Interview with Marc Cairns: innovation, sustainability, place and technology


15 minute read
Jo Morrison

Jo Morrison

Director of Digital Innovation & Research

Digital Placemaking

A renovated industrial building and lively external street market

© New Practice: Barras, Glasgow

For both society and nature to benefit from new forms of economic growth, and to reach net zero emissions by the mid-century, we need to rethink our economies and how we consume – and we need to innovate at speed.

With this in mind, Calvium has been speaking with leading industry figures who work at the intersection of people, place and sustainability, to share their ideas about what can be done to achieve sustainable urban futures. 

Marc Cairns is the co-founder and managing director of New Practice, an architecture and planning practice based between Glasgow and London, working to connect people with the decision-making processes that underpin the urban experience. Architecturally trained, Marc is also an associate of the Design Council, sits on the advisory board of British Council Creative Hubs and has a voluntary role as the Scotland Lead for ArchitectureLGBT. 

In the latest of our interview series, Marc shares his wisdom on inclusive design, community engagement and how to have impact as a small-scale business.

Interview Artwork Marc

You advocate for community voices to help shape their neighbourhoods. Why is this important to you and what are the benefits? Are they measurable?

The work we do at New Practice is very much centred around the importance of bringing people into decision-making processes. Everything around us in the built environment is commonly decided by a particular group of processes, people and individuals – particularly land ownership, duty bearers, local authorities, local government – and there has been a big push over the past decade or so to bring more voices into that process and to allow people to have a more meaningful input in that decision-making.

A lot of the work we’ve been doing for the past decade is not necessarily advocating for people to be designers within their neighbourhoods – which is fantastic if they can be the experts in delivering built environment improvements to architecture and urban planning – but a more subtle working of a broader sphere of practice across the UK, that’s attempting a cultural shift where people can, and should, have a voice. And that goes beyond your typical individual in their third trimester of life: white, middle-aged, middle-class educated with a lot of free time on their hands to be that nimby voice. 

It’s not about that; it’s actually about bringing people from all backgrounds, generations, experiences and perspectives to the table to try and create more inclusive places.

Good design is inclusive design and that’s what we stand for. The benefits of it are plain and simple: people feel they have more ownership of the spaces, that they have part of the voice or have understood the process of how places have been produced and delivered. If they understand an action that has been done, that’s helpful as well. With that kind of understanding comes ownership, and with ownership comes pride. People who have pride in places take care of places more, they invest in them, they want to make them better and to continue to be an active citizen.

Those benefits are measurable in how communities operate and function as places, as governance structures, with less involvement and less coordination of all those duty bearers. It’s a big reciprocal cycle and, in many respects, there are lots of ways to measure it through evaluation and monitoring that could be a bit more loose with how data can really show that evidence. A lot of times, it’s like ‘we built this thing, that cost X and it made Y new jobs’, and then it becomes a little bit trickle down economics.

For me, the interesting benefits of how they’re measurable are more anecdotal than scientific. For example, stories that you hear about people’s involvement in a project or seeing something change in their community, or having access to a space or to an elected member, has changed people’s circumstances and their trust and belief in processes, architects and the way places are made.

Two people in conversation in workshop, smiling
© New Practice

It can be really difficult to identify marginalised groups or ‘not the usual suspects’ and then interest them in participating in community engagement activities. For example, full-time carers who are exhausted, have few funds and are battling the system, or young people who feel disenfranchised, or those for whom English is not their first language. How do you find these folks and how do you enable them to take part?

We are always trying to make sure we’re engaging the unusual suspects because it’s really usual to get the usual suspects in the room. Often, they have been the actors or local actors who forced a project to come into action through their approach or lack of satisfaction with what’s happening in their community. But as I said, often those conventional suspects come with quite a particular agenda, and the agenda is often ‘I’m speaking on behalf of the community’, but they don’t actually represent the community. It can become quite gatekeeper, which is really problematic; they’re trying to stop progress and change to keep control of their holding environment.

