Climax City

Random writing on cities

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The Regeneration Curse

It was sobering to be told at a recent symposium on Gillette Square in Dalston that people had lost faith in the idea of regeneration. Those of us good guys who have been working all these years to regenerate cities are apparently the ones causing the problem. Local communities associate regeneration with outside developers building apartments they can’t afford, pushing up prices and squeezing out all the vitality and life that made the area so ripe for regeneration in the first place.

This conversation took place in the Vortex Jazz Club at an event organised by the Academy of Urbanism to celebrate Gillett Square, a public space that a couple of years ago had been shortlisted for one of the Academy’s awards. The space, created by the local community through the agency of Hackney Cooperative Developments, is full of life, the majority of the people using the space are black and the people sitting in the excellent Ethiopian cafe and jerk chicken shop and the children playing with the movable play equipment coexist with street drinkers and skateboarders. As Adam Hart former head of the Hackney Cooperative Developments told us, the street drinkers are a sign that this is a true public space, not a sign of failure. Yet within a stone’s throw the developers and their shiny apartments are lurking, casting the long shadow of gentrification.

The square was opened in the early 1990s together with the Dalston Culture House. It was shortlisted for an AOU award a few years ago and as a result of this is one of the places included in the Academy’s recent book ‘Urbanism’. Looking back at the original write-up done as part of the awards process it was clear that the Academy had recognised that it was a good place without necessarily understanding the struggle that lay behind its creation and the threats lurking in the shadows. The initial write up didn’t even mention the fact that this is the only black and ethnic minority-created square in London; that it was the culmination of a battle that dates back to the radical squats of the 1960s or indeed that it is the heart of a cultural renaissance of music and black culture in one of the most diverse parts of London. This is one of the issues that the Academy is keen to address going forward – not just to celebrate ‘nice’ urbanism, but to explore its role in bringing diverse communities together in places like Dalston. One of the contributors at the symposium said that Gillette Square was a space that is absolutely unique in the capital – ‘the only place in London that is like the Caribbean where you can just sit and be’.

The problem is that the more successful this process is the greater the lure to the forces of regeneration (sorry I mean gentrification). The event heard speakers from Bankside and Brixton, other parts of London facing similar pressures. We heard about fantasticly successful pop-up venues in Brixton full of ‘white people drinking’. Nothing wrong with that but it’s hardly Brixton. The success of these type of regeneration initiatives is only serving to make these areas safe for invading armies of hipsters. This in turn pushes up rents and prices and the effect, however unintentional, is that the local community is squeezed out. There was much discussion at the symposium about what we might do to prevent or at least slow down this process. We can wring our hands and rail against the destructive forces of the free market. We can argue that social capital has far greater value than financial capital and should be factored into decisions about development. We could argue that local people should be given a stake in the decision making affecting their area. In all of these things we would be right and on the side of the angels. However as one of the contributors at the workshop succinctly put it, ‘there is no point expecting lions to become vegetarians’. Developers will do what they do, pleading to their better nature may influence a few of them, but in the current overheated London market the forces of capital will quickly obliterate communities like that which exists around Gillette Square if allowed to do so.

This led to two suggested solutions. The first focussed on the role of the local authority and the planning system in making sure that they are not ‘allowed to do so’. We know that the powers of the planning system are limited but there are things that could be done and policies that could be implemented. Further more the council as facilitator and land owner could actually do quite a lot to protect local diversity. Unfortunately we heard that in some cases councils were doing the opposite to this by taking an aggressive commercial stance on the property that it owns and squeezing out local local business in favour of more profitable uses.

The other solution put forward, as one might expect from an area with the history of Dalston, is community ownership. Gillette Square exists because of Hackney Cooperative Developments and its initiative to acquire and develop the square and the surrounding buildings. As a community-controlled company it is no less entrepreneurial that its commercial counterparts but has a different set of values and objectives, maximising value for the community rather than profit for shareholders. As owner of the the buildings around the square it can at least protect them from commercial encroachment but the extent to which this model can be applied more widely is open to question. It is a lot harder today for communities to buy up land to build their own workspace and housing than it was in the 1970s and 80s. Where are the modern equivalents of Hackney Cooperative Developments of the Coin Street Community Builders?

But if planning is not the answer and community ownership is not possible on the scale required, how do we protect the diversity of London? It is after all the reason we love the place and having read Richard Florida’s previous books the reason for its success. The problem is as Florida repents in his new book ‘The Urban Crisis’, is that the bright young things attracted to places like Dalston and Brixton by its grit and diversity have become the biggest threat to said grit and diversity. The ‘boho class’ that was sold to us as the future of the city are apparently now destroying it! Just as well we have Florida to show us the error of his ways and to give us a solution, except of course that he doesn’t. We will just have to hope that someone else can before its all too late.

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The New Elysians

Published BD 7th August 2018

There is a tower in Cork, at 17 storeys it is not a very tall tower even if it is reputed to be the tallest in Ireland. It was completed just before the Celtic Tiger crashed and is only now fully occupied by bright young things working for Apple and other tech firms that have made Cork their European base. It is called the Elysian Tower, no, doubt named by a marketing firm long before the film of the same name was released. For those of you who have not seen the film, the elysians are a leisured elite orbiting in a giant space ship over the earth that has become one immense shanti town – spoiler alert, it doesn’t end well.

