'Let's not assume that designers can imagine everything that everyone else can.'

8 min read

Designer and researcher Marcus Willcocks on shared spaces and how to take more risks

We doubt if we’ve ever met anyone more enthusiastic about public space than Marcus, and yet he operates in the spaces most people would rather avoid.

As a designer and research fellow with the Design Against Crime unit at University of the Arts, London, his work sees him kicking about in forgotten corners of our cities. From graffiti tags, to bike carcasses to bag theft, he tackles urban conflict with a toolkit of socially-centred design.

His concern is always the people who use a place, drawing from a background in design for products and public spaces. Marcus sees value where others see degradation; strives for openness where others lock a place up, and it’s this vision and optimism that brought us to talk to him.

His positive approach got him involved in a patch of land in South London: Thessaly Oasis. A community recreational ground tucked in among housing, the space was recently shut, caught up red tape among local councils. While the padlocks came out, a team of volunteers came together, working to re-open and re-imagine the space for the local communities. So down among the grass, we meet Marcus (and his son Joel) to talk shared and contested spaces.

LL: You work a lot with local authorities, but you’re also interested in the informal. How do you work between formal and informal? What's your role and your interest?

MW: My interest is in shared spaces — you can't even call them public spaces anymore — and in facilitating unprompted types of engagement. When I say engagement I mean conversations; I mean types of use; types of complaint, joy, pleasure; different emotive and social responses.

Shared spaces have an important social aspect to play in how neighbourhoods survive. There's evidence from people like Robert Sampson (professor of social sciences at Harvard University) to say that we need shared spaces to develop what we call ‘weak ties’ into strong ties. You need those chances to coincide with people in different ways, so that you can get to know them over time. You might walk the dog at the same time as one other person over three years, and that’s enough recognition that you end up going for a coffee with him. It might be slow but it's worth it.

Donald Norman (Director of The Design Lab at University of California, San Diego) talks about ‘affordance of products.’ Industrially-designed products, afford or enable different users to interpret the product and how you use it in different ways. So you pick up a phone and one person might think "Oh, what apps can I download?" while another person thinks, "Can I take a decent photo with it?"

The built environment or public space affords a diversity of activities, but it can be seen as problematic to have that diversity. We all think we can design-in a small set of activities that we want to facilitate, and regulate-out lots of others.

Let's not assume that we as designers can imagine everything that everyone else can. That means we need many more heads coming up with new ideas and interpretations for places.

When I was doing work on sport in public space in Spain I learned that through sporting activities people read things like a wall, or a roadway, or a pavement in different ways. Maybe a rock climber walks past a space and sees a crack in a wall and thinks, "Oh there's a chance for me to exercise." And it's not because they're trying to dismantle the social cohesion of the neighbourhood, they’re just interpreting it differently because of their experiences and interests. We need to find ways of being more flexible among the formal and the informal or the sanctioned and the unsanctioned. 


What kinds of things are you thinking of when you’re talking about sanctioned and unsanctioned activities?

I’ve been doing a lot of work related to graffiti, and the problem there is that we’re still spending lots of money on legal actions and keeping people in prison.

It costs more to keep someone in prison than it does to send them to Eton. Sometimes we have to question how damaging the things we call anti-social behaviour really are.

We need to find new ways of asking what works in the bigger scheme of things. It might be that if that person had another way of engaging with the community or the space around them, and we were less pressured into a limited number of uses, then the vandalism wouldn’t happen in the first place. At Central Saint Martins we've completed a two year European-funded project on graffiti. What kept coming up was that the problem is not always the problem.

What do you mean by that?

We can use graffiti as an example. Where we say, “graffiti tagging is detrimental to a neighbourhood,” sometimes it's not the tagging, it might be the culturally and legally-informed perceptions that are the problem.

It can be our assumption that tagging is a problem because we don't stop to think about the person who made that work, or the relationship between that mark and the environment it’s in. Is that mark really degrading the environment? For who?

Sometimes it is — some types of graffiti like, racist and homophobic graffiti are widely taken to offend. But there are lots of other types that aren’t. When you ask people you get a huge variety of responses and values attributed to a single instance.

So how does it become damage?

The notion of damage is defined by permission but they don’t necessarily have an automatic relationship. The connection between damage and permission is cultural. It's us saying if “If we haven't given permission, then it's damaging.” But in real terms, I'm not talking about a window that's been pulled out of a building, or when the train mechanically stops working. It’s about changing its visual codification.

And that visual or aesthetic codification we're told about is problematic before we even see it. But there's no opportunity to have that conversation. There's no culture yet of encouraging people to think about what's working for their local neighbourhood or the environment that surrounds them. More often than not, people are told what works and what doesn't.

I’m interested to see if, through prototyping, we can get people to think a bit harder. By getting people to do something, come on site, there's a chance for them to think and learn through doing. Thinking through doing is a really important aspect for me: you can learn stuff that you don't learn by sitting down, looking at a bit of paper or reading someone else's document.

Building on that, what one placemaking principle would you pass on to others?

I think that allowing creativity to come from local groups of people includes the recognition that risk can be managed and doesn't always need to be mitigated.

You work a lot with risk.

Yes, and I'm on the receiving end of people worried about risk. Sometimes people forget that risk is something that can be managed. A threat is a negative possibility that can't be controlled. Yet risk is a possibility that actually can be controlled.

We need to trust people again.