I’ve got more confident over the years of my practice to really challenge people on that and call them out on that. I’m working within communities to make friends with everyone, but it’s not my job to go in there and get everyone to like me because that’s not useful or valuable. That’s not what good community engagement is; community engagement is asking hard questions, and maybe making people face some hard facts and realities about the situation, presenting information honestly and fairly, and remaining as impartial and independent as possible.

You always have to engage those individuals, as local actors and usual suspects, because they are important from a statutory and client and paper trail perspective. Making sure those people have had the time to speak their minds, communicate with you and air their opinions, thoughts and feedback, is important. But it’s easy to get them, they’ll always engage, so we tend to put our resources and time into thinking who the audience is that, by bringing them into the picture and project, will influence the design team to create better outcomes.Most recently, we have been doing that a lot with disability advocacy groups, in particular in Glasgow with Glasgow Disability Alliance, and paying them through our project budgets to bring in a diverse range of their membership – from people with ambulant disability to visual impairment to neurodiversity – to co-design a session with us. It is really important to not just be extractive with your expectations but to put your money where your mouth is, getting money to engage people if you really want them to engage because people have got a lot of struggles right now. What people need to get out of it is feeling like they’ve been listened to, been able to contribute to something and feel value in their time, but also that they’ve been remunerated for that experience.

It’s important to be clear that it’s not bribing people to participate, it’s incentivising that participation to make it mutually beneficial as an experience.

People looking at landscape photo, with a table covered in plans and maps
© New Practice

Digital tools are now part of the engagement toolkit. How do you use technologies as part of some of your projects?

That’s really changed things a lot. We were using digital engagement before the pandemic but through more traditional tools that were about gathering fairly robust data – so surveys, questionnaires, online mapping. We worked with Glasgow City Council and a citizen mapping project they ran called Future Maps, which we were the lead delivery partner on, and that was about teaching and supporting communities to map their own services, resources and amenities. 

The pandemic really changed the gear of which you had to think about digital engagement because for nearly 24 months we couldn’t do any in-person engagement. So we tried to think more and more creatively about how we engage people online and being very aware of the barriers that creates in terms of literacy and language. Something really simple is using readily available and free tools online, such as Google Translate. If we know we’re having a particularly targeted discussion with a group that we think may be less digitally literate, we contact them in advance and offer to go through the website with them to try and carry on using digital engagement as a way to raise awareness, promote the projects that are happening and gather robust data. 

How does online engagement compare with in-person engagement?

I’m not a big fan of online engagement – we really tried to step away from it. You can’t read people’s body language on calls, you don’t have a moment when people are getting a cup of tea at the start to ask personal questions or just be a human being. I think some people really struggle with it as a forum; it can be quite disruptive no matter how much you plan – just one person not being silent on their microphone throws everything off.

I’ve had some of my most inspiring conversations not even as part of workshops, but in the beginning, middle and end parts, when you’re just talking to people and they can open up a bit more, talk more honestly and openly about their experiences. That’s the point of architects working with the public and communities: bringing them into the decision-making process is actually to have some emotional content from real life experiences to push us to do better and really think critically about our designs. You want those moments where people are saying ‘this happened, it made me feel like this, the solution for me is that you need to do X’. That’s really important and that only really happens for me with in-person experiences.

Two people looking at photos of buildings
© New Practice

The mitigation of climate change should be at the forefront of urban design. What conditions are needed on the ground for small architectural practices and urban designers to actively pursue the sustainability agenda as part of their everyday work?

This is a really big question and obviously so much of what the built environment is looking at now is the climate crisis. A lot of what we have been doing at New Practice, throughout our practice, has been responding to that without realising we have been. So in terms of our architectural portfolio and the work we do as architects, which still at its heart is about community-led development, creating spaces for conversation gathering and community, we’ve always done projects about adaptive reuse and reusing buildings that exist.