The Academy of Urbanism has just held its 13th Congress in Cork and much of the debate revolved around our keynote speaker, Richard Florida, who was talking about just this sort of issue. It is fair to say that there was a degree of hostility in the hall towards Richard, not so much for what he was saying, but to some of the language used. To our ears the language of class grated a little; the ‘creative class’ (the elysians you might call them) and the servant class (sorry ‘service’ class) who would no doubt be living back on shanti town earth.

Florida has rightly pointed out that the success of cities in the modern age revolves around the Creative Class, a group that makes-up between 30 and 50% of a city’s population. He was the first to show, for example, the remarkable correlation between the percentage of gay people in a city and its economic success – and to be heavily criticised by conservative groups for doing so. The creative class are liberal, openminded types who are attracted to diverse tolerant places. Companies deciding where to locate seek out these people and therefore also like tolerant open diverse cities, even if it means paying over the odds to be in New York, London and Dublin. As he describes it, in coming up with this idea he turned on its head economic theory about where companies locate and got city authorities to thing very differently about how to make their cities attractive to these magic people.

But, as his new book relates, it has all gone too far. The economic pressures resulting from the conversion of cities to this creative economy has pushed up values to the point that inequality has spiralled out of control and the service class can no longer afford to live within reach of where they work. The result is both socially unacceptable and self defeating (because it is damaging to the creative economy). Artists will be squeezed out, start-up business will struggle to find premises and workers, and the city will become the sanitised domain of the rich and boring (or so Kevin Baker argues in his cri de cœur about the death of New York from affluence).

The delegates at Congress weren’t so sure. Florida presents his arguments as if this is a world crisis but, what of cities like Helsinki that seem immune to the crisis despite a thriving creative economy? Indeed one might argue that the crisis only really affects the English speaking world in thrall to the free market and disdainful of welfare systems and particularly social housing. Proper social housing was always the way that we dealt with the problems of creating mixed communities in expensive cities – housing that isn’t subject to the vagaries of a market in which foreign investors use it as a safe place to put their money, heedless of the need to actually house people.

But take the argument a step further and maybe it isn’t even the whole of the English speaking world. It affects Dublin but not really Cork, London but less so Britain’s provincial cities. The Elysians in their tower in Cork have not made the city unaffordable, not yet at least. As we heard the city is planning to grow rapidly over the coming decades and it is within the power of the city authorities to shape how this growth takes place. Florida was right to identify the importance of the creative class and the transformation of Cork through companies like Apple is amazing. But the new urban crisis is the result of the unfettered workings of the market rather that a bunch of tech workers in a tower with an inappropriate name. We need to learn from Scandinavia and elsewhere in order to create inclusive cities that can withstand the pressures of success. Otherwise we might just as well go back to the declining cities that were the norm until the last few decades.


An Urbanist in Shanghai

As part of the Academy of Urbanism’s recent trip to China we travelled on a bus provided by our hosts between our incredibly cool hotel in Shanghai (in a derelict industrial building) and the Hangzhou International Urbanology Centre where we were staying and which was also the venue for the first AoU International Conference in China. For much of the journey we watched through the bus windows as fields rolled past, except that the crop being grown was towers. Seemingly endless towers, sometimes a score of identical towers rising simultaneously behind their bamboo scaffolding. Sometimes a vista of thirty storey towers as far as you could see against the night sky with lights in none of the windows. This is how you plan with a country where 10 million people are being added to its cities every year. China unlike the UK does not have a housing crisis, it is providing homes for every one of these 10 million people, there is no homelessness or informal settlements.  It is just that they are providing vast amounts of housing in a way that may not be sustainable or very urban.


In Shanghai there is a museum of the city, the highlight of which is a model covering an area roughly the size of a five-a-side football pitch. The model is an endless expanse of apartment blocks, ranging from the slab blocks of the 60s and 70s through to today’s modern towers reaching ever higher. It becomes clear from the model that the city centre that we experience as visitors is a tiny part of the conurbation of 25 million people. There are multiple commercial centres across the city, each marked by a cluster of towers slightly higher than their surroundings. The city centre is strangely familiar to those of us in the UK, the Bund looking every bit like Liverpool Waterfront except with more Liver Buildings. Running back from this is Nanjing Road lined with its department stores which would also not feel out of place in a European City. All of this is part of the British Settlement and elsewhere the French and American settlements have their own particular style.

img_7443.jpgThe predominant impression that the city leaves comes however from its skyline. The oldest of the towers is the 20 storey art deco Park Hotel, built as by the Shanghai Joint Savings Society in 1934 (which was the tallest building in Asia until 1958). At the other extreme is the 128 storey Shanghai Tower currently the second tallest tower in the world and standing at the centre of the Pudong peninsular, opposite the Bund. This is a forest of towers including the Oriental Perl Radio and TV tower and two other towers that rank amongst the ten tallest in the world. At night the whole area is illuminated with LED graphics covering entire buildings more Blade Runner than the film itself. What is extraordinary is the fact that the entire peninsular was marshland until it was designated as a Special Economic Zone in 1993 since when it has grown to become the financial hub of China. The skyline may rival Manhattan but at ground level? It is a sea of exclusive podia, shopping malls, high-quality landscaping and massive roads. Again a long way from what many of us would call urbanism.

The same is true of Hangzhou a hundred miles inland from Shanghai. It is a city of 10 million people and is both one of the oldest and one of the most innovative cities in China. Hangzhou also had an inordinate number of towers and its great roads that seemed to go on for ever and were clogged with traffic. We were shown the visitor centre for the Asian games which will take place in Hangzhou in 2022, every bit as impressive as the Olympic Park in London, that was being built by our hosts Sunac with, of course, its own cluster of very shiny towers.

