Climax City

Random writing on cities

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The Offenbach Block

URBED were recently invited to take part in the Architektursommer Rhein-Main Lab involving 8 architecture and design practices from across Europe*. This culminated in a week long residency in a temporary pavilion in Goetheplatz in the centre of Frankfurt. The film of the installation can be seen here.

Frankfurt is actually a conurbation of six cities and, on the southern bank of the River Main, lies the City of Offenbach. This once the focus of the city’s Jewish community and is now home to a large Arab community. People in Frankfurt told us that we should be careful when walking its streets but, as people who have lived all of our lives in the cities of Northern England it didn’t seem very threatening. OFF context

We became fascinated by the large urban blocks of Offenbach enclosed by a grid of streets but retaining the older geometry of field boundaries and plot divisions from a time when the area was rural. These messy urban blocks stood in contrast to the looming presence of the European Central Bank being constructed over the river. The Offenbach blocks were full of life, ringed with shops and cafes below apartments housing a wide range of people. Deep within the blocks could be found all manner of activities, workshops and garages, artists studios and warehouses all alongside more housing. It seemed to us, as outsiders, that this was the interesting part of the city, and was likely to be where new ideas, creativity and start-up businesses would emerge, rather than the shiny towers of the banks and corporate offices. The Offenbach Block was the building-block of the creative city.

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The Offenbach Block (illustration Ste Garlick)

In her book the Death and Life of Great American Cities Jane Jacobs said something like ‘you can only have new ideas in old buildings’. New buildings are too expensive and tightly controlled, you have to sign up to long leases and you can’t make a noise or a mess. Old buildings, by contrast, paid for themselves years ago, they are cheap, flexible, relaxed and you can occupy them on easy in-out terms if your idea doesn’t quite work out.

This is true in Frankfurt/Offenbach as it is in our home town of Manchester and particularly the city’s Northern Quarter where URBED has its studio. The block structure of Manchester, made up of former textile mills and is very different to Offenbach but it serves a similar function. Old building provide cheap, low-commitments space for people and businesses trying new ideas and the old warehouses have filled with architects, designers and other creatives alongside the remaining wholesale clothing retailers and scores of bars and cafes at street level. The problem in Manchester as with Frankfurt,  is that there is precious little of this type of space left. It has been squeezed out by the corporate city centre, new residential schemes, fancy refurbishments and suburban areas of industry and housing.  MAN context

In the modern world of tech start-ups and the weightless economy cities have become reliant on their creative class. Those that can foster a strong counterculture and a diverse economy of creative business will become magnets of young people, energy and investment. This has profound implications for the way that we plan cities, places that were once dismissed as ghettos or backwaters could become more important than shiny business parks and office blocks. The Offenbach block or the Northern Quarter block could be the building block of a whole new economy.

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The former textile warehouses around URBED’s studio in Manchester  (illustration by Ste Garlick)


* Recently in this context is a relative term – we were initially involved in ASRM In 2014 and the installation took place in December 2105. It just takes me a long time to put things up on this blog.

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As part of the installation in December 2015 we built a large plasticine model with the people of Frankfurt. This was done over three days and can be seen in the film of the event

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We built the model with quite a lot of help in a temporary pavilion designed by the architect Ian Shaw (who practices in Frankfurt but comes originally from Manchester)  

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The URBED/Rudlin team: Ste Garlick, Sam Atkinson, Nan Wang and Helene, Jonah and David Rudlin  


When Nan returned a week later she found that the people of Frankfurt had added to the model!

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URBED at 40

URBED was founded in 1976, the same year that the inner city was discovered. Our history since then has mirrored the fortunes the UK’s towns and cities. To mark our anniversary we organised a series of debates around the country in places where we have worked. The articles in this category were written after each of these events to explore the issues raised.

There had, of course been urban policies before 1976. These focused on housing, economic development, roads and transport and they affected cities in as much as urban areas needed to be reformed: Slums had to be cleared, new towns had to be built to relieve the pressures for growth, town centres had to be redeveloped and ring roads built to cater with the ever greater number of cars. But the assumption underlying all of theses policies was that cities would always grow and that the role of public policy was to control and manage the unfortunate consequences of this growth.

Drinks2By the early 1970s it was, however, becoming increasingly clear that some parts of cities were no longer growing, indeed they had started to decline. A ring had appeared between city centres and their suburbs as industry closed down and populations moved to the suburbs. This ring, which became known as the inner city, was characterised by economic collapse, dereliction and deprivation.

The Labour government responded in 1976 by starting work on its Inner Cities White Paper. Championed by the Secretary of State Peter Shore, this was the first policy initiative to focus on geographical areas (the inner city) as opposed to individual policy areas. The White Paper published the following year and subsequent Inner Cities Act introduced the idea of urban regeneration, partnership working and funding through the Urban Programme.

At the same time URBED was established by its founder directors, Nicholas Falk and Christopher Cadell. Nicholas had contributed to government thinking through a Fabian Society pamphlet on the inner cities and URBED (the Urban and Economic Development Group) was established as one of the UK’s first consultancies in the new field of urban regeneration. URBED was set up as a not-for-profit practice combining research with practical consultancy and hands-on development. As the urban regeneration sector grew it became one of many practices and consultancies working in the field but is one of the very few still to be still in practice today.

So in 2016 both inner city policy in the UK and URBED are 40 years old. This seems like a good time to take stock of the changes that have taken place over those 40 years in our towns and cities. Our early work may have been focussed on the inner city, but it soon spread to city centres, historic areas and even suburbs. We progressed from projects to darn the occasional tear in the urban fabric to an understanding that the inner city was just a symptom of a wider malaise that was threatening our towns and cities. The seven events included:

The write ups for the first five of these events are published on this blog. The last two have been written up by Nicholas Falk and are available at his blog, Postcards from the Future.

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URBED at 40: What we learnt from Covent Garden

URBED was founded in Covent Garden at about the same time as the Labour Minister Peter Shaw was drawing up the first inner city legislation. It is difficult to imagine today that Covent Garden could ever be in need of regeneration but as I have written elsewhere in this blog Covent Garden in the year after the market moved out was in a desperate state and there were only a few people who could imagine it ever recovering.

At the event we heard from speakers like Alan Stones, and Tim Wacher who worked in Covent Garden in the mid 70s. They described how Covent Garden was once a place without shops or places to eat, where developers could not borrow to refurbish buildings and where the only future that policy makers could imagine was redevelopment. All this said looking out over the rooftops of modern-day Covent Garden that is one of the busiest and most expensive districts in London. After the relocation of the markets in the 1970s Covent Garden was left as a run-down, largely abandoned district on the periphery of Westminster the City and the West End. This is a geography that makes little sense in modern London. However during the recessions of the 1970s when the country was in the middle of the three day week and rolling blackouts, London was in steep decline. We were told that Covent Garden’s only saving grace was that it had its own tube station on the fashionable Piccadilly Line.


