Will Sandy – Design Studio
With 10 years experience in the industry, Will takes a multidisciplinary approach to design. Working across various sites, scales and styles, he has earned a reputation for delivering engaging projects in places that might otherwise be overlooked or abandoned. A sense of humour and playfulness are central to his work. He has established himself as a forerunner in the design of vibrant urban and fringe spaces, bridging the gap between clients, local government, and the community.
Will runs his eponymous landscape architecture and design practice, while concurrently being the co-founder of design practice The Edible Bus Stop.
As a Landscape Architect, award-winning designer and co-founder of The Edible Bus Stop you have used your expertise and skills in designing the natural form and firmly brought its benefits into the urban realm to improve the quality and sustainability of cities. Can you explain why you think projects that you have worked on like this are important to the sustainability of cities?
A key aspect that has become central to much of my work is the need for freely accessible and engaging public space within our urban environments, demonstrating, how even the smallest of interventions can have a positive impact on the physical space. In my view, the introduction of green spaces is integral to the success of all public spaces. Plants and trees not only make spaces more attractive, they are proven to have positive economic, environmental and health benefits.
Recently, I have been playing around with the words human / nature or perhaps the concept of nature versus nurture and how they are intrinsically linked in relation to city living. As humans we have a core set of characteristics, which affect the way we think, feel and act. In my opinion these characteristics, have a direct relationship with the amount of access we have to nature. This idea is backed up by the thinking based around Biophilia, illustrating the way humans possess an innate tendency to seek solace through connections with nature.
The success of my work, builds on this idea of human / nature. I spend a lot of time working with the client, key stakeholders and the community in order to understand what they actually want and need from the project. This enables all parties to determine an effective use of the space and help to define the existing elements that should be celebrated.
When we propose changes in the city, it can be easy for people to lose objectivity and emotions can run high. It is here that the engagement process is key, providing a transparent and clear pathway from start to finish. By encouraging open discussion you can identify the key elements that are integral to the success of the project, those that provide a local identity, or local landmark that is significant to the community’s integrity. This injects a sense of soul and ownership, empowering the community and validating their position.
This can be clearly demonstrated by The Edible Bus Stop project, ‘Breaking down the Barriers’. We worked with the Brixton Business Improvement District, Vestre Furniture and the local community to improve an unloved entrance to the Barrier Block (Southwyck House) in Brixton, South London. The housing estate has had a chequered and tricky past, but despite this, it has become an integral part of the local landscape, its unique architectural identity being referenced across Brixton, most recognisably in the local currency, the Brixton Pound. This project wasn’t about big budget, but focused on making a big impact. The project focused on the community, celebrating the Barrier Block and firmly instilling it’s local identity within the design. Engagement and community involvement were critical in the transformation of this humble space. The simple addition of new public seating, bespoke street furniture and new planting, provides an inviting space for people to congregate, changing the dynamic and in turn encouraging positive social behaviour. The project is used by people of all ages and backgrounds, representing the changing face of Brixton.
You have the unique experience of designing and improving the urban realm with both global large-scale operations as well as community grassroots level schemes. How does the approach you take to engage with stakeholders differ; and what do you think these different approaches can learn from each other?
Communication and collaboration are central to my work. This involves understanding what the stakeholder requires from the project and how it can be delivered in a way that maximises the impact, influence and investment in each scheme. I have learnt to carefully and creatively engage with multiple stakeholders, often bridging the gap between the community, client, and local government or landowners, navigating the complexities between the relationships.
I have always used the analogy of the traditional garden fence to illustrate the physical and social barriers in the built environment. It used to be at elbow height, a point of social interaction, a place to share and look out for one another; now its primary role is securing the perimeter of ones space, the higher the better. Through my work, I endeavour to understand and break down these urban boundaries. In removing both the physical and psychological barriers I hope to design and deliver more permeable and cohesive places. In the current climate, I believe this is even more pressing, we must reunite and reconnect people through good design.
