Climax City

Random writing on cities

Leave a comment

The future is not what it was

Article first written for BD July 2017

The future is certainly nowhere near as exciting as it was 50 years ago when Milton Keynes was designated as a new town to the opening cords of Sgt. Pepper, with its central axis, Midsummer Boulevard, aligned to the summer solstice. A new town conceived as men walked on the moon, as Concord was taking its first flight and as Christiaan Barnard was undertaking the first heart transplant and making it feel like we might all live forever.

Milton Keynes

One of Helmut Jacoby’s drawings of Milton Keynes from the 1970s. This one shows the Agora in Wolverton

David Lock, long time advocate of Milton Keynes, reminded us of this context as part of a series of events organised by The Academy of Urbanism and the International New Towns Institute to celebrate Milton Keynes first fifty years. Hosted in a specially constructed venue in the heart of Centre MK, the town’s rather wonderful, listed shopping centre, the three days of events were like a Greek polis debating the city in public as members of said public peered through the open sides of the venue, even popping in to listen for a while on their way to John Lewis or Next.

The idea was to use the history of Milton Keynes as a lens to explore the way that we should plan for today’s equally exciting future. There were presentations from the Future Cities and Transport catapults and much talk of driverless cars and drones, the hyperloop and big data, and how these new technologies will change everything. There was less agreement about what this everything might be even less about how cities should respond. As Rory Hyde from the V&A said, ‘the future will be completely different to today and it will take us all by surprise’. The problem is that a city takes such a long time to build that almost any technology one can imagine will be obsolete by the time it is even half built. Milton Keynes was planned 20 years before the first email was sent, long before mobile phones or the internet. Its lazy grid of one kilometre squares was cast over the Buckinghamshire countryside to create an egalitarian city where everyone and everywhere was equally accessible, provided of course that they had a car, which of course everyone would (if not a personal helicopter like the one in the famous illustration of the city centre by Helmut Jacoby). However as Michele Provost of INTI pointed out, it is less egalitarian for the one in five of its households who don’t have a car.

It became clear from our discussions that our view of the future tends to say more about our current concerns than it does about any objective view of what the future might actually hold. The Future of SuburbIa project at MIT concluded that new transport technologies will mean the death of distance and therefore the reinvention of low-density suburbIa which, in their view, is much more civilised than elitist cities. The Town and Country Planning Association believe that the same trends means that a new programme of new towns or garden cities is necessary. Urbanists by contrast believe that new technology will reinforce the traditional city, making it more efficient and livable and reinforcing the importance of face-to-face contact. All three are projecting into the future their convictions about the way cities should be. As urbanists we should always be careful to ask whether the dense, loose-fit, mixed-use city that we promote is always the answer to urban problems. It is, of course as David Green from Perkins + Will pointed out, but it’s good to ask.

Just because we can’t predict the future doesn’t mean we can’t influence it. If we plan a city around the private car (with or without a driver) then we shouldn’t be surprised that that is what we get. If we plan a city around smart public transport, and walkability then we will end up with something very different. However this was not the main message to come out of the events in MK. For all the excitement about the future as we presently see it, there were precious few ideas about how cities should respond. What is depressing, looking at the history of Milton Keynes is the extent to which we have lost the confidence to plan at all. Our current crop of garden cities are small beer compared with the ambition of the original Milton Keynes planners. We may disagree with what they did but we can still admire their ambition and their belief that planning really could change the world.

1 Comment

An Urbanist in India

I have just returned from three weeks travelling in India with Hélène, visiting friends and trying to understand Indian cities. Even for a couple of cityphiles like ourselves India can be disconcerting – this is urbanism turned up to 11 and initially its more than disconcerting its overwhelming. This is a country where only a third of the population currently lives in cities. You can’t help wondering what is going to happen over the next fifty years as this is projected to rise to two thirds.