As was the way at the time, when the market moved out of Covent Garden the planners moved in. Plans were drawn up for the redevelopment of the area by the Greater London Council that would have retained the market structures, but surround them with a complex of high-rise buildings and split level walkways in the manner of the Barbican which was still much admired at the time. The plans prompted a very well-organised local campaign to save the area.

Scan-150502-0003As Nicholas Falk explained at the event, URBED was founded in Covent Garden at about the time that this campaign succeeded. He and Christopher Cadell – URBED’s cofounder – had returned from the US some years earlier to explore the application of the economic and management approaches that they had learnt at the Ford Motor Company and McKinsey’s to the messy business of reviving cities. Nick wrote a pamphlet on the subject for the Fabian Society as a result of which he was invited to lunch by David (now Lord) Sainsbury. They agreed that it would be a good idea to set up a company to apply business ideas to urban problems, which was how both URBED and the new field of urban regeneration were born. David Sainsbury provided a small amount of start-up funding from his charitable trust the Gatsby Foundation and URBED rented rooms from Christina Smith (Conran’s secretary) on Irlam Street. Within a short time we had moved to Henrietta Street employed some staff and taken rooms on both sides of a corridor! Covent Garden Can Make it

One of URBED’s early projects was to organise a Space Exchange in which small companies looking for premises were linked with the owners of vacant buildings. A lease agreement was drawn up insulating both parties and enabling creative businesses to move into the area. This is a precursor of the Pop-up trend of recent years, born out of similar circumstances in the teeth of a recession. Nick quoted from an early URBED report on 5 Dryden Street which had been developed as one of the earliest managed workspace schemes. This was packed with small companies many renting just a single desk, incubating a whole generation of creatives who would go on to occupy spaces in the surrounding streets. These companies in turn generated a demand for cafes and bars which started to fill the ground floors of the area. Meanwhile the GLC completed the refurbishment of the Market hall opening up the huge basements by cutting away the floor and filling them with speciality shops, eateries and more bars.


Covent Garden was one of the first areas to experience this type of recovery, to see its heritage saved through creativity. This was a theme picked up in Charles Landry’s talk at the event. Looking around the room he said, ‘I never understood why you lot were so fascinated by old machinery’. However this fascination when translated into a desire to restore old buildings, was transmuted into a campaign to regenerate neighbourhoods and eventually to resuscitate whole cities. In doing this we found that heritage and creativity are great partners. Not only are creative types just the people to save old buildings, but, as Jane Jacobs pointed out, ’ new ideas need old buildings’.

Using examples from across the world, Charles showed that time and time again creativity and innovation emerge from old buildings, whether it be the former Nokia Cable Works in Helsinki, the old Phillips Factory in Enidhoven or indeed the old market buildings of Covent Garden. Why, he asked, given that conditions in these old buildings were often so terrible, does this strange alchemy occur? There are practical issues, of course, like being cheap and not having to sign up to a long lease. However Charles also though that there was something about the space that old buildings provide, that allow room for creativity and collaboration. This is something we need to better understand because there is not an unlimited supply of old buildings, whereas creativity and innovation are a ‘flexible, renewable resource’. Cities across the world have used their stock of old buildings to kickstart a new creative, innovative economy, often employing far more people than the buildings did when they were mills and factories. We need to understand how to sustain and nurture this creativity once all the old buildings have been used-up or converted to apartments as has happened in Covent Garden.

Leanne Hartly picked up on this theme, describing cities not so much as physical artefacts as but as a rich web of social connections. Cities are the original form of social media, bringing people together, building networks and contacts. She went as far as to challenge the original assumption behind URBED’s foundation, struggling to understand how you can apply rational business ideas to chaotic complex urban systems. This is why new buildings are so poorly suited to creativity. They are created on spreadsheets and designed with very clear ideas about what each space can be used for. Old buildings by contrast are spaces designed for functions that are long gone and are thus receptacles to be filled with anything you want. They are also spaces that tend to be occupied by a multiplicity of small companies, unlike new spaces that are let to single companies. This built-in interaction allows them to generate new operating systems. This is the process of regeneration and can be seen on a huge scale in Detroit where the wide open spaces of the dead city are being filled by informal networks and business. Leanne’s practices is called ‘Mend’ and she identified the process by which cities ‘mend’ themselves, that happened in Covent Garden, as the thing that planners should be striving to create.

This mending didn’t take very long. By the 1980s Covent Garden was heaving with tourists and buskers, chi-chi restaurants and expensive shops. This regeneration tide swept away many of the creative businesses that had been there at the beginning (5 Dryden Street has long been converted to apartments). The spirit of those few short years can still be found in enclaves such as Neal’s Yard but, on the whole, things have moved on and Covent Garden is an expensive, slightly faux neighbourhood, dressed up for the tourist industry. We should probably ask whether this is what successful regeneration looks like or whether something went wrong? Charles Landry started his presentation by saying that the regeneration industry has gone from rearguard to vanguard. From an irrelevant lobby seeking to hold back the tide of ‘progress’ to the cutting edge of that progress. However vanguards and cutting edges are forever pushing on – regeneration is rarely a stable state. Having been regenerated by creatives, places like Covent Garden can easily overheat, pushing up rents and values and pushing out the early pioneers. This may be the way of the world and the creative surged on to stimulate the subsequent regeneration of Camden and Hoxton, Shoreditch and now Hackney. Whether the creative industries are fed up at being moved-on every decade or whether this is how they retain their creativity is difficult to answer. The bigger question is what happened when we realise that old buildings and run down neighbourhoods really are a finite resource?

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URBED at 40 – What we learnt from Little Germany

Little Germany in Bradford has a special place in URBED’s history. We first worked there in 1986 developing a strategy for the regeneration of what is probably the finest collection of late Victorian textile warehouses in the country. As a result of this in 1990 URBED secured funding to run a two year action research project (Little Germany Action) and appointed a young planner from Manchester as project manager – a certain David Rudlin.

Our 40th anniversary event took place in the Design Exchange, a council-owned managed workspace scheme in the middle of Little Germany (for which URBED did the business plan). The building remains successful but out the window the surrounding warehouses are suffering vacancy levels similar to those in 1986. As we would hear during the course of the evening, Little Germany has been regenerated at least twice in the intervening years.

It’s buildings have been cleaned and restored, its public realm revamped, its vacant floors space filled with apartments and business space and its streets animated, admittedly sparsely, with bars and cafes. The problem is that the regeneration has not really stuck. Like Sisyphus, heroic efforts have pushed the bolder of regeneration up the hill. However, whereas in Covent Garden the boulder went over the crest of the hill and careered, out of control down the other side, in Little Germany, soon as regeneration efforts slackened the boulder rolled back town to where it started. Much of the evening was spent discussing why this happened and what might have been done differently.