Working across a variety of scales and situations is really enjoyable and stimulating. My projects can be quite diverse. I am currently working with the creative community in Caracas, Venezeula, to co-develop architectural solutions that aim to empower people to reactivate and reclaim the public realm. While here in the UK, I am working on large-scale developments to improve their physical interface and social outreach. I approach each project in the same way, embedding myself in the situation, understanding the language and time required to build key relationships, tailoring the design process to the needs of those involved. It is critical to establish yourself in the early stages as an integral part of the project and not just an external consultant.
Your work takes you to designing elements of cities across world, which countries and cities do you think are leading the way in incorporating green infrastructure into the design of their cities?
The beauty of my work is that it allows me the opportunity to work internationally, exchanging ideas and approaches from differing cultures. Projects to date have focused on the UK and Europe, but my work has taken me further afield. I have taken the opportunity to work in diverse and rich locations such as Albania, Qatar and most recently, Venezuela, with the British Council.
I strongly believe that if you create an engaging and active public space, working closely with the local community, you can engender a sense of pride and confidence to enable them to make the changes themselves. This positivity has a bigger impact than just the design intervention itself. It impacts on the global design of the city, in that it gives its inhabitants the agency to make their own decisions about what the city means to them, be involved in the design process, in doing so securing its future.
In recent years, cities have focused too heavily on consumption as the key factor for economic success, they have been consumer led. The success of a city in my mind needs to focus on the health, wellbeing and quality of life of its citizens, this will ensure the cities economic sustainability and help a city flourish. Green infrastructure is integral in managing this growth, adjusting to the ebb and flow of the city. By 2050 the urban population will be close to 70%, the fabric of the city needs to adapt and evolve to meet the needs of the people. There have been some notable strategic projects in recent years that have improved the cities green infrastructure. The Olympic Park in London for instance, has revitalised a large area of East London and catalysed further redevelopment across this part of London. However, most projects don’t have the luxury of creating whole swathes of a city from scratch, more typically we need to work incrementally to create a change in our cultural mindset. To create healthier streets, neighbourhoods and on a much bigger scale; a healthier planet. We need to develop a strategy of subtle shifts in the cities fabric. It is happening, but at this point it seems easier to operate a penalty system, focusing on the negatives, rather than encouraging and incentivising greener alternatives. We have to make these changes fun, engaging and inviting. A great example of this, is the work of Antana Mockus, former Mayor of Bogota, Columbia. His rather radical, some might say eccentric tactics, transformed the Capital City Bogota. Mockus hired mime artists to control traffic and make fun of traffic violators, he initiated a “Night for Women” where the city’s men were asked to stay home for an evening, but for those men who simply couldn’t bear to stay indoors during the six-hour restriction, the curfew was strictly voluntary and if they wished to go out they were asked to carry self-styled “safe conduct” passes.
“The distribution of knowledge is the key contemporary task,” Mockus said. “Knowledge empowers people. If people know the rules, and are sensitised by art, humour, and creativity, they are much more likely to accept change.”
As a consequence of his quirky actions, traffic fatalities dropped by over 50%, women felt safer and more empowered and on the whole Bogotá’s people gained a sense of civic culture, this was the key to solving many of the city’s problems.
How have you incorporated the use of smart technologies into your designs and projects? Do you see this an important element of the future of cities and why?
We are heading towards a future in which our natural and built environment is increasingly influenced and shaped by technology. However, I strongly believe that the energy and determination at the core of human-oriented, socially driven projects will help our industry to stay fresh and connected to those it is serving.
An integrated approach is key to the success of the future of our cities. The Edible Bus Stop presented a concept for ‘Greening the last mile in the Square mile’ as part of the City Centre’s Smarter City series of competitions. Our scheme aims to turn soulless ‘e-commerce’ collection points into green and verdant social destinations. These green hubs provide a centralised drop off and pick up point for delivery vehicles to facilitate key e-commerce collection points. Dotted across the city, these hubs make up a network of green and social spaces. The idea sets out to harness the ubiquitous style of selling of the multi national online retailers, that undermine independent retailers and so isolates us from each other. The directive being to reintroduce people to the concept of the central village shop or village green, recreating a focal point for the neighbourhood. Each point provides a social space, offering differing activities throughout the day, while reducing the number of delivery vehicles on the road network, improving street flow and local air quality. The collection points turn the mundane process of picking up a parcel into a social activity, the hubs are made up of series of modular units that provide seating, planting, play elements and small business opportunities. Conversely, the concept uses technology to get people together and reconnect with each other and nature.