IMG_7658It all raises questions about what we mean by Chinese’s urbanism? As part of our discussions with the Hangzhou Urbanology Centre we explored the sort of places that might be considered for urbanism awards if they were to be run in China. The places suggested by our Chinese hosts were similar to those that we might have chosen, street based, traditional, mixed-use and lively. Indeed we concluded that the typology of towers set in landscape surrounded by large roads is no more indigenous to China than it is to Europe. It is an international style of architecture and urban design that seems to have taken over the world as any visit to the MIPIN Property fair will attest. It certainly has nothing to do with the sort of traditional Chinese streets and neighbourhoods that still cover large parts of Shanghai and Hangzhou, the best of these areas like the Yuyan district of Shanghai or the Qiaoxi Historic District of Hangzhou are preserved as tourist attractions. In Yu Gardens there is a three storey wooden pavilion built in the 1600s which is said to have been the tallest building in the city when it was completed, which gives a sense of what was once the scale of the city. While these traditional areas can seem like museum pieces preserved for tourists, aerial photographs shows surprisingly large areas of this traditional development – districts of dense three and four storey buildings with local shops crammed into their ground floors and selling everything imaginable. These districts are however rapidly disappearing to be replaced with new high rise schemes a process that has been the subject of controversy in Beijing as residents have been evicted from their homes. It raises huge questions about who the cities are for and the process of gentrification and as urbanists we couldn’t help mourning the loss of the city’s street life.

This is not an argument against tall buildings. There are parts of Shanghai and Hangzhou that have lots of towers and yet are still lively and popular at street level. The lesson is that it is the bottom of the tower that is far more dangerous than the top. If the tower meets the ground as part of an urban block that addresses the street and is lined with shops and restaurants then it contributes to the life of the city. If it rises from a inward-looking podium or is surrounded by landscape then it doesn’t. The lesson is as true in China as it is across the world, but it isn’t one that Chinese planners seem to have taken to heart.

In other respects there is a huge amount that Chinese cities can teach us in the west. One of these relates to transport and in Hangzhou and Shanghai you can see a before and after example of the way that this is being tackled. Hangzhou is in the process of extending its metro system to create 8 lines totalling 278km. However for the moment its roads remain hopelessly clogged with traffic and its air full of pollution. In Shanghai by contrast the heroic levels of congestion and pollution that existed unlit recently have all but disappeared. In part this has been achieved through a system of licence auctions, borrowed from Singapore, which has been running since 1994 and puts a quota on the number of new cars on the streets. Because of this the number of cars on Shanghai’s streets has grown by ‘only’ 75% since 2004 despite doubling nationally and growing by 150% in Beijing. However the recent disappearance of congestion has more to do with the ‘Big Traffic Overhaul’ initiated in 2016 by the city’s mayor Yang Xiong. This was a concerted crackdown that  flooded the streets with traffic police to deal with motoring infringements like blowing your horn, changing lanes, illegal parking etc…  To the surprise of everyone the city persisted with the policy and it worked, the traffic became quieter and less intrusive and many people probably decided that it was just too much hassle to drive into town. One result was that people changed to e-bikes, electric mopeds that are now common on the streets and are not subject to traffic regulations (although the city is now seeking to ban these as well). The city also has a series of bike schemes and great piles of yellow and orange bikes, dusty from lack of use block many pavements.

Beneath ground however is a different story and Shanghai’s extensive Metro system which was only completed in 2012 rivals anywhere in the world. The bullet train we took on our return journey from Hangzhou has been conceived, constructed and opened in the time that we have been thinking about HS2 in the UK, cutting our 3 hour outward journey too less than an hour coming back. It is part of a national high speed rail network that connects most large Chinese cities. The system is a strange combination of planning and investment on a scale that we can only dream of in the west, and rather chaotic experimentation at the local level. We also heard that China is investing hugely in driverless technology, cars and buses, as well smart cities, big data and AI systems. You can guarantee that they will have this technology operational long before we in the West do. So before we get too smug about the Chinese repeating all of our past mistakes, we should prepare ourselves for a period not to far In the future when they will be light years ahead.

One of the urban policies in China that does feel like something from our past is their concern to control the growth of cities. Shanghai is by some definitions the largest city in the world with a population of 25 million. It has put in place a policy of ‘negative growth’ by which the city authorities plan to prevent it from getting any larger. Growth is therefore being redirected to ‘smaller’ cities like Hangzhou and to a huge programme of new towns which in China are called ‘Characterised Towns’. We visited one of these Liangzhu at the very end of the metro line just opened out of Hangzhou (10 miles). This is a community that has been built over the course of 20 years and now has 10,000 homes. Yihan Shen (AOU) otherwise known as Shaun, who set up our visit was formerly responsible for developing the town which, is very impressive and is described in his book replete with a drawing of Poundbury on the cover. The town has an impressive range of shops and facilities including a community centre built by Tadao Ando and a museum by David Chipperfield. It also has one of the best old people’s homes that you will ever see and an active community association that is planning to take on some of the management of the town. The only disappointment was that each of the neighbourhoods was not just gated, it was surrounded by security fences. We asked about levels of crime that necessitated such measures and were told that residents demanded it and therefore developers had no choice but to create gated communities despite the almost complete lack of crime.