The 1986 Little Germany Festival – I probably got more fun later

The evening was introduced with some slides from URBED’s early work in little Germany. Our initial study had suggested that a derelict site at the centre of the area could become a new square and that this should be launched with a festival. One of the people engaged to organise the festival was Dusty Rhodes who would be speaking later in the evening. By 1990 the festival had grown into the Bradford Festival run by Dusty and his colleague Alan Brack. In a few more years this had grown to become the largest, most diverse community arts festival in England. It had a reputation for staging work that was both ambitious and accessible and was symbolic of a city that had become the cool part of the Leeds/Bradford conurbation. Little Germany Action played its part, staging events as part of the festival and hosting a three long month Summer Season in 1992. Little Germany Action combined this type of promotional event with practical actions to help bring buildings back into use. Despite having a tiny budget of £120,000 it worked and by the end of the two years vacancy levels had been reduced as new companies and uses were attracted into the area.

But it wasn’t to last. Within a few years the council had taken control of the festival and effectively killed it, although it dragged on for a few more years. Little Germany slipped back into decline and the city fell further and further behind Leeds. Later the area would be designated as an Urban Village manage by David Sougall who was also in the audience. This also succeeded in raising the area for a short time, but again it didn’t last.

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The Little Germany Festival 1990

Marc Cole in his presentation tried to explain why this was with reference to his time as director of development at the Bradford UrbanRegeneration Company (URC). His conclusion was that while Bradford might not have had the best of luck, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that it’s woes were also partly self-inflicted. When the URC was set up the council’s response was not to welcome the additional resources but to bemoan the imposition. The population of Bradford have not really bought into the city centre, the Asian community in particular being more engaged at the neighbourhood level. The political class, until recently were drawn from the surrounding towns and the active citizens channelled their efforts into campaigns like that to save the Odeon. The city’s flagship project, City Park which is now seen as a symbol of Bradford’s recovery, was almost refused planning permission, as a result of which it failed to secure Lottery funding. Even when it was developed, following heroic efforts by the council, the opening was marred by a demonstration by the ‘Save the Odeon’ group. Across town a large part of the town centre was demolished for the Westfield Shopping Centre that then stalled at the beginning of the recession and was mothballed for five years. Meanwhile very few of the thousands of apartments proposed on the 2000s were ever built and those that were have in some cases since halved in value. In such circumstances working in Bradford can be a thankless task.

Many of the people in the room had been engaged in this thankless task for many years. Dusty Rhodes has been involved in the Bradford creative community since his time as technical director at the Bradford Festival. his company Raise the Roof now provides staging, lighting and technical support for outdoor events. Dave West worked for the council for many years an now works on the regeneration of Little Germany albeit without sufficient resources. From the audience Simon Green spoke as former council leader while Nigel Grizzard, who was also involved in the first festival, has since works as an expert on the refurbishment of mills. There was a sense in the discussion that everything had been tried in Little Germany and a that nothing had really worked and nothing ever would.

slides095Kate Dickson injected an external perspective, citing textile towns like Leipzig and Roubaix as well as her own experience as director of the Ancoats Building Preservation Trust. She showed that quarters such as little Germany can be brought back to life in much less auspicious circumstances. Dusty and Nigel recalled a discussion back in 1980s when they suggested that Little Germany be filled with creatives. There were (and indeed still are) enough artists and creative businesses in Bradford to fill every vacant inch of little Germany. Had it been done back then, the the area would have been regenerated years ago, regardless of what had happened around it in Bradford. It is not however too late, those creatives are still around. As Little Germany is reconnected to the city centre with the opening of the Westfield Shopping Centre, the regeneration of a thousand creatives is still possible and far more likely to succeed than big capital projects, or apartment schemes.

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Psychopolis performed by the Dogs of Heaven as part of the Bradford Festival in 1991


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URBED at 40 -What we learned in Birmingham

The Birmingham event as part of URBED’s 40th anniversary celebrations was held as part of the Academy of Urbanism Congress in Birmingham and the main speaker was Sir Albert Bore. The topic for the discussion was the Highbury Initiative an event organised by DEGW Architects and URBED in 1988 and since credited as being the point when attitudes to the planning of the city changed.

2015-06-05 14.22.54Sir Albert started by remembering the extent to which Birmingham had been in the doldrums  in the late 1980s. For much of the 1950s and 60s it had been a boom city, prospering on its advanced manufacturing base and even outstripping London’s growth for a time. However a city that was good at making things was ill-equipped to deal with the devastation of the manufacturing sector precipitated by the Government’s monetarist policies of the early 1980s. The city of Birmingham lost more jobs that Scotland or Wales and found itself with an unemployment rate of 25%. The council came to the conclusion that it needed to restructure its economy and the sensible place to start was the City Centre.
The Highbury Initiative was originally billed as the City Centre Symposium and was set up as a forum to explore how this transformation might take place. It was organised as an Urban Design Action Team (UDAT) a technique that was popular at the time and which had been championed by DEGW as a way of facilitating urban change. The format involved a mix of senior people from the city together with external experts and involved both discussions and practical work over an intensive few days. In Birmingham the symposium ran over a weekend and included all of the senior players in the city alongside experts such as Amsterdam’s chief planner, the engineer who designed the Pompidou centre in Paris and the traffic engineer Don Hillebrand from the US. The event was facilitated by URBED and DEGW who also provided briefing material and wrote up the results. The weekend started with a walk around the city centre followed by a meal and then for the whole of Saturday and Sunday participants were locked away in Highbury Hall which is why the resulting report later became known as the Highbury Initiative.


The Highbury Initiative

As Sandy Taylor explained, the symposium took place at a time when attitudes to the city centre were changing. The year before the council had decided to locate its new convention centre not in the obvious location next to the National Exhibition Centre but in the city centre. It has also been faced with a proposal to redevelop the Bullring Shopping Centre which even then was showing its age. The problem was that the windowless box of a shopping mall that was being promoted by the owners was probably even worse. The City Council was coming to the realisation that the city centre was not a very nice place and that its policies were at least partly to blame. However recognising this fact and doing something about it were very different things. Birmingham had never really seen the need for external advice. The city had been a leader in urban planning for so long that it was difficult for many officers to accept that they needed to think differently. There were also a lot of officers to convince, at the time the city has 26 different departments, each with its own senior officer.