Hybrid space and the idea surrounding digital placemaking, as adopted by digital placemaking specialists such as Calvium, is moving towards the idea of an integrated civic space. We are in an interesting place, generationally, a point in time where the digital immigrants, meet the digital natives. It is at this point we begin to invite new digital technologies, products and experiences into the built and natural environments, working in tandem to enhance the way people understand and explore the city. However, as much as I adopt these digital technologies into my work and the design of our cities, I am at heart quite analogue. I strongly believe that we need time to disconnect from the digital and reconnect with our physical environment in real time, nothing beats human contact, creating moments for interaction and conversation. If we lose contact with that crucial human element, we may continue to generate exciting and innovative ideas, but we won’t be creating the places that humankind needs in order to thrive. Without the people that live, work and play within our schemes, a place doesn’t work, isn’t sustainable and that’s the bottom line.
You talk about the importance of the ‘Third space’ in cities, and improving the quality and ‘health’ of the public realm has become a crucial element of creating liveable cities and sustainable communities. What do you think are the essential features of effective third space?
As humans we tend to frequent three key spaces in our lives: the home, the workplace and the ‘third place’. The third place, our social spaces, are where we go to relax, engage and unwind. The more attractive and accessible these spaces are, the ‘richer’ city living becomes.
Taking the example of the traditional local shop for instance, it is not just a place where people buy things. Historically, the shopkeeper provided a hub for the community, a place to have a chat, a point of information, especially important for the elderly people in the area and for some the only point of interaction on a daily basis. The shopkeeper offers gratuitous counselling, is a source of local information, providing a forum for exchange and bartering, being flexible, approachable and most importantly being human.
For a third space to be successful, it needs to fit the community. This often happens organically, it could be the barbershop, the nail bar, the pub, the Public Square or social centre for the neighbourhood. Accessibility and inclusivity is key, this coupled with a sense of autonomy of the space, allows for evolution in the community as it grows and changes. A great example of this here in London is Gillett Square in Dalston. Here the local community has taken the space into their hearts, making the most of this flexible canvas, playing out and facilitating differing social events and activities for all members of the community.
I believe that there is something good and positive in all situations and whilst that may come across as somewhat naïve, if you celebrate positive activities within a place and its community, it has a positive knock on effect.
You often work across disciplines and incorporate unique features such as play, transport, food, art, culture, fashion and technology into your designs. What examples are there of how this cross-discipline work has enhanced the value and impact of your work; and what advice would you give to cities that want to do the same?
My work seeks to positively transform neighbourhoods through the introduction and integration of design, art, culture, music, food and fashion to enrich a city’s fabric and create new social spaces.
All too often in the design of the built environment, the creative industry adopts a ‘Silo’ mentality. This reinforces the exclusivity of the design process and does not take into account that the design needs to cater for people from all walks of life. There has been a shift in the industry and we are beginning to work more collaboratively and across multiple disciplines. I believe it is important to seek input from outside the profession as part of the design process, this can bring fresh perspectives that lead to exciting outcomes. Never underestimate the knowledge within the team and project community, it can often enhance the project’s intrinsic value. A fun part of this is placing things in unusual situations, creating moments of intrigue and curiosity in the cities fabric and taking people out of their daily routine.
Another important element to take on board, is working with the temporary to inform the permanent. For this to be successful, there needs to be a clear strategy and engagement process. Activation projects can sometimes feel like an ‘add-on’ or a tick box in the planning process, this can undermine engagement and involvement with residents, potentially impacting the wider future development of an area. However, the architecture of ephemeral space in the public realm invites people to view spaces with fresh eyes. Even if they don’t like what the ‘pop-up’ intervention presents, it gives them clarity on what they do want or how they could build upon the temporary activation. It may sound like a cliché, but the best concepts often emerge by chance, allowing for serendipity or simply just learning from our mistakes. This is something that can often be overlooked or even discouraged in the standard project process, due to budgetary or time constraints.