In the UK we've taken trust away from community groups in how they relate to the built environment and it's time we put that trust back. I think that's really important. That panic, that risk and the culture that we've absorbed from certain other big countries — ‘we can't do that in case somebody sues us’ — is detrimental to how people are living in cities and caring for neighbourhoods. We need to turn that around.

How did you get into having an interest in design for public space?

I was always amazed by how design can change people's experiences of everyday life. But I realised that comes mostly from stuff we have or acquire. So I realised that the places around us don’t seem to be working as hard as perhaps car or consumer goods manufacturers seem to be working, in terms of how design is serving people affected. They seemed to be a thousand miles ahead compared to city designers or facilitators. And in terms of the quality of the experience and the way that it affects lifestyle. I thought, “I'm sure we can apply some of that thinking from industrial design to other areas.”

How has your approach evolved?

In the last five years, I've been interested in agonism. Agonism is a political approach which says that rather than having a single hierarchy in democracy that everyone has to accept, that there should be positive aspects of certain types of contestation, or hearing other views and voices. Agonism is about allowing adversaries without treating them as enemies.

How do you see that relating to design?

The built environment has different interests and agendas on any one space. I haven't got all the answers, but I am interested in how design allows us to have an agonistic conversation or encounter that encourages different people to bring ideas together. Where a wider set of voices are heard through both material and social encounters with space.

You can concur or argue. You can contest without being oppressed. It's not about aggression so much as about bringing alternatives. It's what I call constructive critique, not just critique.

In terms of design of the built environment there's this step beyond which is about acknowledging that not everyone has got the time or the willingness to spend all day chatting about it. But actually, there's millions of other conversations that happen in the city.

Conversations happen through action, through activity, through encounter. If I walk down the street a bit faster because I'm nervous that's a conversation between me and the street.

What if I felt like saying, “Actually, I'd like to be able to walk down my street a bit slower. But to do that I'd want my street lights to be brighter.”

I'd like to see experiments in places where people are supported to have a go at trying to make a place it how they think it should be. We should be open to saying “I'm trying to change the conversation here and if someone else has got what they think is a better idea, let them have a go as well.”

So this comes back to prototyping. It's about people being allowed to disagree and learn through constructive intervention or engagement in an environment.


On that note, we take a walk to Thessaly Oasis with Marcus

Marcus tell us a bit about this space as we walk around.

Thessaly Oasis was a play space for about 30 years. Between the late 70s and early 2000s it was in active use, partly self-managed, partly run by a group called Oasis Play, with local residents Brian Barnes (who received an MBE for his murals and other community contributions), his wife Eileen and others. It seemed by all accounts to be working really well, with a skateboarding park, greenspaces, murals and different uses by different members of the community.

But by 2004 the insurance premium was up to £10,000 and they couldn’t afford that as a community space. So they gave it to Wandsworth Borough Council, but recently it’s had the gates padlocked.

Yes, there has been rubbish dumping and other problems. Since Wandsworth took charge of the space they have not cared for it. Some of the issues are symptoms not causes of that lack of care.

Do you think that the fact that this place has a history might help inspire what it could be in the future? Does it already have a narrative?

Certainly locally. I’ve hear from a lot of people about this space, and no-one I’ve spoken to wants it to be built on. So many people have lived here for a long time, and some remember using it. I spoke to a guy who was skateboarding here in the 80s and 90s. There were different iterations of murals here that created an identity for the place: there was a massive mural in the 80s, and someone complained and the council’s response was to paint over the wall in beige.

Tell us about your approach to working with this place.

At every encounter we have we with people, the answer is the same: “we want do something with the space and bring it back into community use.” Some of these people are connected to tenants associations and housing co-ops; some are business commuters; we’re in touch with the local schools and nurseries, who are supportive, too. There’s a vicar/architect called the ‘Dean of Emerging Communities’ whose job is to connect new and existing communities in Battersea. When I went to the Mayor’s Space Hive crowdfund initiative at the GLA, everyone thought that approach could work really well here. There are so many ideas locally to be tried out!

There’s such a push in London to build new housing. How is that impacting these empty patches of land?

Of course, but there are many alternatives. There's no need to build on greenspace in London. One suggestion would be to subsidise access into high-end living spaces that have been built here in Lambeth and Battersea, rather than construct yet another set of buildings. More people in an area means you need more recreational space not less. I'm of the view that you do not encroach on the recreational space, because otherwise you create a community that doesn’t have the resources it needs, and builds in more problems from the outset.

Learning from Marcus' approach


Allowing creativity to come from local groups of people includes the recognition that risk can be managed and doesn't always need to be mitigated.

Making conflict constructive
What is narrative if not driven by dialogue? The most compelling stories grip us because they make room for back and forth between protagonists and antagonists. Places are no different. By accepting opposing opinions and taking an agonistic approach, conflict becomes constructive. But these conversations with a space need to become actions, to prototype and improvise our story as we go. 

Putting trust back into local community

As with any relationship, to break the ice on a conversation you need to trust those you’re talking to. Cities have made that leap on one level: opening data and API up in the recognition that their citizens, rather than the authorities, might have all the answers. Now that’s shifting to physical places: San Francisco’s Main Street interventions highlight the Urban Prototyping movement, testing faster, lighter ideas. The city's planning department changed their design code to make that happen, embracing short-term risk to offset the longer-term threat of developing a place that simply wouldn’t work.

Want more? Marcus recommends…
Publics and the City Kurt Iveson
Design Act Magnus Ericson and Raima Mazé 
Great American City Robert Sampson
Urban Acupuncture Jaime Lerner 
Emotional Design Donald Norman