Our arrival didn’t aid the transition, landing in Delhi in the middle of the night and getting a taxi to a hotel on a seemingly deserted street lined with apparently vacant buildings, strewn with piles of rubbish, bodies sleeping on pavements and feral dogs roaming in packs. This was Saraswati Marg in the Karol Bagh neighbourhood and, those who know it by reputation, will realise the transformation that had taken place by the time we were awoken by a chanting Hare Krishna procession early the following morning.
               The bodies had woken up and the dogs had fallen asleep, the latter snoozing in pools of sunlight oblivious to the rush of feet and wheels around them.  Shops had erupted out of the ‘vacant’ buildings and every street corner had a vendor. The piles of rubbish had been swept away at some point in the four hours we had slept, and the street was filled with noise and traffic horns as tuc tucs fought with motorbikes, cycles, pedestrians, dogs and cows for the limited space. The dusty wasteland of the night before had become a backdrop to a bustling city street (the word bustling doesn’t even come close).
               On talking to our Indian friends Shruti and Rushahb Hemani that we visited later that week, we realised that their experience of a street such as this is not the same as ours as ours, being westerners. They can walk unmolested down a street such as this despite clearly being middle class. By contrast two middle-aged westerners are like a magnet to iron filings, at least that was our experience on that first morning. In the few minutes it took to buy a “chai” tea from a vendor we were approached by tuc tuc drivers and traders touting for business, people seeking to ‘befriend’ us or to act as guides, a person wanting their photo taken with us and most disturbingly a series of women begging with babies lolling in their arms. Having given 10 rupees (12p) to the the first few of these women, more kept appearing eventually banging on the windows as we drove away in our uber taxi. Ever wanted to feel like an over-privileged westerner? Welcome to India. The few hundred pounds that we had just changed at the airport was a fortune in a country where 78% of the population live on 20 rupees a day. Part of our problem on that first morning was the sign over our head, visible to everyone but ourselves, that said ‘we are new here and we have no idea what we are doing’. After a few weeks as we became old hands, the iron filing effect lessened but it never entirely went away.
               The taxi taking us to the architecture school drove through a bewildering scene of human ingenuity and misery. The traffic is a wonder in itself and we will return to a full description in a moment. What shocked us on that first morning were the hundreds of people sleeping along the road, the shanty town’s in the central reservation and under the elevated motorway, the pavements clogged with traders of all kinds, not just on busy streets but along dual carriageways and even on slip roads. After a few weeks you become normalised to this and it is in any case much more intense in Delhi and Mumbai than some of the smaller places that we visited. One of the students at the architecture school in Jaipur asked how they could stop every new piece of infrastructure becoming clogged with these traders. In response I described how a new housing estate with thousands of homes in the UK would struggle to support a single shop, be careful what you wish for.
               India is intensely urban, huge cities that are growing rapidly and struggling to cope. Staying with Shruti and reading the books on her shelf,  it becomes clear that this is a relatively new phenomenon. Gyan Prakash in his book Mumbai Fables, talks about the death of the cosmopolitan liberal city that Bombay was before it became Mumbai in 1995. The runaway population growth combined with deindustrialisation has undermined its working class culture and politics. As he writes: ‘Armies of poor migrants, slum dwellers, hawkers and petty entrepreneurs occupied the city’s streets, pavements and open spaces. Mumbai appeared under siege, imperilled by spacial mutations and occupation by uncivil masses, a wasteland of broken modern dreams’. India has not always been like this, it has always been intense, but the invasion of its cities by the rural poor is something new. In another book on Shruti’s shelf the architect Charles Correa writes about his plans for Navi Mumbai – the  extension to the city that he designed. He suggests that all nations experience a period of explosive urban growth at some point in their history. When it happened in England, we were able to ship off our surplus people to the colonies. In the US, New York was able to send its surplus people to the west to populate an empty continent. But India is urbanising with no safety valve – huge urban growth with inadequate infrastructure and limited resources. No wonder the cracks are showing. Many of the Indian people we spoke to, including Sahid our guide in Ahmedabad, bemoaned this lost India of only a few decades ago.
               The question of growth is therefore key in India. Over the next fifty years the projections are that the proportion of the population living in cities will rise from one third to three thirds. The troubles of Mumbai are therefore nothing to what the future might hold. One of the reasons for our visit was a three day workshop at the Aayojan School of Architecture in Jaipur to explore the growth of the city. Professor Parul Zaveri had argued on the first day of the workshop that the priority should be to reduce rural migration to the city by investing in the quality of life of the villages. Important as this undoubtedly is, there is little precedent across the world to show that the tide of rural/urban migration can be held back. My involvement was on the second day of the workshop that looked at how the city of Jaipur might plan for its population growth. Currently a city of around 3.6 Million, for much of the last 50 years its decadal growth rate has been around 50% although more recently this has dropped to just over 30% (which compares to decadal growth rates of 13-15% for high growth parts of the UK and 20% that we assumed in our Wolfson Essay – albeit for a much smaller place). We need to factor the average household size in India which at five persons is more than twice that in the UK. So at the workshop we assumed that Jaipur would double in size in the next thirty years and in doing so would need to build up to 1 million new homes. The planning authorities in Jaipur and Delhi are trying to plan this growth, linking it to investment in new metro and BRT lines through planned urban extensions. The problem is not so much an understanding of what is needed, but an ability to get ahead of the wave of urbanism that is taking place.
               Interestingly amongst all of this growth there is also urban decline. The centres of Indian cities, once the place where the rich merchants were to be found, are emptying out. People with money no longer wish to live in the cramped conditions found In the centre of Jaipur and Ahmedabad. They have decamped to the suburbs just as they have done in the West and for the same reasons. More than half of Ahmedabad’s exquisitely calved Havelis (courtyard houses built by rich merchants) are empty and under threat. I talked in my lectures in Delhi and Jaipur about the decline of British cities and was asked by students about whether it could ever happen in India. The rate of population migration to the cities makes drastic urban decline unlikely, but if the trend of suburbanisation and urban abandonment takes hold and spreads from the rich to the middle classes, then they may well see the hollowing out of cities as we have seen in Europe and the US.