The building I’m sat in is an old market hall in the east end of Glasgow that was completely underutilised and beyond dilapidation, and we worked with the Scottish Government and Glasgow City Council to get some capital grant funding to turn it into a creative hub with 45 workspaces, a gallery space, two shop units, our office space, that’s fully occupied. We’ve also just redeveloped a former Edwardian school into a new community art centre.

Working at a smaller scale, we’re always thinking about avoiding building burn, not using virgin materials and trying to reuse and recycle as much as possible. You can do it. What’s tricky about it is there is more appetite for it in the public sector but not so much in the private sector, and sometimes the private sector drives the public sector and you start to see larger architects and architectural practices be more willing to do projects they maybe shouldn’t be doing because the money or resources are there.

I don’t think there is much support for on-the-ground practices of our scale; it’s something we have to do as a practice and that all practices should be doing. The construction industry is incredibly wasteful and recognised for being a contributor. Should we even be building anything new? But when you’re on the ground and talk to people, it’s often not at the forefront of their thinking. Their energy bill is, how they get their kids to school and pay for their school uniform, where they get 15 minutes’ peace to watch a bit of Coronation Street. That is on their mind, not the impending sun exploding, so I find it quite difficult on the ground to have a serious conversation about it because it can be so abstract to them.

All we can do as a practice is accept where we can have a responsibility and where we can make better decisions. But I don’t think it’s my responsibility, as a business owner, to help people to save the planet because there are much bigger businesses that are not doing anything – and being permitted to do so. We need to be really careful as well about putting too much pressure and blame on micro-enterprises that are just trying to pay staff well and create a healthy environment for people to work.

Five people working at table covered in papers
© New Practice

When you work with various stakeholder communities, do you find there are patterns in their concerns or for their ambitions for their neighbourhoods? Or do you find that each place is very different?

There are some patterns but maybe not the ones we want to see. It is remarkable how aggravated people get about parking and cars. Those issues always come up. 

We have a real problem with the built environment with an ability to be honest about ownership, financial mechanisms and how societies work. People think everything is owned by the council; they see a new development happening and say why are they spending it on this when they should be fixing potholes? It’s a complete lack of understanding about the financial infrastructure that underpins the entire existence of society. 

A lot of it goes back to education and educating people about the way the world works, the way that governance works and who the decision-makers are. What levels of decision-making exist as well. And quite often we’re bluntly discouraged or told not to explain the financial mechanisms of projects. 

Two photos of public park with structures - rain shelter, community building, climbing frame
New Practice: Walk-Up Avenue. © Will Scott Photography

How do you broach net zero and biodiversity loss when working with local communities?

These are important conversations. But again, until you fix the basics of what’s important to people and what they see is not working in their communities, and educate people about what the hell net zero and biodiversity means, I’m not sure we, as a small practice, can step in and meaningfully get their input or opinion on that. 

A lot of what we’ve been doing recently is trying to lead by example, in demonstration. We just finished a project for Edinburgh City Council, which has taken underutilised sites and turned that land into a new biodiverse green space. And then we’ve created interpretation charts for each space which explains, for example, why there’s a swampy bit in the middle of the green space; that it’s not bad design, it’s intentional design. We’ve done the same for the building materials we used. 

That’s all we can do: explain, illustrate and communicate what we’re doing and how the small aspects of what we are doing feed into that, rather than trying to explain the very difficult concept around net zero and biodiversity.

In terms of innovative practice, is there an individual, organisation or policy that you feel is really innovative in what they do, or what they seek to enable, regarding environmental, economic and/or social sustainability?

I don’t think it’s perfect, but there was a lot to be said about the Community Empowerment Act (Scotland) in 2015 and what that Bill has enabled democratically within society, by really allowing communities to have better rights and access to spaces, places and assets. Literally being able to say we want to buy this off you and protect it because you are not doing what is right for our community. 

That is really incredible. It’s a mechanism in the way we talk to the citizens and not the way to the private or public sectors. It’s different from community infrastructure levies and Section 106. It’s about communities identifying whatever they think is right and using this Bill as a mechanism to leverage their power and their position.

Thank you so much Marc for sharing your time and insight.


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