he designs. "We make it a requirement that contractors involve teenagers and we try to pick the naughty ones and help them to learn skills like horticulture, brick-laying and carpentry," he says. "We get inundated with applications and we only take kids from within 1km of the site.

"They get paid and get training and a reference; we are trying to influence their decision on what they choose to do in life."

The Liverpool-born landscape architect, who has also spent time working in Australia and the US, goes so far to engage teenagers in the design process that he will spend evenings in parks finding out what they think to try to make sure they get a say.

"This is a passion for me," he stresses. We need to learn to talk to teenagers and get on first-name terms with them," he says. "It is what gets me out of bed in the morning. There's the social element of working close to the ground and working closely with the client, who we see as being the user."

Heaton, who has been working as a CABE enabler since 2003 and who is currently advising Play England, says the most important issue in creating spaces a diverse range of people can enjoy is making sure that no one feels intimidated.

"It is critical not to segregate people because that in itself is anti-social and anti-family," he explains. "In designing spaces like multi-use games areas we, as professionals, are behaving anti-socially; we should learn to get out there and talk to other people."

And while the Castleford project television show may have pushed forward regeneration in the area, Heaton believes it would have happened over time anyway.

"I've learned the importance of individual, magnanimous people in communities and councils and that is how change happens," adds Heaton. "It is all about community."

1984-87: Landscape design degree at University of Newcastle
1987-88: Urban designer at Gerner and Sanderson Australia
1988-89: MA in landscape architecture at University of Sheffield
1989-91: Landscape consultant at Scott Wilson
1989-92: Diploma in urban planning at Oxford Brookes University
1991-96: Landcape and conservation manager at Ashford Borough Council,
1996-2008: Managing director of Parklife landscape consultancy
2008: Parklife merges with Cracknell

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