The Haveli of Ahmedabad

               The gap between the rate of urban growth and the ability of cities to plan for this is manifest in the informal settlements and slums that can be found in every Indian city – often also around the edge. Travelling with Shruti out to the architecture school on the southern edge of Jaipur, we travelled along a main arterial road passing first a series of established slums built of bricks, cement and wrought iron. A few minutes later we passed a more recent settlement of wrought iron and tarpaulins and as we moved out of the city the slums became more recent and less substantial. Finally on the edge of the city we passed tented nomadic encampment of migrants who had come to work on the nearby construction sites but would move on at some point in the future. The Indian government classifies slums into three categories based on their construction and level of services and our journey illustrated how these relate to the transept of the city – the poorer slums being further out and less accessible. However all slums are precarious, as witnessed by a widening scheme that had recently taken place on our road which has sliced-off a strip of one of the more established slums. ‘Slice’ is the right word because the road engineers had literally cut through the settlement, through the middle of homes, even through rooms that were left exposed, often with furnishings and even occasionally occupants still in place. Yet at ground level the residents and traders were already at work creating a new commercial frontage to tap the passing trade. Self-regenerating urbanism at its most visceral.
               Standing on the Chulgiri Jain Temple on a hilltop that was once the eastern edge of Jaipur we could see the city spreading onto the plain beyond us. The expanding city stretched almost to the horizon, most of it unplanned. Indeed there were plenty of neighbourhoods that were well-establish, solidly-built and reasonably affluent, that shared the same morphology as the slums. This is part of the argument that Shruti and I are trying to make with our Climax City book. Without wanting to romanticise slums the suggestion is that their form is essentially the same as the beautiful old cities that we saw elsewhere, such as the Pols of Ahmedabad or perhaps more obviously in Jodhpur, where the medieval core of the city is ancient but where most of the buildings are of modern blockwork construction. Our argument is that slums are a form of proto-urbanism that, given time, a little money, basic services and security, will grow into something very similar to the blue city of Jodhpur or to Ahmedabad’s old town (which is being considered as a World Heritage Site). It is an argument that academics have worried about in the U.K. perhaps due to the romanticising slums issue. Indian academics by contrast were much more supportive and indeed saw it almost as a statement of the obvious.

