Public buildings must fulfil a community need says Peter Owen
In the race to find reasons for the riots that gripped our major cities in August, the built environment has come in for some flak.
Over the years, planners have been encouraged and aspired to create social cohesion through architecture. Buildings, we are told, can influence the way we live our lives.
Ironically, however, much of the civil unrest we witnessed took place in areas where regeneration had already taken place.
For example, millions of pounds has been ploughed into Tottenham in recent years; English Heritage has restored Victorian shop-fronts and facades along the high street, the Tottenham Hale Retail Park has been expanded and new housing is springing up on estate regenerations in the neighbourhood.
I was convinced before the riots, and remain so, that urban utopia cannot be created on a drawing board.
My experience working for a large constructor tells me that while buildings can provide opportunity, they are not an end in themselves. They need to fulfil a community need - perhaps educational, perhaps cultural, certainly a means for improving lives and instilling a real sense of attainment. There is clearly a section of society that does not feel connected to the prosperity and growth that new developments should bring.
Locally, a reported £65million has been ploughed into West Bromwich's digital arts centre, The Public. The Will Alsop designed building was meant to kick-start the regeneration of the town centre, but instead seems to have attracted criticism regarding its funding and low visitor numbers. Could that money have been used for other purposes to create real civic pride and engagement?
I suspect the current funding climate means we will see fewer statement public buildings. If that's so, we must make sure that investment in the built environment helps create a sense of community pride and ambition that was lacking in those who caused so much damage to their areas by rioting and looting.