A dusty slide of the concept for the city developed at the Symposium

The Highbury Initiative exposed these officers to the scrutiny of others. Being forced to look at your city through the eyes of an Amsterdam planner, makes it much more difficult to maintain the position that you know best. Having your beloved ring road that had taken so much effort to build called a ‘concrete collar’ by the engineer of the Pompidu centre must have been equally dispiriting. The story goes that the city engineer stood up on the Sunday morning having seen the light, and agreed that they could downgrade the inner ring road. This allowed the city centre to expand and the symposium developed the idea of a series of quarters that has guided the planning for the city ever since.
Don Hillebrand was retained as an advisor to the city after the event and huge progress was made in the years that followed. Land was compulsory purchased for the convention centre and the Hyatt hotel was secured. The city developed an entrepreneurial approach to development, as Sir Albert recounted, rather than grant funding the Hyatt the city gave them the land in return for a 30% stake. Similarly the mammoth task of removing the elevated Masshouse Circus section of the ring road to the south of the city was funded by the sale of the land released.
The discussion at the event focused on the process of urban change and why the Highbury initiative had been so effective (when most events like this are not). The conclusion was that it was largely down to luck. The initiative took place at a time when there were enough people in place who had been convinced that change was necessary. The structure of the event helped to convince those who had not quite made this journey while the involvement of senior politicians meant that those who were still not convinced were told! The city was jolted out of its complacency and realised that it needed to draw on external help. However it retained its ability to get things done and was able to turn its skills and experience in muscular planning to new ends.
We concluded that Birmingham is better, so much better, than it had been before Highbury but that it was still not world class. In the intervening years it has on occasions fallen back into the trap of thinking that it knows best and that solutions always lie in grand projects rather than incremental steps. However the change of direction has been sustained and while the city has a road still to travel it is at least on the right track.

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URBED at 40 – What we learnt from Brighton

URBED’s 40th anniversary event in Brighton took place in the conference room of the Jury’s Inn hotel. The large windows on two of the room’s walls looked out onto the roads and buildings that we masterplanned 15 years ago – rendered in bricks and mortar almost as it it were a 1:1 model. The last building was under construction at the time of the event, being built on the site next to the station, which is still known as plot J after our original regulatory plan.


The URBED team looking at the 1:1 model

As masterplanners we tend to look back with a degree of envy on John Nash. In the early 1800s he masterplanned (and saw built) much of Brighton for the Prince Regent, as well as large parts of London – this in the days before computers, telephones or even trains. Most modern masterplanners can never hope to have such an impact on our cities. As Rob Cowan tells us, 90% of master plans are never built  (he may have made that statistic up but it has the ring of truth). It is therefore unusual, if not unique, for a modern masterplanner to stand within a plan that has been built exactly as originally designed. It is even more extraordinary that this should be the case with URBED’s first ever large scale masterplan. At the time we were naive and assumed that this happened all the time. The Brighton event as part of URBED’s 40th anniversary procession around the country was an opportunity to explore how this remarkable situation had come about.

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The original model of the masterplan from 2000

Brighton Oblique arial view

The site as it was in the late 1990s

The New England Quarter is built on the site of the locomotive works and sidings that once stood alongside Brighton Station. By the 1990s the upper part of the site was the station car park while the lower part was a series of yards and second hand car lots. A local developer QED had tried to get planning permission for a Sainsbury’s Supermarket and had been refused, had been to appeal and seen the appeal thrown out. In the process the scheme had stirred up a vociferous and well-organised community campaign under the banner Brighton Urban Design and Development (BUDD). In 1999 BUDD created an alternative scheme for the site drawing on the idea of the Sustainable Urban Neighbourhood that was being promoted by URBED at the time.  It was as a result of this that URBED became involved, initially as advisers and then as our first ever masterplan. The community absolutely hated us for it!

The event was addressed by Pam Alexander, former Chief Executive of the South East of England Development Agency and now non-executive director of Crest Nicholson who with Bio-Regional developed one of the buildings within the masterplan. Her main point was that the conditions by which a masterplan such as the New England Quarter are realised no longer really exist. The planning system does not give developers the certainty that they need to invest in projects on this scale. The only people who can take on the risk are a few large developers and house builders who aren’t prepared to commit themselves to eat sleep and breath a scheme in the way that Chris Gilbert has done for the last 15 years on the NEQ. It shouldn’t be this difficult to create great urbanism but unfortunately it is.

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Chris Gilbert described how the scheme was made possible by Sainsbury’s. It was they who funded all the work required to bring the scheme forward as well as investing in the new infrastructure. This wouldn’t happen today because supermarkets are not as valuable as they were in the 1990. The scheme is essentially built as it is because Sainsbury’s would have done anything to get their supermarket, put housing in its roof, bury its car park in the basement, indeed build a whole mixed use Sustainable Urban Neighbourhood around the store designed by an unknown and inexperienced masterplanner called URBED.

Chris hadn’t realised quite how inexperienced URBED were. He might have been sceptical about our ideas in the early days, and only gone along with them because of community pressure. However he soon became a convert and ended up developing some of the most radical homes himself and promoting the involvement of BioRegional. The plan was based on the idea of moving New England Street by looping it around the lower part of the site. This create a site for the Supermarket and the surrounding housing that was developed as a first phase by Sainsburys and Barratt Homes. The 40,000sqft store is built into the hillside so that its western side is underground and the central pedestrianised street through Phase 1 runs over its roof. The car park is beneath the store and the service yard is beneath the apartment block to the north such that the supermarket is virtually invisible.

Chris Gilbert explained that once the  initial phase was underway, his focus turned to the other six other plots created by the masterplan that were to be brought forward by different developers. A decked car park was provided for the station, a language school acquired a site to build a private college while Jury’s Inn built a hotel. The only hiccup came with the sale of block J next to the station. This had been necessary to provide cash flow, but did mean that he lost control of a crucial site and was as surprised as anyone when the developers, the Beetham Brothers submitted proposals for what would have been Brighton’s tallest building. It was fortunately refused and Chris eventually managed to buy back the site and to promote the development that is now on site, in line with the original masterplan.


Nicholas Falk standing on one of the new streets within the masterplan

Nigel Green also spoke of his experience at coordinating the council’s response to the site. Their response to the refusal of the supermarket and the community campaign was to prepare a planning brief for the site. This however made the council a focus for opposition as much as the developers (and their master planners). The community were by the council what they wanted on the site and came up with several hundred suggestions. However there was little acceptance that the site was in private ownership and that uses needed to be viable and Nigel regretted how bad tempered the discussions became. There was debate about whether the adversarial nature of the process damaged the scheme or caused the developer to look at it differently. Today there remains some opposition although other members of the community accepted that there worse fears hadn’t been realised. There was a sadness that much of the housing is unaffordable to local people although it was good to see that residents had set up a ‘Friends of the Greenway’ group which shows that community spirit is developing.

DSC06708One of the best parts of the scheme is One Brighton, developed by BioRegional on a triangular. Poona Desai described how the scheme was developed with their architects Fielden Clegg Bradley. The site has allowed them to apply their 10 One Planet living principles in an urban location and they estimate that they have achieved a 60% reduction in CO2 emissions compared to a normal scheme. Unfortunately however the biomass CHP plan that had been planned to serve the whole development didn’t happen because the plant was refused planning permission by Brighton Council (despite the local councillor being Green).