The Blue City of Johdpur

               On that first morning we visited the School of Architecture and Planning in Delhi. That afternoon we met with friends Swarup Dhar, Anindya Ghosh and Deepika Saxena, and were taken to see the sights and to eat in a restaurant. You soon realise that you can live in these cities in a way that it largely insulated from the riotous life of the street. Even travelling in a Tuc Tuc feels as though the chaos all around you is being played out as a travelogue on a particularly high definition screen (with sound and smells). Even our liberal friends become inured to the sights around them as did we after a few weeks. The tiny children, grey with dust squatting next to a pile of rubbish or sleeping with feral dogs on a traffic island. The begger with no legs pushing himself on a wooden platform through traffic and of course the ubiquitous sad women with unconscious babies. After a week, maybe two, you stop being quite so shocked and, if you live there, you stop seeing them altogether, which is, if anything, more disturbing. This is formalised through the caste system, even though pretty much everyone we met opposed it. It creates that vital ingredient for indifference, the idea that the people who suffer are different to us, and that somehow their fate is inevitable.
               And so to the traffic. I sometime use a film of London traffic in my presentations. It was filmed in 1903 and shows a chaotic street of horse drawn carts and omnibuses, pedestrians and horse riders going in all directions at the same time yet somehow not colliding. I used to say that it was a chaotic system regulated by eye contact, something that we are trying to recreate in Europe through the Shared Space movement. Indian roads are just like this, there are traffic regulations and even occasionally traffic cops, but no one pays them any heed. People drive the wrong way around roundabouts, the slow lane on motorways runs in both directions and traffic turning right out of a side street does so without stopping even on the busiest roads. Then there are the pavements which are impassible because of all of the hawkers so that pedestrians wander unconcerned amongst the traffic along with dogs and of course cows. And everyone blows their horn, all the time, not in anger but to say ‘I’m here!’ – indeed most lorries have ‘please horn’ painted behind them for anyone wishing to overtake.
               It is not just eye contact that regulates this system, although there is a lot of that. It is the way that every driver works on the assumption that everyone else on the road is likely to turn into their path at any moment and thinks that this is just fine. Even in the fast lane of a motorway you will at some point encounter a cow! By contrast in Europe we drive on the roads in the knowledge that the highway is exclusively ours, something reflected in our speed and the span of our attention. The death toll on Indian roads is of course astronomic (130 deaths a year per 1000 vehicles compared to 4.5 in the U.K.). This is not helped by the numbers of people who can be crammed into each vehicle (we saw 10 people plus the driver in a tuc tuc and a family of four on a motor scooter). But we never saw even a minor accident and could only admire the real-time spatial awareness of the drivers.
               Like China, this traffic is a recent consequence of urban growth. Twenty years ago there was only a few of models of car on Indian roads – the Hindustan Ambassador (a version of the Morris Oxford) and the Fiat 1100, both made under licence by Indian companies. There were also licensed versions of the Royal Enfield motorbike and various versions of Italian Scooters and three wheelers (the tuc tucs). But most people traveled on foot, by cart or by pedal power.  Since then traffic has grown hugely and everyone has become mechanised, yet they still drive as if they were under pedal power. It is a remarkably efficient use of road space and everything flows – we only experienced one real traffic jam. But presumably it can’t continue, the roads can’t become any busier and, as cities expand, it will just become untenable to move around.  If Indian cities are to continue growing they need to invest in public transport as indeed many are doing. Both Delhi and Jaipur are investing in new metro lines and BRT services but the planners we spoke to worried that they wouldn’t be cheap enough to encourage people off their scooters.
               India’s traffic is a good metaphor for how the country operates – chaotic and unregulated, on the brink of collapse but working remarkably efficiently. It is tempting to say that this is what Dickensian London must have been like, but that would be to imply that India is 150 years behind us in terms of its development which would be wrong. India has chosen a different path, one which is both brutal and cruel as well as exciting and endlessly fascinating. In many ways it is a pure unregulated capitalist economy with huge disparities of wealth. But it is a capitalism of small businesses, there are no supermarkets here and precious few chain stores. Food is bought at the market and the needs of life are met through trade – everyone is buying and selling, doing deals, making contacts and calling in favours from their cousin’s second cousin. When Helene bought a saree under the guidance of Shruti’s mum Ila, she bought the material from one shop, the petticoat and blouse from another, and then used a local tailor to make it up, three businesses, perhaps ten jobs supported.
               While we were there, Prime minister Modi announced that the 500 and 1000 rupee notes were no longer legal tender (with immediate effect) and that all banks would close for two days. Problem enough for western tourists with their money in 1000 rupee notes, but more so for those millions of small businesses who’s savings are held in cash. They will get their money when they take their notes to the bank, once they have answered questions about where it came from and what tax has been paid. The aim is to make this economy where 80% of transactions are in cash and where the untaxed black economy accounts for a quarter of GDP) into one where all large transactions go through a bank account. The feeling on the street (well from our waiter) is that it is necessary change.
               Like the traffic, the economy is a system that needs to change, a little more regulation, a little more tax collected, a little less capitalism red in tooth and claw. But like the traffic you hope that this can be done without losing the exuberant urbanism of this huge country. This is not a less developed country but one that has chosen a different form of development. The consequences of its economy – like the carnage on the road – are horrific in many ways, but we find ourselves thinking that if we are going to have capitalism, then we should maybe try to combine the small business economy of India with the safety nets of Europe – which is what people assumed that Modi is trying to do.
               This is a country of huge potential and the way that it answers these questions will affect all of us. As it embarks on a great phase of urbanisation in the coming decades it needs to find a way of expanding its cities, regulating its traffic and reforming its economy. The presentation I gave in Delhi and Jaipur was called ‘How the U.K. Messed up its cities and how India might avoid doing the same’. However I was stronger on the ‘what not to do’ than on suggested solutions. The hope is that reform happens without destroying the vitality that makes Indian cities so compelling (and disconcerting).

Leave a comment

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.

20151105 Offenbach Block Typology_V5

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.

20151105 Northern Quarter Block Typology_V1

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.

2015-11-29 13.58.44

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

2015-11-28 16.29.11

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)  

2015-11-29 20.16.01

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!

1 Comment

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?

1 Comment

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.

UK - Bradford - Little Germany - Festival

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.

UK - Bradford - Little Germany - red psychopolis

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


1 Comment

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.

1 Comment

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.

URBED - Brighton model 2

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.

Brighton new england quarter oct 2011 026

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.