In making these comments we are open to the charge that we just don’t understand Chinese urbanism. That we are trying to apply western ideas of street-based urbanism to a culture that has a very different idea of the public realm, that does not feel the same level of ownership over streets and public spaces. However traditional Chinese neighbourhoods are more similar to traditional European cities that they are different. They are structured around a permeable street network, they are densely built with a mix of uses and their streets are lively and sociable. There is a very different feel in the new high rise neighbourhoods that lack life and viability but then again that is also true in the west. Indeed the typology of towers sitting in gated landscape compounds and surrounded by huge roads is not Chinese. It is the same typology that can be seen in  Dubai, India and in the growing cities of Africa. You can find it to in Frankfurt, London, Los Angeles and Moscow. Yes it is true that in China it is being done on a bigger scale but the typology his one of global capital.

IMG_7529This may be the only practical way of dealing with 10 Million migrants to the city each year and it is likely that people arriving from the countryside are happy with their new apartments and their increased quality of life just as happened in with the tower blocks of the 1960s in the UK. But what happens in the future, when they have become accustomed to life in the city, when their children grow up with different aspirations? Are the rather soulless environments being created in China going to survive the test of time or will they succumb to the same fate as the council blocks in the UK? We wanted to be optimistic but it was difficult. There was a sense that the mistakes of the west were being repeated in China and are storing up problems for the future. A combination of unpopular high-rise housing and a policy to control the growth of cities by diverting people to new towns risks undermined the whole city. After the war London also had a policy of negative growth, shipping its population out to new towns and overspill estates and its industry to peripheral business parks. The problem was that negative growth became a ‘recession’ and by the mid 1970s London had an unemployment rate of 7.2% and was rapidly shrinking.

This may seem inconceivable in China where the economy continues to out perform the West and the proportion of the population living in cities (58%) has along way to go to match the levels of more that 80% in Europe. However the fertility rate in China is just 1.79 children per woman and in Shanghai is below 1 child (a rate below 2.1 children per family will cause the population to fall). The one child policy (amended in 2015 to a two child policy) is understandable in terms of controlling the overall growth of population and making Shanghai’s negative growth policy possible, but it is storing up problems for the future in a country that will not have enough young people to support its ageing population. What does that mean for cities like Hangzhou and Shanghai? Let us hope that they find an alternative and are able to reform their cities and control their growth without tipping them over into urban decline as happened in the west. Let us hope that their urban renaissance doesn’t first require their cities to be sacrificed.



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The Urbanist and the Architect

This piece was originally written for Building Design, published in June this year.

In 1958 Mies van der Rohe completed one of the most influential buildings of all time. The Seagram Building on Park Avenue was his first tall office building and it is undoubtedly a masterpiece. His boldest move was, as Adelyn Perez writes admiringly in the Arch Daily Classics Series, ‘the grand gesture of setting back the building 100 feet from the street edge, which created a highly active open plaza… with its two large fountains surrounded by generous outdoor seating’. Perez praises Mies’s radical move to ‘distance himself from New York’s urban morphology of lot line development, and the conventional economics of skyscraper construction’. So impressed were the New York Authorities that in 1961 they rewrote the city’s zoning ordinances allowing skyscrapers to go taller if part of the site was set aside for a similarly lively public plaza. Except of course the plaza is not lively – try googling images of the Seagram Plaza, they are pretty much all devoid of people, it creates a dead zone on the otherwise vibrant Park Avenue, a point that was being made by William H Whyte in his studies of public space as early as the mid 1960s. The Seagram Building is inspired architecture but terrible urbanism.

The Academy of Urbanism is a child of the RIBA. It was initiated by George Ferguson when he was RIBA President to get architects to think more broadly about these issues and the way in which their buildings contribute to the sort of lively, safe urban spaces that we all enjoy. Soon the Academy launched itself as an independent organisation and it recently celebrated its 10th anniversary with a book of 75 of the places that have received Academy Awards.

Over that time the Academy has had a sometimes difficult relationship with the Architect profession. High profile architects like Piers Gough were members in the early days but resigned over concerns that the academy was only interested in safe established places and traditional architecture. These arguments have a long history in the profession with ‘Internationalists’ setting themselves against ‘Regionalists’, Modernists against Post-Modernists. The Academy of Urbanism had been branded, by some, as regionalist and traditional. This is generally considered not to be on the side of the angels in the eyes of most architects and indeed the architecture press (the same has happened with the Congress for New Urbanism in the US).

As the new Chair of the Academy of Urbanism I am keen to widen this debate. Urbanism is not a stylistic choice, it is neither traditional or modernist, international or regionalist. Urbanism is the study of how cities work. In the Academy’s new book we liken urbanism to horticulture. A garden designer or a landscape architect with a poor understanding of horticulture will make mistakes. In a similar way architects and urban designers who don’t understand urbanism can often get things terribly wrong. And yet, like horticulture, the way in which urbanism influences architecture is intuitive and creative. Like a good gardener an architect who understand urbanism will work with it and test its limits rather than seeing it as a set of constraining rules to be challenged (as Mies did in New York).

So yes it is true that the 75 places in the new Academy book do include some traditional, historic places (particularly in the towns chapter). However it also includes great European cities, streets, neighbourhoods and places, many of which are contemporary. What unites them all is good urbanism by which we mean places that are safe and lively, which contain a mix of uses and people, which have strong economies and encourage sustainable ways of living. They cover everything from the dense centres of great cities to lower density suburbs and small towns. Each of them is a very human story about how the alchemy of urban life, economics and built form has been mixed to create great places. Many of these stories include great architecture although is only part of what creates good urbanism. But there is no reason why we cant have both inspired architecture and good urbanism – if only the architect and the urbanist can be reconciled.