A number of people at the event suggested that schemes such as this could never happen again. The planning situation is too uncertain and the risks too great without a strong financial backer such as Sainsburys. This makes you wonder about the masterplan that John Nash saw implemented in Brighton that runs for more than a mile from the Level (just to the east of the New England Quarter) down past the Royal Pavilion and culminating in the Pier. If we are going to build on the lessons of the New England Quarter we need to find a way of masterplanning that doesn’t rely on the deep pockets of a small number of large developers but which can unlock the creativity and enterprise of hundreds of small developers, as Nash’s plan did.


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URBED at 40 – What we learned from Hulme

Unlike the other locations in URBED’s 40th anniversary tour of the country, Hulme was never an URBED project. The redevelopment of what was billed at the time as the biggest council estate in Europe has however been a huge influence on our work even if we were never employed to work on it.


The Homes for Change scheme

As I explained at the start of the event, Hulme was where I worked as as a planning officer prior to joining URBED in 1990. It was also where I lived and where I together with others such as Charlie Baker and my wife Hélène he helped to set up the Homes for Change Housing Cooperative. This was subsequently used as a case study in URBED’s 21st Century Homes research for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and formed the foundation for the Sustainable Urban Neighbourhood or SUN Initiative that was to become a central part of URBED’s philosophy for much of the 1990s and 2000s culminating in our book published by the Architectural Press.

In David’s initial presentation he traced the history of Hulme from its origins as a hastily erected neighbourhood of by-law housing build on the boggy land (which is what Hulme means) south of the industrial city. This was a neighbourhood of more than 100,000 people and boasted a high street on Stratford Road with a thousand shops and pubs that was the rival of the city centre. The 1960s saw this swept away in Manchester’s slum clearance programme to be replaced with 6 large council estates and thirteen tower blocks while the shops of Stretford Road were replaced with an embattled shopping precinct of eight vandalite-clad lock-ups. The finale of this great redevelopment was the completion of the Crescents in 1972, great sweeping blocks designed by the architects Wilson and Womersley, modelled on Bath and named with no sense of irony after the architects John Nash, William Kent, Charles Barry and Robert Adam.

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It was recognised very early on that Hulme was not fit for the purpose for which it had been designed, namely to house the families displaced by the slum clearance. The council started moving families out after a child fell from one of the walkways within a few years of the crescents being completed. The vacated flats were let to anyone who wanted them and those that were not let were squatted. It filled up with an eclectic mix of students, artists, criminals and drug dealers alongside older residents who hadn’t been moved out. For a brief period it became Manchester’s Christiania or Kreutzburg home to the city’s waifs and strays but also the seedbed of its regeneration (see my post on the regeneration of Hulme). It was in Hulme that the local television presenter and impresario Tony Wilson took over an old bus drivers social club to create the Factory. Within ten years this had spawned Factory Records and the Hacienda Club that made ‘Madchester’ he coolest music city in the world for a brief summer of drug-fuelled love in 1989. It is not to great a stretch to trace Manchester’s recovery from the brink of collapse, the growth of its media and creative industries, even it being chosen as the BBC’s northern base, to the anarchy that reigned in Hulme in the 1980s.

IMG_5148.JPGIt was for this reason that many Hulme people resisted the plans to redevelop the estate for a second time in the 1990s. In Brian Robson’s presentation he pondered the lessons that can be draw from this redevelopment, responding in particular to questioning from the floor that had been critical of the city council’s roll. He recounted a story from a few years after Hulme when councils across the county were asked to put forward proposals for New Deal for Communities funding. Brian had been involved with Bristol’s bit which involved a series of workshops with community groups across the city. In Manchester by contrast the decision was made in a half hour meeting that decided that East Manchester was next in line for regeneration. The Bristol process took months and succeeded at setting every community in the city against each other, it may have been the right thing to do but it wasn’t the most efficient. This sums up Manchester, it gets things done and is very single minded but isn’t interested in building consensus and only really listens to voices that agree with its policies. This may be the attitude that built the original Hulme in the 1960s but it also got it redeveloped and has undoubtedly been successful in the regeneration of the wider city. This is the dilemma of the benign dictatorship.

Hulme guide to developmentThe council’s vision for Hulme was to create an urban quarter to apply the lessons that the leadership had drawn from their visits to Barcelona as part of Manchester’s doomed bid to host the Olympics. It is hard to understand today how widely this was opposed in the early 1990 by highways engineers, housing associations, the police and a number of tenants groups. It was at this time that Charlie Baker set up the Hulme Community Architecture Group and was engaged to work with the tenants of Hulme 2 which was the first estate to be redeveloped. The techniques that he developed with David Rudlin including plasticine modelling and possibilities slide shows have been central to URBED consultation techniques ever since. The two of them were subsequently commissioned (not as URBED) to write the Hulme Guide to Development. For a brief period this was applied to the whole of the city while a city-wide document was drawn up. These urban design policies have changed the way that development takes place in Manchester (in the face of fierce opposition, at least initially). The reason, once more, is Manchester’s political muscle and its deafness to opposition, even when it comes from its own officers.

Hulme at its lowest point was also a place of great opportunity. URBED set up its Manchester office in the Work for Change, the workspace element of the Homes for Change building and grew to become the global brand that it is today! However Fay Selvan told an even more remarkable story of the Big Life Company a social enterprise with 300 staff and a £4m turnover that grew out of community initiatives in Hulme. This started life as a small operation supporting drug users and other vulnerable people through redevelopment. Through force of will and no little entrepreneurial flair, it persuaded the NHS to give it the contract to run the area’s new health centre and later built the Zion Health and resource centre and taking on the Big Issue in the north. It’s most recent initiative has seen it take on two new academy schools and to grow into the city’s largest social enterprise.

Of the music, media, urbanism and social enterprises that have transformed Manchester almost all have their roots in a short and very dark period of Hulme’s history. It is a case study in Jane Jacob’s idea that even at their lowest moment, cities contain the seeds of their own recovery. URBED can claim no credit for any of this. However this is also our story since URBED’s Manchester office, which is now our main office, grew from the same soil and the story of Hulme and Manchester has been a huge influence on our work making us the company we are.


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From Industrial Estates to Innovation Districts

What are we to do with the industrial estate? How can we reform the collection of crinkly tin sheds, surrounded by roundabouts, loading bays and car parks that can be found on the edge of every city, town and even many villages? Are these places beyond the reach of the urban designer, governed by function and practicality rather than the frivolities of place making? This article was published in Urban Design Quarterly and draws upon a couple of URBED’s recent projects to argue that there is an older tradition of design for industrial uses that we can learn from when designing modern industrial estates.

Call yourself and urban designer? This probably means that most of your work involves housing, maybe with a smattering of other uses so that your scheme can be called mixed-use, but mostly housing. Towns and cities, of course, are made up of more than just housing and, as urban designers, we do sometimes get to work on retail quarters or business districts. But what we don’t do is work on the other parts of our settlements, the bits that make up the majority of our urban fabric – the malls and business parks, leisure complexes and industrial estates. These are the unreconstructed parts of the city that we rail against, the dark side of car-dominated, nowhereville that the urban design profession exists to reform.

