Climax City

Random writing on cities


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URBAN DESIGN: Are we doing it wrong?

Once upon a time, long long ago, all cities were fair and beautiful. Whether they were designed by princes or build by merchants they created urban societies where life may have been hard but where commerce and community could take root and where civilisation and the arts could thrive.

Then along came the industrial revolution with its polluting industry and huddled masses. Then came housing reformers with their by-law housing and council estates and the developers and speculators with their ribbon development and suburban sprawl. Then came pesky town planners with their bloody garden cities which were bastardised as new towns. Then came highway engineers with their underpasses and overpasses at about the same time that we lost our head to the radicalism of the modernists with their socialist future of clean white lines. We got carried away with slum clearance, with the deck access and the high rise, with Radburn layouts and shopping structures….  and everything went horribly wrong.

Then, just as we were starting realising the error of our ways, Margaret Thatcher was elected and Nicolas Ridley took all our powers away in the name of the free market. Design was no longer the concern of planners as  shopping went out-of-town followed by business parks and suburban cul-de-sacs. Cities in the north collapsed while those in the south fell victim to loads-of-money speculators and post modern towers…  and everything went from bad to worse.

Then in the late 1980s a plucky band of urban designers emerged, brandishing their bible called ‘Responsive Design’ and it was good. It showed us the error of our ways and told us how we needed too change, inspiring a new generation of urban designers free from the taint of those horrid modernists. These urban design vanguardists would have to battle every inch of the way. They were criticised by planners and highway engineers, by the house builders and even the police. They were over-idealistic and unreasonable, would push up costs and create places that people and business would shun. They would cause crime and even kill children once cul-de-sacs had been outlawed. However over time the urban design message gained traction, it became part of policy guidance and was promoted by public agencies, even gaining its own champion in the form of CABE. But it still wasn’t easy, people didn’t really understand, or weren’t listening. The plucky band may have gown in numbers but still at their annual conference they would moan about how difficult it all was, how they needed to educate their clients, persuade them to invest in quality.

This is the narrative of the urban design profession; our own creation myth. The profession sometimes acts as if it is the holder of the light of truth in an unbelieving world. Most urban design books proselytise this message, from Jane Jacobs onwards, bemoaning the fact that the powers-that-be don’t get it and are ruining our cities as a result. However if no one is listening, if 90% of our masterplans remain unbuilt (a statistic that Rob Cowan may have made up), if much of the urban environment is created without our input and without following the principles that we espouse, then it just might be us that is doing it wrong, not everyone else. This was the message that I set out in my presentation to this year’s urban design awards event. It is something that has been exercising me for some time. It is not that I am questioning the principles of urban design – its OK I’m not losing my faith – it is just that we can’t keep blaming everyone else for how ineffective we are as a profession.

Lost in translation

I started the presentation with an image from Gordon Cullen, who’s centenary we celebrated last autumn. His beautiful drawings managed to capture the serendipity and delight of urban places. In his book Townscape he sought to bottle the essence of these places, to capture the principles on which they were built. If only we followed these principles, and got others to understand them, we would surely start to address our problems? This is what urban designers always do, but somehow the message gets lost in translation. I like collecting old urban design books most of which have a structure based on the narrative with which I started this piece. The first section deals with a golden age of cities from ancient Greece to Renaissance Italy and Napoleonic Paris. The middle bit then says how badly everything has gone wrong. Depending on the age of the book the villain will be the Industrial Revolution, the car, overcrowded cities, suburban sprawl, new towns, council estates and or indeed the planning system itself. The final part of these books then seeks to draw lessons from the golden age in order to create a new city of the future where everything will be lovely and civilised.

