The Society hosted a presentation and discussion about the progress of the idea of an Urban Room for Kingston. Peter Karpinkski who has been championing this project for some years, mostly uphill, gave a short slide show and made these comments:

Good evening. I have been asked to introduce this evening’s event with a brief update on the Society’s campaign for an urban room for the borough of Kingston.

After which, we wanted to open up the session to have a discussion about the shape an urban room might take; what it’s aims and objectives might be, who it would be for, and what sort of programme it might have.

Following on from the illuminating questionnaire we held at the “Future of the KS” meeting in May, we have another one for you tonight. We’d be very grateful for your answers please.

So first the update. Given Kingston Society’s mission to promote high standards of planning, conservation and design in the borough, as some of you will remember, the Society has been pushing for an urban room for the whole borough since 2017.

I am excited to report that in the Society’s Diamond Anniversary year progress is suddenly being made. There is now a realistic prospect that a pilot urban room, or “space for conversations”, might actually happen. More about that later.

What is an urban room, and how might it help?

First a brief reminder of what an urban room is. At the moment there is no dedicated space in the borough where major development schemes or strategic matters can be presented to the public.We believe that a neutral forum is needed where residents can engage with development proposals and other strategic issues that concern the places where we live.

Having such a space would ensure that residents can positively contribute to the changes happening to their neighbourhoods, and reduce the risk of bad developments happening. That is the role of an urban room as proposed by the Farrell Review; to provide a space where proposals can be discussed, and ideas and plans developed.

At its simplest, the term ‘urban room’ is used to describe a space where a town’s inhabitants can debate the future of their usually urban area.

Around fifteen urban rooms exist and are linked by the Urban Room Network. The Network defines the purpose of an urban room is “to foster meaningful connections between people and place, using creative methods of engagement to encourage active participation in the future of our buildings, streets and neighbourhoods”.

Since my last update I have visited several urban rooms around the country and the slides that follow are a selection.

  1. Sheffield
  2. Reading
  3. City Centre
  4. Folkestone
  5. Watford
  6. Croydon
  7. Cambridge Road Estate Regeneration Office

What does an urban room look like?

An urban room is a flexible concept; Farrell envisaged it as a space with a model of the local built environment, helping to give context for future developments, provide historical background, and highlight possible linkages.

Individual planning applications could be shown, with separate displays for large scale developments. The important thing is that it should be a space where the widest possible audience can be engaged, ideally on a high street location.

It need not be permanent; they have been set up on a temporary ‘pop up’ model, such as in an unused shop. There has even been an experiment with a mobile urban room.

Recent developments

  • What else has changed since my last update, in January 2019? In meantime we have had a bewildering array of new policies:
  • Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, and its report, “Living with Beauty”, Jan 2020
  • Planning for the Future White Paper, August 2020
  • Revised National Planning Policy Framework, July 2021
  • National Model Design Code, July 2021
  • Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, May 2022
  • And, of course, the progress of climate change, and COP26 and the Glasgow Climate Pact.

A thread running through the Government’s changes for the planning system is an aspiration to improve public engagement – “world-class public engagement”, as the White Paper promised us.

And here in Kingston last summer we had a consultation on a new Local Plan, driven by the need to replace our out of date plan and the Mayor’s target of 964 new homes a year.

This year also saw the setting up of a “Citizens’ Panel” for the Kingston town centre area. In this context, in February the Society with the North Kingston Neighbourhood Forum and Chessington District Residents’ Association sent a joint letter to leader of the Council Cllr Andreas Kirsch proposing the establishment of “an urban room to facilitate and encourage meaningful debate and connection between people and place”. The letter was supported by other organisations, such as the New Malden Residents’ Association.

Following that in May after the local elections, we had a meeting to discuss setting up an urban room. Present were representatives of the Society, the North Kingston Neighbourhood Forum, and the Chessington District Residents’ Association. On the Council side were Cllrs Kirsch, Peter Herlinger (portfolio holder for Culture, Heritage and Governance), and Roger Hayes (Portfolio Holder for Planning Policy and Community Engagement), with some of their Council officers – and – most welcome – the University of Kingston.

In short, the conclusion of the meeting was, in Cllr Kirsch’s words, “Let’s do it”.

Why the sudden change? Unsurprisingly it is connected with the development of the Council’s new Local Plan and the next stage of consultation on that scheduled for later this year. The Council see this as a good opportunity to experiment with a pilot room. As the term “urban room” is not widely understood, they prefer to think of it as a “space for conversations”.

So, I am excited to say that the Society is now part of a working group with Kingston Council, the North Kingston Neighbourhood Forum, Chessington District Residents’ Association and Kingston University. We are all working together to set up a pilot urban room and make this a reality in Kingston.

The officer leading the project for the Council is Emma Crowe who can’t be with us tonight owing to another engagement. She has explored two possible vacant venues, and an empty shop in Fife Road seems to be the front runner at the moment.

Hopefully students from Kingston University will help to design and decorate the inside the space, and brand it.

The aim is to have a programme of activities for a pilot period from November to January 2023. For example, the Council would like to use it to support the consultation on the draft new local Plan for the borough, and the vision for the Kingston town centre area.

Other organisations and community groups will be encouraged to have public conversations about the things that matter to them.

If the pilot is successful, there is a desire to make it more permanent elsewhere in Kingston and find similar spaces in other neighbourhoods. The purpose would be to strengthen engagement and communities’ understanding of the past, present and future of where they live, work and play.

Peter Karpinski

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Last Updated on July 22, 2022 by Kingston Society