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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


Glasgow’s Renaissance


In 2010 Glasgow was one of the three cities shortlisted by the Academy of Urbanism for its Great City Award and indeed was eventually voted as the winner. This is the report of the assessment visit to the city.

A number of the people that we spoke to when the Academy visited Glasgow started their presentations with an infamous front cover from the Observer Magazine in the 1980s. Over a picture of urban devastation ran the headline ‘Home Rotten Home, what its like to live in the worst corner of Britian’, by which, of course, they meant Glasgow. This was the city’s nadir and in hindsight also its turning point. It is difficult to believe that this is the same city described last year by Conde Nast as a ‘a fantastic world class city’ by the OECD as the ‘the New Berlin’ or even more improbably by Vogue as ‘the chicest city in the world’.

However once you spend some time in Glasgow, walking around the city centre –  it’s stylish shops, new financial district and creative Merchant Quarter – and travel around the environs of Kelvingrove, the redeveloped Clyde Waterfront and the new urban quarter of Crown Street the hyperbole is not so far fetched. In the words of Time Magazine; ‘brimming with style and culture, Scotland’s second city is a revelation’.

Glasgow is a city transformed and it is almost impossible to imagine it, as it was when it had an unemployment rate of 60% and was described as a ‘Hellish mix of drink poverty and violence’. Well almost impossible. On visiting the city’s East End and hearing about districts like Carlton where male life expectancy is just 53.9 years (compared to 67.4 years in Iraq as the Sun Newspaper helpfully pointed out) you realise that the Glasgow of old has not been entirely banished despite huge efforts and investment by the council and other agencies.

Glasgow’s transformation may not be complete but the extent of its renaissance is pretty impressive. No other city has recovered so well having fallen so far, and it holds lessons for the reinvention of industrial cities across the western world. However as we heard, Glasgow’s origins are not, in fact, as an industrial city. It started as a religious centre founded on the rather dubious myth and relics of St. Mungo. The cathedral is the oldest in Scotland and the University is the fourth oldest in the UK (after Oxford, Cambridge and St. Andrews).

It later developed as a trading centre on the Clyde, built on the back of slaves in the cotton and tobacco trades.  Such was its wealth and growth rate in the early 19th century that a new town was build to the west of the cramped medieval city centre. This extension was gridded like a North American city, heedless of the site’s topography, and one of the presentations described it as Chicago on the Clyde, the most easterly American city. There was in fact an lively interchange between Glasgow and the US, with Glasgow architects helping to shape the architectural character of cities like Chicago and then reimporting the American influence to Scotland. So successful was the new town that the city centre shifted westwards. Today Trongate once the western entrance to the old city now marks the eastern boundary of the city centre.

By the beginning of the 20th century Glasgow’s population had grown to more than a million and the city was designing and building half of all the iron-built, sea-going ships on the world’s oceans. It was one of the preeminent industrial cities of Empire – one of the ‘shock’ cities of the age doubling and trebling in size as it sucked in people from the highlands and Ireland. At its peak it was a city of great contrasts – able to stage the 1903 International Exhibition and commission world-class architecture like Gilbert Scott’s University Building and Macintosh’s School of Art, yet with some of the most notorious slums in Europe.

It was from these heady heights that Glasgow fell. In the latter half of the 20th century its industrial base collapsed, its population halved and it became the ‘Home rotten home’ described by the Observer. Its route back from the brink has been an object lesson in city regeneration. This stated in the 1980s with the establishment of the Tourist Board and the opening of the Burrell Collection along with the 1988 Garden Festival. However the big breakthrough was its designation in 1990 as European City of Culture which Glasgow used very skilfully to relaunch itself.

The two decades since then has seen the physical transformation of much of the city. The city centre has been regenerated and we were told that it is now the largest retail centre outside London. The Merchant City has been revived as a cultural quarter, the Universities are expanding and being restructured to create a new learning quarter, while the city centre has expanded towards the river with the new International Financial Services District. To the west the former ship yards on the Clyde house the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre (the Armadillo) together with the new Digital Media Village and the HQ buildings for the BBC and Scottish Media Group. To the East the Clyde Gateway project is being managed by an Urban Regeneration Company that is using the 2014 Commonweath Games to kickstart a £2 Billion  regeneration programme starting with a Games Village of 700 units and four new venues. Across the city 21,000 social housing units are being redeveloped and neighbourhoods like Crown Street (the former Gorbals) are being used as model to regenerate neighbourhoods around the city.

The results are impressive. In the decade to 2007 the city’s economy grew by 20% creating 63,000 jobs and attracting 45,000 new residents. The city’s confidence is reflected in its carefully managed image – ‘Scotland with Style’ and its momentum has carried it through the early years of the recession. In 2009 there was a £3.95 Billion investment programme underway.  Some of the plans, especially in the East End seem ambitious in the current economic climate but even here the city is fortunate to have the Commonwealth Games as a focus for investment to see it through the worst days of public sector cutbacks.

Today Glasgow really does have a certain style and huge self-confidence. In the UK we are not always very good at recognising that we have our own great cities that can match Milan, Barcelona, Copenhagen and Chicago. Glasgow may not quite be at the level of these cities, but walking around on a warm evening at the end of Summer on the Academy visit it really did feel like somewhere special. The red sandstone buildings, the granite paving and warm glow of the shops and bars felt a little like Stockholm or Copenhagen. Considering the state of Glasgow less than 30 years ago the it is remarkable we can even make these comparison.