Take the 1983 book ‘Concepts in Urban Design’ by David Gosling and Barry Maitland which follows this structure. They happily mix classical ruins and tuscan hill towns with Archigram’s walking cities to justify their plans for Irvine and Cumbernauld New Towns in Scotland. These are surely the antithesis of every urban design principle that we hold dear but there, next to the abstract drawings of multi-level concrete, mixed-use structures with their sharp black shadows, is a serial vision sequence lifted directly from Cullen. The Townscape movement inspired by Cullen and promoted by Ian Nairn in the pages of the Architectural Review was in fact not anti-modernist at all. It may have argued against Niemeyer’s Brasilia, but it proposed as an alternative the underpass and the split level piazza, the mega structures and brutalism that was to mark late modernism. Did they really misunderstand Cullen so badly? He certainly didn’t think so.

Urban Design are we doing it wrong

In the presentation I talked a little about the post war redevelopment of Coventry. Last year I did a week’s residency in Coventry at the invitation of Laura Elliott and Michael Mayhew of Artspace. Coventry’s city centre redevelopment planned before the war and facilitated by the blitz, predates Cullen’s work but is based on similar principles; vistas, streets, and piazzas linked to create a serial vision experience. Indeed when you study the plan and walk around Coventry on a sunny day (and maybe squint a little) you can start to see what they were trying to do. It is, or could have been very beautiful but modernism doesn’t look good with peeling paint, rain stained concrete and pigeon shit. It is not the principles that were wrong, or even the masterplan but something in the process by which it was built and has subsequently been managed.

What’s to be done?

So its not just a case of strengthening our message or finding better models. In my presentation I asked what’s to be done and gave the very clear response that I didn’t really know. However I offered the following suggestions for what the profession might  think about:

  1. Urban design is not about aesthetics:  In the US new urbanism has become associated with a design approach based on a  Mid-American small town vernacular. There was a moment when the same happened in the UK with the Poundbury-inspired urban villages movement and we still have too many urban design guides that feel it necessary to specify brick types, window designs, fence details and the shape of roofs. I don’t mind traditional design, even if it is not what we do at URBED. But I do object to design guidance that says that this is obligatory. As soon as we associate urban design with a particular aesthetic it will become a passing style despised by future generations – like post-modernism. Urban design is deeper than this – it should be possible to have modernist, traditional,  deconstructivist, high-tech, sustainable urban design, all with very different aesthetics but based on common principles.
  2. Urban design and design quality are not the same thing: Too many urban design debates argue that we should invest in quality design and equate this with urban design. However we can have high quality suburban and rural design and there is certainly a lot of poor quality urban design. They are not the same thing, it is just that too many people substitute the word ‘urban’ with the word ‘quality’ because no one is going to argue against quality. Obviously we should be trying to build high quality schemes, but urban design is something different, relating to the density and mix of development, the permeability of streets, enclosure of space etc…
  3. Urbanism is the missing ingredient: Doing urban design without understanding urbanism is like doing garden design without understanding horticulture. Urbanism is the ‘science’ of cities, how they work socially and economically. As a director of the Academy of Urbanism I believe that it is the element that was missing in the urban design debates of the past. We borrowed the urban forms from the golden age without understanding them and therefore missed vital elements that made them work.
  4. We need to understand time: These problems are inevitable when we try to design a place, in advance, on a drawing board and expect it to be built as conceived and to work as planned. This is what Kelvin Campbell explores in his book Massive Small and that I have been developing through the Climax City project. Cities if allowed to, will become self-organising and when this happens successful urbanism ‘emerges’. This does not undermine the idea of master planning – Manhattan is both planned and self-organised. But it does suggest that we need to masterplan in a very different way.
  5. If you are costing your client money you really are doing it wrong:  Finally we should stop arguing that our clients need to invest in quality or to produce buildings that are less profitable. Our job as urban designers is to take the client’s brief, whoever they may be – councils, retailers, house builders – and do what we can to provide what they need in a way that creates good urban places. It may not be possible, in which case we should maybe find new clients. However as long as we keep swimming against the tide and making urban design an ideology or religion that must be followed we will remain as a marginalised profession and will have to resign ourselves to seeing 90% of our plans remain unbuilt.

First published Urban Design Quarterly Summer 2015

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