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Verbier GPS: Turning a Vision into Reality for Mayens de Bruson

Nick Woolley gives presentation at Verbier GPS as follows:

Turning a Vision into Reality for Mayens de Bruson

Those of you, who are fortunate enough to live in or close to this wonderful place of Verbier, will know of the proposals that have already been so carefully drawn up in outline for a new extension for Verbier and Le Chable, at Mayens de Bruson. In reaching the current stage of this vision, your Commune has been all too aware of the incredible sensitivity of the environment, its heritage and its people.

So, how do we turn that vision into a reality?

Come with me on a voyage of discovery – I want to FIRE your imagination!

I want us all – for a moment – to go back to the very roots of our being, but first, you must lose your so-called technological skills of the twenty-first century and become again the primeval Homo Sapiens that our forebears were, who had probably the most acutely tuned senses that any period of man possessed – that was their main hope for survival!

Sit back and close your eyes – I really mean that – Close your Eyes!  Lose the clutter of everything around you – and just listen – and imagine you are here in Verbier, 200,000 years ago, wearing skins and furs!

How appropriate that the theme today is Research!  When our early forebears needed RESEARCH into something – how did they get it?  They had no IT or Google – no books even.   When they needed to learn how to – let’s say – kill a mammoth for food, clothing and tools – they asked, they listened, they watched.  But – when they listened – they REALLY listened and when they watched – they REALLY watched and SAW what they were looking at – who wouldn’t if they, themselves had to do it next time and face that tusky mammoth.  If they got it wrong, they knew they were dead!

Now, come back to the twenty-first century – open your eyes and be honest – whenever any of YOU ask someone about something – do you REALLY listen to what the person says – AND HOW they say it – in other words what they REALLY mean?   Sadly, not many of us do.  But, BY listening, we CAN learn SO much!  Let’s park this one for a minute.

Now, I want you to come right up to date in research and consider some of the most leading edge technology in medicine – stem cell development.  Some of you here, today, may know someone, even perhaps a relation, whose life has been saved by this amazing type of work.  When a scientist is asked to grow a particular new material part for a patient – that scientist must first understand every detail and especially the DNA of that person in order that he or she can construct the code string that will be required for the project, in order to make the new material fit and function in harmony with the original body.

Just keep this in your mind, but let’s move to something totally different!

When a developer sees a parcel of land on which he can build houses, let’s say next to an existing town, does he take as much trouble as that stem-cell scientist in learning about the place, its environment, its heritage and the lives, needs and economy of the people who live there – quite apart from the local vernacular design of the buildings?  He may look into various records about the place – but will he REALLY talk to lots of people, representing every aspect of the place, learn and record? Probably not!

You may laugh, but in reality, isn’t it just as important as our scientist, creating new body material?  That place to be built is itself for PEOPLE, not only with needs of spatial size, for homes and individual rooms, but people with hearts and spirits with a whole range of needs.  And what about the town it adjoins? That has a community of PEOPLE with beating hearts – who have maybe lived there for generations – who also have needs, desires and no doubt prejudices.  With no real involvement, no wonder that those people get anxious when plans for their town extension are just dropped on them!  If no care is taken to understand all this and more, what hope is there that the newly constructed part of that town, will either fit in properly or function harmoniously with it and even make it stronger?  Thousands of lives may be affected in the original town and more in the new bit, now AND in the future.  Isn’t that pretty important?  On the one hand, we have a scientist spending huge amounts of time and expertise to create a new body part for a single person – on the other hand, we are putting at risk the lives and well-being of a huge number of people now – and for generations to come.

The Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment is a truly remarkable organization that is heavily into meaningful research.  When it is asked to help a village, a town or a part of a city to regenerate or enlarge to meet new objectives, one of the first things that the Foundation does is to get to grips with – and research – the history of the place, how it has grown, its people, its culture, its economy and its whole environment – in fact all that and more that has made that place tick down the ages!  Also, to get to understand its current problems and needs.  The proposed new development could possible address those problems.  The Foundation calls that whole task getting to know the DNA of the place and its people.  Funny coincidence that – isn’t it – or is it?

As the Foundation says of itself

‘The importance of traditional and sustainable place-making in a modern context lies at the very heart of The Prince’s Foundation. Using a combination of research, education programmes, and community consultation processes, it is the aim of The Prince’s Foundation positively to influence the design and planning of future living and working places. By creating communities with sustainable, attractive and relevant spaces, we can create enjoyable environments in which to live our lives.’