Well we may argue that retailing, leisure and office uses should be brought back into the urban fold and designed as street based layouts, but what about industry? Ever since Josiah Wedgwood moved his porcelain factory from the centre of Stoke to his model factory at Etruria in 1769, The Lever Brothers moved their soap factory to Port Sunlight or the Cadbury Brothers decided that the polluted streets of Birmingham were no place to make chocolate, there has been a realisation that some types of Industry might be better outside cities. Today we continue to draw inspiration from the residential neighbourhoods that these industrialists and others built for their workers, but we pay very little attention to their factories. Nor do we study the great business parks built a little later such as Speke in Liverpool, Trafford Park in Manchester, Park Royal in London or Team Valley in Newcastle. Instead we build industrial estates on the edges of our cities set within a sea of parking and lollipop landscapes, accessible only by car and cut off from the creative exchange, innovative workforce and inter-trading networks on which business thrives. Urban design apparently doesn’t apply to industry. Making things is a practical no-nonsense activity and the frivolities of design (other than the landscaping of roundabouts for some reason) are of no relevance.

The economic impact of urbanism on business was the main focus of Jane Jacobs’ work. Much of the ‘Death and Life of Great American Cities’ and all of her subsequent book ‘The Economy of Cities’ is concerned with business and urban economies. She argues that a healthy economy needs a constant injection of new ideas and products, without which it atrophies. These new ideas almost never arise in large corporations once they have moved their operations to a corporate campus on the edge of the city. New ideas need the intensity of activity, ideas and interchange that can only be found in cities. Big business feeds of this creativity through the acquisition of smaller companies and by poaching creative staff and they can’t survive without it.

This was Bruce Katz’s theme last year when he visited the Advanced Manufacturing Park between Sheffield and Rotherham last year. He talked about his book written with Julie Wagner “The Rise of Innovation Districts: A new geography of innovation in America’ in which they describe a new type of business park that is ‘physically compact, transit-accessible and technically wired’, offering a mix of housing, office and retailing alongside large-scale industrial and business uses. His point is that even ‘traditional’ manufacturing needs to be linked into innovation networks for research and development, design and marketing. No business can afford to cut itself off from the creative people that supply this innovation and these people are now overwhelmingly urban in their outlook. Where it is not possible for companies to locate in central areas, they must create environments that promote this innovative milieu, even in peripheral locations. Large tech. companies like Apple or Google may be able to do this on their own, but for most companies the solution is an Innovation District: focused around a local centre with some good bars and coffee shops, strong links to an academic institution, with a range of business accommodation – from start-ups to factories for multi-nationals – apartments, hotels and serviced accommodation for workers and a convenient tram service into a really good city centre. In recent months URBED has been asked to masterplan two such innovation districts. The first is a scheme in the midlands called Brookhay Waterside and the other is an International Advanced Manufacturing Park outside the gates of the Nissan factory in Sunderland. In both cases the brief has been to develop something more than a industrial park. We have therefore turned for inspiration to the original industrial estates mentioned above, particularly Trafford Park and Team Valley.

Trafford Park in Manchester was the first modern industrial estate. Indeed, having originally been a deer park owned by the De Trafford family, it might be the first industrial area to be be called a ‘park’. In the 1890s The family watched the construction of the Manchester Ship Canal along the northern edge of their ‘beautifully timbered deer park’. Once it opened and industry started to spring-up around the new docks, they decided that the time had come to sell. There were moves by the buy the estate as a municipal park, but these were outbid by the London financier Earnest Treah Hooley who paid the family £360,000 and established Trafford Park Estates Ltd in 1896 with the aim of creating what he billed as the ‘world’s first industrial estate’. He had overreached himself and within a year bankruptcy had forced him to step down, but the company continued and within a few years industry had started to develop. This was given a boost in 1911 when the Ford Motor Company chose Trafford Park for its first factory outside the US, introducing the revolutionary concept of the production line simultaneously in Detroit and Trafford. The park would also become home to the Rolls Royce factory making Merlin engines for Spitfires and was a major centre for wartime production during both world wars.

Image 2 Trafford Park DetailIn the very early days a tract of land was sold for Trafford Park Village in the centre of the park. This was masterplanned with an American grid of avenues numbered 1-4 and streets numbered 1-12. By 1907 the village was home to 3,000 people and was entirely surrounded by industry so that became a self-contained island with pubs and shops, three churches, a school and community halls. By the 1930s the wider park provided 75,000 jobs and its private railway system handled 3% of the UK’s freight traffic. In the interwar years it was a phenomena, making Manchester an industrial powerhouse long after its textile industry had started to decline. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the park hit the skids, losing much of its employment and seeing the village demolished by Stretford Council as a slum. In the 1980s it was designated as one of the UK’s first Development Corporations and saw widespread environmental improvements. Today it is once more a successful employment location as well as being home to the Trafford Centre shopping mall, the Libeskind-designed Imperial War Museum of the North, Old Trafford Football Ground and a new set of terraced streets – the relocated set for Coronation Street.

Image 3 - Team Valley DetailTeam Valley on the edge of Newcastle and Gateshead has a slightly different history. This was an initiative of Stanley Baldwin’s Tory Government in the mid 1930s as part of the economic strategy following the Great Depression. They set up the North East Trading Estates Company in 1936. The contract to layout the estate was let soon after and within a year the first factory had been let to the haulage company Messers Orrell and Brewster Ltd to be followed within 12 months by a further 75 companies. Today the estate remains in public ownership, having passed through the hands of English Partnerships and the Regional Development Agency. Today it is home to 700 businesses employing 20,000 people.

Because of their age the design of these two estates is very different to modern industrial estates. It is true that in both areas much of the development is pretty functional and not at all attractive. However they are both structured in such a way that they create some sense of place and a degree of identity. This is more evident in Team Valley where the central boulevard, Kingsway, is still lined with factories. In the centre of the street is a roundabout with the crescent shaped offices built for the North East Trading Estates Company and now occupied by the Homes and Communities Agency. In Trafford park the sense of place is harder to see because many of the original buildings have been demolished including the village, however even this retains hints of its former identity, particularly the areas refurbished by Urban Splash as a location for smaller companies.

The underlying design structure of each of the estates is in fact very similar. At URBED we have been analysing this structure in a attempt to reconstruct an urban design language for the design of industrial areas. From this we have drawn the following six principles that we are applying in our industrial master plans:

Grid: They are based on an open grid rather than a closed set of cul-de-sacs. This has a certain logic since factories are generally orthogonal and fit best onto rectangular sites. In both cases the grid is based on a module of roughly 100m by 300m (measured to the centreline of the streets). At the centre of the estates these blocks might be further broken down as they are in Trafford Village. Towards the edge of the estates the blocks are combined to larger plots accommodating larger companies.

