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Last modified: 26 February 2014

Listen less. Do more!

Confused about exclusion.

Social exclusion, economic exclusion, even permanent exclusion from school. Exclusion feels bad.

Exclusive holidays, exclusive deals, and exclusive cycle and pedestrian routes in cities. Exclusive, we’re told, is good.

I think we've become very confused about exclusion and exclusivity.

At work I think of ways to make money with mobile software without relying on exclusive content available via in-app purchases. I also build digital aids that lower the barriers that exclude many people from real-world experiences in art galleries, museums, and libraries.

But I also think about exclusion and exclusivity outside of work. I think about the way that campaigns to increase local procurement end up excluding better suppliers who are not local, and how community-based projects and plans exclude those who the community rejects or whose ambitions span many communities. I think about the way that our current system for planning permission listens overwhelmingly to those who shout loudly in defence of their local interests and excludes the far larger number of people priced out of raising their families in decent homes or starting their own businesses.

Does consultation make us inclusive?

One of the ways we try to fight exclusion in our city is by holding consultations, and listening to as many views as possible. In theory I like consultations but Leeds has become obsessed with them.

From pulling down an old school to building a new park, we’re consulted. To build a trolleybus or a cyclepath there are dozens of meetings to attend and feedback forms to complete. We seems to spend more time and money consulting than we do improving our city.

And what do we have to show for our endless consultations? Too often they've forced us to abandon plans to build the public parks, community spaces, good homes, and public transport that we want. Instead we are surrounded by private shopping centres we never asked for but whose construction we couldn't object to.

Yesterday I watched The Human Scale, a wonderful film showing what's possible if we stop designing our cities for cars and start designing them for people. In the talks before and after the film a featured architect, David Sims, repeated the same contradiction that I think the film kept dodging. The key to building happy cities was, we were told, to listen to the people. And yet when the people were asked, they didn't want things to change. The taxi driver in New York wanted to drive. So did many of the respondents in Christchurch, and we are denied the data that would let us decide for ourselves if they're in the minority. If we ignore views we don't like can we really call it listening? If we already know the answer we'll accept, can we call it a conversation?

We have a problem in Leeds. 8000 people responded to consultation on our City Plan and the majority said we should build nothing. That means economic stagnation, congested roads, poor health, and poverty for far too many of our children. But that is what we have chosen again, and again.

A leader, not a listener.

I think we should reject stagnation and build a better future. That means leading, not listening. It means copying what David Sims and Jan Gehl do in The Human Scale, and ignoring much of what they say. They built pedestrian areas in New York and Chongqing despite protestations, and then justified them by their success. And they continue to support a scheme in Christchurch that seems likely to make people happier in the long-term, but which they can't prove is wanted now.

We should do the same in Leeds. I remember the howls of protest when the rusty building was erected at broadcasting place but few would choose to remove it now. The vast majority of opinions on the Kirkstall Road bus lane before construction were extremely negative, yet now I suspect most drivers accept that it has barely slowed their journeys. In York, the suggestion of closing Lendal Bridge to cars was almost universally condemned, and yet trials have been a success.

Three quarters of those consulted think we shouldn't build a trolleybus from Belle Isle to Headingley, and I suspect a majority think that we shouldn't fund extra cycle lanes, or reject private funding for city-centre car parks that might boost businesses in a time of austerity.

So now we face a choice. Should we listen and continue to do far too little to create a better future? Or should we lead and create a happier, healthier, richer and more equal city?

Leeds should listen to its people before it acts!
Leeds should lead, and do more of what people like, and less of what they don't!

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