What in your opinion is the most important challenge and solution facing cities in becoming more sustainable?
We are at a really interesting point in history. We have, as stated in the IPCC Report of October 2018, just 12 years to limit a climate change catastrophe. The way we think about our cities, plays a critical part in this and we as urban practitioners, planners and architects can effect some significant positive changes to help limit the rise in global warming. But, what does this mean for our cities in real terms?
From my perspective there isn’t a straightforward answer. However, we do need to make it easier to live in cities and by that I mean, making them more permeable, accessible and allow people some autonomy over their spaces and neighbourhoods. There are many initiatives that are making significant impacts, exploring how we improve city living and the environment around us. For me it is the impact of the project that is the most important, we need to strike a balance between meeting the needs of our societies, while at the same time understanding and addressing the impact these have on the wider environment and world resources. Overtime we need to reduce our global impact and positively start to reverse the damage caused to date.
Around half of all non-renewable materials we consume are used in the construction industry and the industry itself is responsible for half of all global carbon emissions. As practitioners we have a duty of care and should assess each site independently. It is essential we look at the materials we employ and where possible undertake a whole life carbon assessment – are there materials we can reuse, recycle or adapt and evolve to meet the demands? We need to work out how we can use less to deliver more. In designing space we should allow for spatial evolution and versatility from the offset. All too often we provide a finished product that doesn’t allow for flexibility and future uses. The spaces we create need to respond to the changes in lifestyle and culture, but critically to the significant environmental changes that are starting to take hold.
Green space is key in this – I could endlessly list the many benefits, but I’ll name just a few that I am working with at the moment. Firstly, it enriches the biodiversity, which is integral to the food chain, especially encouraging pollinators. It looks at permeable surfaces, whether as planting or incorporating them in hard surfaces with attenuation and infiltration to manage water run-off. It improves air quality, whether by sequestering C02 or screening it and clever planting schemes help to cool the city’s heat island effect. Alongside the environmental, the introduction of quality green spaces has a positive effect on our mental health and sense of wellbeing.
What advice would you give to City authorities and organisations around the world that want to incorporate green infrastructure and sustainable design into their cities?
Ultimately we have to make the whole process of change and transformation more transparent, more fun, opening the conversations earlier, to a wider audience. As I mentioned earlier, cities need to grow and thrive, and this has traditionally been associated by its financial standing and GDP, but if a city is to be truly successful, it needs to be focused on those who inhabit it, creating exciting and inclusive places for people to live, work and play.
A sense of playfulness in the design process, helps to ground each project firmly in the neighbourhood in which it sits, seamlessly joining the dots between the city and the community. This is the beauty of the temporary and phased approach, a tactical urbanism of sorts. A playful approach is there to test ideas, ask questions, invite comments and develop the future of the public realm through tangible actions.
The simple act of closing a street is a powerful statement. In Caracas they close the mountain highway every Sunday morning for recreation. In May this year Edinburgh was the first city in the UK to join the Open Streets Movement, joining Paris, Bogota and New York in closing its city centre streets to vehicles on the first Sunday of the month. This has to be a positive step to changing the hierarchy in our cities?
In April Extinction Rebellion actions radically closed key London streets for 10 days, including Oxford Street and Waterloo Bridge. Now whether you agree with the way they actioned it or not, one has to appreciate that this intervention dramatically improved the city experience and air quality for pedestrians and cyclists. There have been years of discussions around improving the user experience along Oxford Street, Extinction Rebellion transformed it overnight and without the bureaucracy. Westend retailers quickly announced losses and reduced footfall due to these road closures. However this is somewhat contradicted by the decision to close Regents Streets for its annual traffic free Summer Streets event throughout July – is it all down to politics? Come on London we’re getting there, but we can do better!
Pictures: Will Sandy / The Edible Bus Stop