Hierarchy: There is a hierarchy to the streets of the grid. Team Valley has a central boulevard while Trafford has a series of primary routes. These traditionally were the ‘shop windows’ of the estate with companies building their offices to line the street with their administrative functions and visitor entrances (although this has sadly been lost in much of Trafford Park). The streets parallel to these ‘front of house’ streets are much more business-like providing servicing, loading bays and employee access. The streets of the grid tend to alternate between front of house and service streets, like a terraced housing layout but on a much large scale.

Plot Divisions: The development blocks are broken down to create a huge variety of plot sizes. A 100m deep block may contain a single company or could be divided into two 50m deep plots or further broken down into smaller trading estates. Elsewhere blocks are combined to accommodate much larger companies. Generally the plots are smaller towards the centre and larger on the edge of the estate.

Orientation: traditionally factories have had a front, designed for show, and three elevations that are purely functional. In these estates the fronts all face onto the main streets and the loading and other functional operations happen around the back. In the past the front would include the board room and offices with the flag flying proudly over the main entrance and the chairman’s jag parked outside. Modern factories have much smaller front-of-house operations and are less concerned about making a corporate statement with their buildings. Nevertheless orientation is important.

Building line: On the ‘front of house’ streets factories all tend to follow a common building line. The illustration to the right shows a cross section of the Team Valley boulevard with 20m wide street and 20m ‘front lawns’ on each plot which includes parking, corporate branding and landscaping.Image 4 - Team Valley Boulevard Section

Centre: Finally both estates originally had local centres, including pubs, shops and local facilities as well as bus stops and administrative offices. The clearance of Trafford Village has largely seen this disappear in Trafford but it still exists to an extent in the Team Valley.

We combined these elements into an idealised layout for a new industrial estate or innovation district (below). This combines our six principles into a framework for industrial urban design that we are working to apply, particularly in the International Advanced Manufacturing Park in Sunderland. The aim is to create a flexible open grid that can accommodate companies of different sizes with a coherent and legible street network with the plots becoming smaller at the centre to create a local heart that would be linked to the wider city by public transport.

Just as we have spent the last twenty years rediscovering the lost art of designing residential neighbourhoods, there is a similar job to be done with industrial areas. As with housing estates we need to challenge the car-dominated, cul-de-sac based layouts that have dominated in recent years by reaching back to an earlier tradition. We won’t succeed if these grid layouts are seen as being uncommercial or impractical, which is how some will regard them. However it is hard to see how there can be anything more practical than an open grid and we believe that this type of approach is required to turn today’s industrial estates into the innovation districts required by tomorrow’s economy.Image 5 - Model Innovation District



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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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Cities and our mental health


This article was published in the recent Academy of Urbanism Journal (Autumn 2015) . It was prompted by a slight concern that The Academy of Urbanism, because it believes in cities, can sometime fall into the trap of assuming that there is no problem that a good city can’t solve.  This year’s Academy Congress was in Birmingham and focussed on health and wellbeing. The assumption throughout was that cities are good for us from the presentations by public health experts and urbanists to the keynote by Charles Montgomery author of Happy City.

I happen to believe that cities are good for us, but we do sometimes fall into the trap of assuming that all good things point in the same direction. I believe in promoting health and happiness, I am committed to social justice, and am concerned that we need to do more to address sustainability, while also believing in the importance of cities. I therefore assume that urbanism is good for all these things and that that the ideal sustainable city that we discussed in Bristol last year is remarkably similar to the healthy city that we discussed in Birmingham. This is lazy, complacent thinking. It was not so long ago that cities were seen as the cause of all of these problems rather than the solution.

Last year I was asked to give a presentation on the ‘Mentally Healthy City’ to a large group of council officer in Leeds, half of whom were health professionals and half from the built environment. I was at the disadvantage that most of the people in the room knew more about the subject than I did. However at URBED we had been working with igloo to incorporate health, happiness and wellbeing into their footprint policy1 and so we had been thinking about these issues and trying to disentangle some of the assumptions that lie behind the debate about mental health and urban life.

The parable of the lost mining community

I started the presentation with the story of Arkwright Town in Derbyshire that we wrote about in our book back in 1999[i]. This mining village of tightly packed terraced houses was condemned in 1988 because of methane seeping into the properties. The residents were given free reign to design their new homes on a nearby site and inevitably built a suburban housing estate. The sociologist Gerda Speller undertook a long-term study of the community[ii] and her work has been widely referenced, particularly in a recent report on social sustainability by the Young Foundation[iii].

She found that, while people loved their new homes – the space, low heating bills, and gardens, they couldn’t work out what had happened to the village’s community spirit, and why they could no longer support a local shop or a pub. Suburban homes and cul-de-sacs it would seem are not good for community wellbeing. However the real message of the parable is that there is a difference between what makes you happy in your home and what is good for your community. Ask people what would make them happy and it is not the city they want, the opposite in fact, they want open spaces and gardens, roads with no traffic, semi detached homes and neighbours who are a bit like them. Do we think that they are wrong to want these things?

The human zoo

Much of the research into the subject suggests that the city is in fact bad for our wellbeing. A colleague of mine came across Desmond Morris’s book the ‘Human Zoo’[iv] written in 1969 as a follow up to his book the ‘Naked Ape’. In this he suggested that humans spent tens of thousands of years living in small hunter-gatherer groups of around 60 people, each occupying an area of about 20 square miles. Today there are cities where the same territory houses 6 million people – something that he calls the Human zoo. He suggests that humans in cities exhibit similar behaviour traits to animals in zoos, obsessive behaviour, violence, sexual perversion etc… He does however step back from the brink by suggesting that actually humans have adapted remarkably well to cities and the levels of aberrant behaviour is far less than you might expect.

John Calhoun[v] was less positive about the effects of living in cities. He spent much of his career building a series of large cages that he called ‘heavens‘. These were supplied with plentiful water and into them he placed small colonies of mice. The early days of each colony were good, and the mice did what mice do in such circumstances so that the colony grew rapidly. However there always came a point when overcrowding caused order to break down despite food and water remaining plentiful. The mice started to exhibit all of the aberrant behavior predicted by Morris. My particular favourite group were the dissolute youth, mice who started sleeping for most of the day, causing trouble and rejecting the life of the colony etc… Eventually mice society breaks down completely causing the birth rate to crash and numbers to fall. However significantly the colony remains dysfunctional and never recovers even when the population falls. Calhoun called this the ‘behavioural sink’, which is where we get the term ‘sink estate’. He believed that the same was true of human society and that inner city problems were the inevitable result of intense urbanisation.

Modern academic research generally doesn’t go this far. However the research community is far from united in believing that cities are good for us. Tim Townsend from Newcastle[vi] has been researching the impact of cities on the heath of children. He has shown unsurprisingly that that noise, lack of greenery and air pollution are all really bad for us as well as what he calls ‘toxic high streets’ full of betting shops, pawn brokers, tanning salons and takeaways. The issue is whether the response to this is to make a better city, free from these evils, or to escape the city altogether.