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Kings Place

This piece was written as an assessment report for the Academy of Urbanism Awards in September 2012.

Can a building be a great place, at least in the way that urbanists would understand it? Urban places are generally to be found in-between buildings rather than within a single building. They are places where people can linger, that are animated by the life of the buildings that surround them and where the theatre of public life is acted out. In short they are part of the public realm. Yet by all of these tests Kings Place is, as its name suggests, a ‘place’.

Its atrium is open to everyone to come in, and sit, and meet without needing an appointment or having to buy a coffee. It is a space animated by the 3,000 people who work in the building and the many thousands more who come to a concert or visit a gallery, drink in its bars or eat in its restaurants. Like Nolli’s map of Rome, which showed the inside of public buildings as public spaces with the same status as the neighbouring streets and squares, Kings Place has created a great indoors urban place.

Kings Place was conceived by the Leeds based property developer Peter Millican. He reasoned that, as office users demanded larger and larger floor plates, more of the city was being privatised. He therefore conceived on an office scheme that was also a public space. Kings Place includes 500,000 square feet of space, of which 300,000 square feet is lettable (a terrible gross to net ratio as many agents and developers have remarked). Yet the common areas are anything but common. The entrance gives onto a huge atrium the height of the building that links the street to the canal basin at the rear of the building. At the entrance is a sculpture gallery and the atrium includes a coffee shop, conference space and a bar and restaurant at the rear with a terrace alongside the canal.

Above this are offices, the main tenant being Guardian Newspapers who occupy three floors and have their own entrance. However it is what lies below that is the marvel. The building is sunk deep into the ground with three basements the upper two providing the main public facilities. The atrium opens up into a wide staircase dropping down to two levels of gallery space and a range of cultural facilities. These include three halls, a studio space capable of seating 220 a traditional concert hall with 420 fixed seats and the St Pancras Room, an auditorium for speech, seating 100. There are also three rehearsal spaces, recording and broadcasting facilities, dressing rooms, a teaching room and office space for the London Sinfonietta and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, plus a range of smaller music organisations. This has all been bequeathed to a charitable music foundation that programmes the space.

All this in a building that opened in 2008, just as the world was consumed by the credit crunch. As we were told on the visit, Peter Millican was either really cleaver or very stupid. Indeed during the visit the academicians spent a long time trying to understand whether Kings Place really had discovered an alternative reality for property development, as some commentators have argued, or whether the scheme is in fact an extraordinary piece of philanthropy.

The story starts in the early 2000 when Peter started looking for a site in London to build his concept of an office development for the future. He set himself a number of goals; to build a strong team of people, to build well, to build generously and to build on a transport hub. The building was to bring together three Cs: Commerce, Culture and Community.  The site on York Way was very off pitch at this time, before the decision to locate the Eurostar Terminal at St. Pancras and prior to the  planning approval of the Kings Cross masterplan. The benefit of this was that the land – a former depot employing 30 people – was cheap, the problems were the prostitutes on the street, the planning authorities reluctance to allow such a large building and everyone’s difficulty in seeing it as an office location. However the scheme proceeded, Dixon Jones was appointed as the architect following a competition and the concept took shape. The key moment was securing Guardian Newspapers as an anchor tenant. They had been looking for an alternative to their cramped premises in nearby Farringdon and were attracted by the concept for the building and the fact that since it was still at the design stage they could design their offices.

Other prelets followed including Network Rail and Logica with the result that the building was fully let on the day it opened. Other property developers may regard the building as being hopelessly uneconomic, but it is impossible to separate the generosity of its concept from the fact that it has been fully let and profitable since it opened. As Peter Millican points out, they were able to get finance for 80% of the value, something which would be inconceivable today and which would make the model impossible to replicate.

On the visit we came to the conclusion that cities would be much better places if all offices were built this way, but that this was probably unrealistic. We were not however clear whether this made Kings Place less important as a replicable model or more impressive for the achievement of it being built.

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Sowerby Bridge Wharf

This piece was written as an assessment report for the Academy of Urbanism Awards in September 2012.

In 1996 a boat arrived in Sowerby Bridge that had travelled over from Manchester on the newly reopened Rochdale Canal. In the same year the Sowerby Bridge Wharf Partnership was formed bringing together local businesses and leaseholders, English Heritage, The Civic Trust and Yorkshire Forward coordinated by the Prince’s regeneration Trust. This was the culmination of a campaign dating back to the mid 1970s to highlight the importance and the potential of Sowerby Bridge Wharf. The restoration of the Rochdale Canal had been achieved by stealth, through a series of environmental improvements that had restored sections of the canal even when the reopening of the whole seemed impossible.  Meanwhile a campaign had been fought in Sowerby Bridge to prevent the canal basin being filled in for use as a car park. 1996 may have been the end of these long campaigns, but it was also the start of a process that would see the refurbishment of the wharf and its development as a place for leisure and business.

The first canal boat had arrived in Sowerby Bridge in 1759. The extraordinary thing about this date is that – as children across the UK are taught through the National Curriculum – the world’s first industrial canal, built by the Duke of Bridgewater, wouldn’t be opened for another three years. The ‘canal’ in Sowerby Bridge was not a canal at all, but the end of the Calder and Hebble Navigation, a system, of engineering works to make navigable the waterways running from the Pennines down to the ports of the east coast. Then in 1804 another canal arrived in Sowerby Bridge when the Rochdale Canal was cut through the Pennines creating a link to the textile towns of Lancashire and the ports of the Mersey.