In June 2010, Christophe Dumoulin, President of the Bagnes Commune wrote to His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, to explore opportunities to work with the Prince’s Foundation on the planning and design of a proposed eco-village development in Mayens de Bruson. That invitation has now been taken up and the Foundation will, hopefully soon in the New Year come out on the first stage of this very exciting project.  I am delighted that I shall be helping lead that little team.

Our stated objectives are to assist the Commune to set the design brief that will:

  • deliver sustainable development in this alpine region;
  • create a place that respects nature
  • provide a quality living environment as well as a world-class mountain village inspired by the tradition that preserves the region’s characteristics

And – in order to achieve this, we shall:

  • engage with the local stakeholders to collaborate on a vision for the new community and design a place that celebrates nature and reflects local architectural characteristics.

From earlier discussions with the Commune, we know that it is also vital that this new development binds not only itself to Verbier, up here and Le Chable in the valley, but also goes as far as possible in binding more closely Le Chable and Verbier.

In order to reinforce the value of this process, I want to give you a brief example from my own work in the UK.

Much of my time is involved with Threadneedle Asset Management Ltd, as their UK Fund Asset Manager, for a major rural property portfolio.

I am currently taking forward many planning and development projects for them scattered around the UK.  These range in size from a few, up to more than a thousand homes.  Whenever, I become involved in any project, I always adopt the approach of the Foundation, not just because I believe in it passionately, but because, thank goodness, Threadneedle feels much the same way!

Threadneedle’s Corporate Responsibility aims are high. They require all its people to:

‘pursue its business with high standards of responsibility and integrity towards communities, society and the environment and demonstrate an ethos of sustainability in its property investment activities, including integrating environmental awareness in planning and development projects’.

Threadneedle is convinced that in order to optimise performance, financial and non-financial considerations need to be taken into account, when taking forward planning projects.

When I talk about buildings that are going to be used for people – houses, offices, sports halls – any buildings that people will use – I often liken those buildings to the ultimate clothes that we wear.  They must not only be the right size, but they must feel right for their particular purpose – inspire us when we need to be inspired, be smart, light and airy for work to let our imagination fly and our homes probably need rooms that give us even a range of environments, but especially relaxation, comfort and security.  So many square metres for a bedroom or living room is not enough.  We are part of the animal kingdom – in spite of all our technological skills, we actually have a soul – a spirit – an inner being that needs the right environment in order that it can function well.

Sustainable development is not just about building homes that are highly energy efficient and low on all resource use.  All that, today, should be taken as a given.  But sustainability goes so much further.  Today, we need to master plan places that function for people to live their lives with the minimum need for cars, we must include open spaces or ‘Green Lungs’. We need to lay out a spatial master plan that enables people to have walking access to all their basic needs – we call these ‘walkable neighbourhoods’ – and they must be places of which we can be proud!  In Bruson, there will doubtless be many tourists as well as residents.  It will be essential to ensure that their needs are properly catered for too, otherwise it won’t work.

All these aspects will be addressed in the consultation process and we shall really LISTEN to what the people say.  Many years ago, I initiated and chaired a piece of research, funded by two government organisations and the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors.  It was to research how we could appraise the sustainability of different projects and processes.  It included a sustainable planning module.  This incorporated a system whereby the stakeholders themselves could prioritise the issues that related to the development proposals.  I have used this and our software on several occasions with the Foundation, as it works so well with their methodologies.  I shall use it here at Bruson.

Your Commune is taking steps to ensure that any new development is planned with great care and sensitivity, strictly in conjunction with the affected communities of  Le Chable, Verbier and Bruson itself, in order  to achieve all the goals it has set out.  It wishes the Prince’s Foundation to apply its rigorous consultation methodologies, to get to grips with all the relevant issues, so that we have a scientific understanding of everything that really matters.

By using this methodology it will be YOUR REPORT – providing factual, auditable, measured stakeholder priorities of all that must be taken into account at the next stage, when the planners start to plan the project in detail, again WITH the community. Hopefully the Prince’s Foundation will be able to assist you in this critical work as well, to turn the Vision into a Reality.

I started by talking of the research of early man.  I hope I have brought in some of the latest research thinking too.  We need to learn from both!  But – it is amazing how so much was actually thought of long ago.  I want to end with the saying of the ancient Taoist Sage, Lao-tzu of 600 B.C.  His version of what the Foundation calls finding the DNA of a place is:

‘Learn from the people

Plan with the people

Begin with what they have

Build on what they know

Of the best leaders

When the task is accomplished

The people will remark

We have done it ourselves’.

Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you!

December 7th, 2011
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