The suburban jungle

There is also a body of research about the damaging effects of suburbia on mental and physical health. This started as far back as the 1950s with the studies of Levittown[vii], one of the iconic early mass suburbs in the United States. Researchers found that the isolation and lack of community in these large early suburbs was also pretty bad for mental health – in the UK this is what became known as the New Town Blues. Researchers found that increased levels depression were linked to the loss of community and family support as people lived isolated lives in suburbs lacking community life or local facilities (or even a bus route to get to these things).

This idea was developed by Robert Putnan[viii]. In his book ‘Bowling Alone’ he describes how Americans used to belong to bowling clubs whereas now they bowl in small groups of two or three. He documents the decline in all sorts of collective activity from scout troops to political activity and sports clubs to map the atomisation of western society. In his congress presentation Charles Montgomery started to pull these strands together to suggest that living communally in diverse mixed use urban areas is better for our soul than living separately in atomised suburbs. It’s not the noise and the oppression of crowds that is bad for us, we are social creatures and crave human company over greenery and solitude. Desmond Moris thought that, like breeding colonies of sea birds, humans were intellectually stimulated by massing in large numbers.

Hedonistic super monkeys

A number of commentators have developed the idea that our nature is determined by our origins as social apes. Jan Gehl[ix] suggests that humans are walking, talking monkeys, who feel nervous in large spaces because we can’t distinguish friend or foe more than 100m away. We have large active brains and get bored easily so need stimulation every 20 seconds. Given that we walk at around at 4miles an hour we require stimulation every 10m which is why we respond well to traditional urban places and hate modernist environments.

Jamie Anderson[x] who used to work for URBED, became interested in the subject of happiness, going on to do a PHD in the subject at the Martin Centre in Cambridge, however before that he did an article for our own journal Urban Scrawl[xi]. In this he points out that our origins as apes mean that we are not very good at being happy. We are programmed for pleasure seeking as part of our evolutionary nature and while this inbuilt hedonism may explain our success as super apes, it also lies behind many of our weaknesses. There are two problems that mean that we are prone to being disappointed. The first is that we are tuned to negatives. You can walk down a street for ten years and never have any problems but if you are mugged just once that negative will change forever your attitude towards that street and maybe the whole city – We take good things for granted and notice only the problems. The second problem is ‘hedonistic adaption’ which means that when something good happens it makes us happy for a short time, then we get used to it and it becomes the new normal. I noticed this a few years ago when I made the mistake of taking two teenage boys to by a television. The monster that we brought home felt like a cinema for a few weeks but in a surprisingly short period of time felt just the same as the old TV. This is why reported levels of happiness and wellbeing do not improve over time despite huge improvements in our quality of life and indeed our cities.

So what sort of city should we be building?

So many articles extol us to consider wellbeing and mental health when planning our cities. But what are we supposed to do? Despite our view that cities are good for us, it is the case that most of the research and guidance in this area is decidedly anti-urban. We are told that to improve wellbeing we should be reducing densities, noise and congestion while increasing the amount of open space generally creating far more greenery. Indeed the theory of biophillia suggests that as a species that grew up in forests we are programmed to respond positively to greenery. The problem is that these are the same issues that drove the planners of the 1960s and 70s to depopulate cities and to build suburbs and new towns. This takes us back to the parable of Arkwright – in addressing people’s immediate needs we risk undermining their quality of life in the wider community.

The New Economics Foundation’s recipe for wellbeing[xii] is based on five issues: The ability to Connect with family, friends and the wider community; opportunities to Be Active, in terms of physical exercise; the propensity to Take Notice and be curious; the desire to Keep Learning and the chance to Give, to do something nice for a friend or indeed a stranger. This ‘five a day’ recipe for wellbeing has been widely accepted by health professionals, but its impact on the way we plan cities is difficult to pin down. Sure, we can say that the ‘keep active’ heading means more parks, sports facilities as well as opportunities for walking and cycling. But what of connecting, noticing, learning and giving? Certainly Jan Gehl’s city with a stimuli every 20 seconds is going to be better than a modernist housing estate (or indeed an empty field). However it seems that the key message is that mental wellbeing depends on interaction with other people. Of course the anonymity of city crowds can be as isolating and lonely as any rural area, even in very good cities. What we need to focus on is the creation of urban neighbourhoods and communities where human interactions are fostered.

Social Sustainability

Which brings us back to The Young Foundation report on Social Sustainabiliy[xiii]. This defines social sustainability as: “A process for creating sustainable, successful places that promote wellbeing, by understanding what people need from the places they live and work. Social sustainability combines design of the physical realm with design of the social world – infrastructure to support social and cultural life, social amenities, systems for citizen engagement and space for people and places to evolve.” The report paints a practical picture of what such a neighbourhood might be like. This includes social infrastructure to bring the community together, both physical spaces and voluntary organisations. It relates to the community life of the neighbourhood, the extent to people have contact with others, the life of the street, communal areas etc… It includes the extent to which people have control over their lives and their community and finally in relates to the quality of the physical environment. In the case of the latter the suggestion is not that one type of environment is better than another, but that environments need to be flexible and responsive to community needs and controllable in part by local people.

So is the city good for us?

Well yes and no. We need to be careful of the easy assumptions that say cities are good for wellbeing and sustainably. For some people even very good cities are not good for their wellbeing and bad cities are certainly terrible for everyone’s health. The wellbeing agenda is not a flag that we can wave to say that cities are better than suburbs or rural areas. It is a tool that we should use to make cities better. The suggestions of the Young Foundation may apply to the village and suburb as much as they do the city, however they still provide importance guidance for those of us involved in the planning of urban areas.


[i] Sustainable Urban Neighbourhood: Building the 21st Century Home – David Rudlin and Nicholas Falk, Routledge 2009

[ii] A Community in Transition: The Relationship Between Spatial Change and Identity – Gerda M Speller and Evanthia Lyons, SPERI, Department of Psychology, University of Surrey

[iii] – Design for Social Sustainability: A Framework for creating thriving new communities – Young Foundation, 2012

[iv] The Human Zoo – Desmond Morris, The Literary Guild (1969)

[v] Population density and social pathology – Calhoun JB, Scientific American 206: 139-48, Feb 1962

[vi] Exploring the relationship between prevalence of overweight and obesity in 10-11 year olds and the outdoor physical environment, North East England –Tim Townshend, Director of Planning and Urban Design, School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape, Newcastle University

[vii] Community in History: Levittown and the Decline of a Postwar American Dream: A sociological perspective on the 50-year-old faded American “suburban legend” – Chad M. Kimmel, Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania

[viii] Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community – Robert D. Putnam, Simon & Schuster, 2000

[ix] Cities for People, Jan Gehl, Island Press 2010




[xiii] See iii