The problem was that the boats on the Rochdale Canal were too long to fit through the locks on the Calder and Hebble Navigation and the smaller boats from the east were too inefficient to take through the bigger locks on the Rochdale particularly given the problems of water supply. So Sowerby Bridge became the transhipment point between the canal systems from the two sides of the country as well as an important port for the surrounding textile towns.  Just as Sowerby Bridge sits in a pivotal position of the UK’s canal network so it occupies a similarly important position in the history of the canals. It’s earliest warehouse – romantically called Warehouse 4 – dates from 1770 and is one of the earliest canal warehouses in the country. The adjacent Salt Warehouse was built in 1790s and on the slope above the basin is a complete set of buildings including the weighing house, the overseer’s house, stables and extraordinary mixed-use building with warehousing on the lower floors at the canal level, and a Methodist Sunday school above accessed from the high street.

Such is the evident important of the complex that it comes as no surprise to see the wharf cherished and refurbished. However as with so many regeneration stories, what seems obvious in hindsight was anything but at the beginning. Even in 1996 after the battle of the car park had been won, and the campaign to reopen the Rochdale canal succeeded, regeneration was far from inevitable and there were still battles to be fought. One of these was to prevent apartments being built on the wharf, something that had been proposed in a masterplan prepared for British Waterways. Another was to persuade British Waterways that it didn’t need to achieve best value on the site but could weigh this against heritage issues.

The wharf was already is a pretty poor state of repair when the waterways were nationalised in 1948 and it went down hill from there. In the 1970s British Waterways sold a lease on the site to a local person who gave undertakings to refurbish the complex, something that he was never able to do. At the time the people on the site were the Sea Scouts. The lessee let the buildings to three sub-lessees and when in the 1990s pressure from British Waterways caused the head lease be put on the market, it was the three tenants who were instrumental in bringing in the Prince’s Regeneration Trust and forming the Sowerby Bridge Wharf Partnership to spearhead the area’s regeneration.

The problem was that British Waterways were insistent that they were required to make a commercial return on the buildings, which made it impossible for the partnership to put together a viable scheme. Representations were made to the Commons Select Committee on Environment and Transport who made a site visit led by their formidable Chair Gwyneth Dunwoody MP. The committee made it clear in no uncertain terms that the British Waterways position was wrong not correct, opening up the way for the partnership to buy out the head lease so that regeneration could proceed. By that time Warehouses 1 and 2 had already been refurbished by British Waterways but the Salt Warehouse and No. 4 Warehouse were in a very poor state. A cocktail of funding was put together by the partnership amounting to £2.7 Million including funding from Yorkshire Forward, the Council, English Heritage, Lottery and investment from British Waterways. Since that time the two vacant workspaces have been refurbished for business use. The road access to the wharf has been improved and widened and the gatehouse converted to a café with a new sculpture by Roger Burnett on the high street. On the hillsider the overseers house has been refurbished for a dental surgery with the stables below providing creative workspace. The wharf itself is busy with moorings and the comings and goings of Shire Cruisers who operate the boat yard and a leisure fleet from the basin.

The wharf has become a lively part of Sowerby Bridge life. In addition to business space the warehouses include a number of pubs and restaurants, which have become part of the leisure circuit in the town. It is also provides the venue for the culmination of the Sowerby Bridge Rushbearing Festival which involves a maiden, a rush cart and a good deal of real ale.

There were those on the academy visit who questioned why the wharf was not livelier, and wondered whether the partnership was right to be so against any housing development. It is true that the wharf is a real place of work so that the major apartment scheme proposed in the past would have been inappropriate. However it is not clear what harm that a greater mix of uses would do to the attractions of the wharf or to its existing occupiers. This may be slightly symptomatic of the drawbacks of a heritage led approach to regeneration that, for example, bemoans the replacement of timber piling on one of the warehouses from a heritage perspective despite this not being visible and worried about a contemporary lift shaft added to another building. From the perspective of an urbanist there would be value in encouraging some modest development to create a more clearly defined public realm and a greater intensity and variety of uses.

Notwithstanding this, the achievement of Sowerby Bridge Wharf is impressive. It would be impressive in a large city, but to create a regeneration project of this size in a town of less than 10,000 people is remarkable. The Wharf is now home to 270 jobs and a range of start up and relocated businesses. It is testament to the determination of a group of people over many years who have created a special place and one that has transformed the town.


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Bradford City Park

This piece was written as an assessment report for the Academy of Urbanism Awards in September 2012 and in November 2012 City Park won the Academy’s Great Place award.

The city park in Bradford is an extraordinary place. The academy members who arrived for the assessment visit did so with no great expectations. Many places after all have installed water features in recent years and the technology is such that they are all very impressive. But Bradford City Park – or ‘Bradpool’ as local people have started to call it – is different. It is urban theatre on a grand scale and like the neighbouring Alhambra Theatre, the attraction is not so much the stage set, impressive as it is, but the actors.

So successful has been the pool that Primark regularly sells out of socks and towels at the weekend. On the overcast Monday morning of the Academy visit it gradually filled with people as the pool filled with water over a five hour cycle. And these were all the people of Bradford, youths on bikes, elderly people, women in burkas, students, families – a happy, relaxed mix of people rarely seen in British cities (other perhaps than on a beach) and certainly not in Bradford. It’s a place that makes you think that Bradford is going to be OK and makes you believe that the physical environment of a place really can be transformative.

Bradford is Britain’s great, lost provincial city. Bigger than Sheffield, Newcastle and Bristol and once richer than all of its peers, it has fallen on hard time in recent years. This is partly the result of bad luck, partly bad timing and, it must be admitted partly self-inflicted. Despite all of the money and effort expended on the city, most recently by the Urban Regeneration Company, precious little has been achieved even through the years of economic boom. With the worst possible timing, Westfield demolished part of the retail core, dug a big hole in the ground and were then forced to stop work on the new shopping centre as the credit crunch decimated the retail sector. Elsewhere flagship projects like the Chanel Urban Village were shelved while the redevelopment of the former Odeon became embroiled in a protracted campaign by heritage groups. This soured relationships so badly that there were even protesters at the opening of the City Park as the rest of the city celebrated.

Meanwhile the jewel in the crown, the Mirror Pool – as City Park was originally called – failed to secure funding from the Big Lottery. To have built City Park in the face of all of this adversity is an act of sheer bloody-minded will power. It became an all or nothing issue, if Bradford could do this one thing then anything would become possible!

The story starts in 2003 when the URC Commissioned Will Alsop to produce a masterplan for Bradford City Centre. The central idea of the masterplan was that Bradford no longer had sufficient demand to build on all of its vacant sites and so should turn them over to a linear park running through the city centre. At the heart of this new park stood City Hall in a natural bowl. The Alsop team suggested that this bowl be flooded to create a pool, which would wrap around the City Hall. The impact of the Alsop masterplan is still the subject of some debate. This was summed up by Daniel Cunningham wrote in Estates Gazette in 2005; ‘When Bradford’s urban regeneration company put Will Alsop’s masterplan on display at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in February, some back in Yorkshire thought a building full of whimsical works of imagination was the best place for it. Alsop’s vision for the former wool town, complete with a “business forest”, man-made lake and plenty of space to think and meet, left many local agents scratching their heads, even if it did grab the attention of Manhattan’s art lovers’.

However the ambition and imagination of the plan, unconstrained as it was by practicality and economic viability, gave birth to an idea that, even in a much reduced state has an originality and power that shines through today (even if Alsop himself worries that the concept has been too compromised). The pool in the original plan would have required the demolition of the city’s main Police Station and Magistrates Court. As luck would have it the police were planning to reduce their presence on the site but there was no way that the court could be moved. The eventual design for the park therefore covered less than half of the area envisaged in the original plan.

The process of transforming the original vision into today’s reality included a Neighbourhood Development Framework developed by ARUPs and eventually a design competition that was won by Gillespies. The plan was developed and became the subject to an application to the Big Lottery Fund. However conflict and debate continued to dog the proposals and when the planning application was submitted to committee it was very nearly refused (requiring the casting vote of the chair). Subsequent to this came the news that the Lottery funds had not been secured.

It was that evening, in one of the function rooms of the Victoria Hotel that had been booked to celebrate the announcement of Lottery funding, that the council and Yorkshire Forward committed themselves, come-what-may to delivering the pool/park. It was about this time that a new broom started sweeping through the city, instigated through the appointment of Tony Reeves as the new Chief Executive and a new set of senior officers, including Barra MacRuarie as Strategic Director of Culture and Regeneration. As Barra told us during the academy visit, at his job interview he said that his aim would be to allow Bradford people to become tourists in their own city. To this end he committed himself to delivering City Park, setting aside two hours every Thursday Evening to meet with the project manager Shelagh O’Neill. As he told us, when you get to the end of a project the problems disappear, but problems there were throughout the development and construction of the scheme.

The result might be expected to be a slightly compromised version of the original vision, as Will Alsop feared – but it isn’t, its brilliant! As Sheilagh told us, when the sun comes out, as it occasionally does in Bradford, something magic happens. And on que, just as the presentations to the Academy finished the sun came out and the atmosphere changed as the space filled with happy relaxed people. As we were told Bradford people are still learning how to use the space, exploring its possibilities and (there is no other word for it) playing. This is helped greatly by a hands-off style of management. Before it opened there was a great deal of debate about issues like alcohol, skateboards and bikes and anti-social behaviour. The brave decision was to say that the management would only intervene to prevent behaviour that risked damaging the space or harming its users. We watched kids circling in the water on BMX bikes and at lunch time people in the surrounding bars were drinking alcohol. The mix of people however means that no one group dominates the space and so far at least happy balance is being maintained.

The next step is to programme the space. This started in spectacular fashion with the opening event that was reminiscent of the best days of the Bradford Festival. This September has hosted the World Curry Festival and there are developing plans for it to be programmed throughout the year. At present the budget and management capacity to do this is limited and the council are aware that they need to build activity up slowly. However it is a resource for Bradford that the city will learn how to use.

The opening of City Park hopefully heralds a new confidence in the city. The successful completion of new offices for Provident Insurance on an adjacent site has secured 1,000 jobs in the city centre. Provident have made clear that they would have moved out of the centre had they not been convinced that the City Park would happen. The city has also won its bid to be UNESCO City of Film and is exploring the idea of a City Centre Growth Zone (as opposed to an enterprise zone) using rates relief to regenerate the city centre and… the next priority to kick start the Westfield scheme. City Park is therefore much more than another fancy city centre water feature it is potentially the point at which Bradford’s fortunes started to change.