Climax City

Random writing on cities


1 Comment

URBED at 40 – What we learned from Hulme

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

IMG_5121

The Homes for Change scheme

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

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

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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

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

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

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

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

 


Leave a comment

From Industrial Estates to Innovation Districts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 


Leave a comment

URBAN DESIGN: Are we doing it wrong?

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

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

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

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

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

Lost in translation

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

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

Urban Design are we doing it wrong

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

What’s to be done?

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

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

First published Urban Design Quarterly Summer 2015


1 Comment

Looking and Seeing: Building Coventry

Last year I was fortunate to be an artist in residence for a week, something that planners don’t often get to do. This was part of The Arcadia programme in Coventry, curated by Laura Elliott and Michael Mayhew of Artspace. The outputs from the week have been published as a dossier based on the following text….

/ SOMETHING A BIT MORE MODERN

Town PlanningIn 1940 the town planner Thomas Sharp was commissioned by Pelican books to produce a book simply called ‘Town Planning’. The aim of the Pelican imprint – which was owned by Penguin – was to ‘inform rather than entertain’ by exploring important issues of the day. ‘Town Planning’ sold more than 250,000 copies during the war, tapping into the concerns, of a significant number of people who shared its belief that; ‘town planning is an attempt to formulate the principles that should guide us in creating a civilised background for human life’. In the year his book was published Sharp visited the Coventry of Tomorrow exhibition. This had been arranged by Coventry’s new City Architect and Town Planner Donald Gibson and showed models of what might be if the city’s medieval city centre were to be replaced with something a bit more modern. The people were fascinated and in just a week the exhibition attracted 5,000 visitors.

Its hard to imagine any book or exhibition on town planning today exciting such public interest, indeed its difficult to reconcile the idea of town planning and ‘a civilised background to human life’ being linked in the same sentence. Yet the Coventry that was eventually built in the ten years after the war is one of the most complete built examples of this belief in the power of planning. It is one of a handful of cities where circumstances conspired to allow the future to be built in glass and Portland Stone (concrete would come later).

/LOOKING AND SEEING

The Arcadia programme in Coventry, curated by Laura Elliott and Michael Mayhew from June 2014 to 2016 is an exploration of these issues. Based in a vacant shop unit in the City Arcade, the project involves a series of commissions to allow artists to explore Coventry, its history and its people’s relationship with the city centre. This comes at a time when proposals are being developed for the redevelopment of the City Arcade and its surroundings. The plans by the City Council also aim to create a more ‘modern’ retail environment, raising questions about the extent to which we should value the Coventry that will be lost if this development proceeds.

Cov 2K Wider planThe plan of Coventry from 1912 showing the original medieval structure of its centre

Looking and Seeing was the second of the Arcadia residencies and sought to answer this question by exploring the scale of the physical change that was wrought in Coventry after the war. Working with students from the city’s new architectural school, the Looking and Seeing project built a 4m square model of pre-war Coventry using terracotta-coloured plasticine. Based on the 1912 plan, the model that emerged was of a fine-grained medieval city dominated by three spires, like many of the historic cities that we venerate today.

/THE URGE TO REFORM

Cov Bomb damage
Model produced by the planning department after the war showing what was left of the ‘central area after enemy action

A fine medieval city was not how the people of Coventry saw it at the time. In the interwar years Coventry had expanded massively as it became a centre for car and motorcycle manufacture. Its city centre was seen as increasingly inadequate for this expanding affluent population. It was dirty and congested and in 1938 the Labour Council appointed the man that they thought could do something about this. Donald Gibson started by distributing copies of Lewis Mumford’s book ‘The Culture of Cities’ to councillors to get everyone on the same page and then set about replanning the city centre and building the model that would be displayed in the 1940 exhibition.

The first bombing of Coventry took place less than a month after the exhibition closed. However the most devastating raid took place on 14th November that same year when 500 aircraft were sent to destroy Coventry’s factories that had been turned over to munitions production. These factories and workshops were embedded within the medieval city, the Triumph Cycle Works stood on the site next to the Cathedral. The mix of high explosives and incendiary bombs therefore destroyed not just the factories but much of the centre, including the cathedral.

Three weeks later, Donald Gibson presenting a paper at the Royal Society of Arts in London said the following:

“I would like to add a few words on the significance of the recent bombing of Coventry. Many citizens had despaired of the possibility of having a dignified and fitting city centre. High land values, the delays involved by town planning legislation, together with a lack of plan for the central area made it seem impossible. Now, in a night, all this is changed. Over a year and a half ago I prepared a civic centre scheme which, grouped round the two noble medieval churches, embodied all the public buildings in one ordered conception, at the same time suggesting a central park space which is so badly needed. In one night the site is largely cleared ready for this regeneration. It rests but with the fortunes of war and the desires of a great people, to see it accomplished”.

Model
This is a later model of Coventry built in 1958. The darker buildings are those that had already been built at that time

So back in the City Arcade with the architecture students, we removed the buildings that had been destroyed in the blitz from our plasticine model. Traumatic as this was, there were a surprising number of buildings remaining. These were to be removed by the planners in the reconstruction that followed. So we started to disassemble the model ripping away the 1912 plan on which the plasticine had been placed. Beneath was the modern-day plan of Coventry and using this, we started to build the Coventry of today in dark grey plasticine.

This new Coventry emerged like an alien from the chest of the pre-war city. As it expanded the medieval city was tossed aside to accumulate in drifts of terracotta plasticine around the edges of the room. A number of students worried that we had got the scale wrong as the new grey plasticine buildings towered over their medieval predecessors. We continued to expand the new Coventry starting in Broadgate and working our way along the Precinct and Market Street. The sequence of our construction was not historically accurate, that would have been too complicated. While one team of students worked on the Arcade and market another group built the civic quarter while others built the university (which of course came much later). Then the ring road was inserted in sections and the development swept onwards to encompass the residential redevelopment of the inner suburbs. The results were photographed and turned into a stop-motion film showing the transformation of the city.

The Figure Ground Plan of Coventry today. This is like an X Ray of the city, showing its structure and particularly the sharp contrast between the density of its centre and the lower density suburbs on the other side of the moat created by its ring road.
The Figure Ground Plan of Coventry today. This is like an X Ray of the city, showing its structure and particularly the sharp contrast between the density of its centre and the lower density suburbs on the other side of the moat created by its ring road.

The students and members of the public – including the local BBC Radio station – who witnessed this transformation were horrified. How could we have done this to such a beautiful city? This of course was unfair, the terracotta plasticine gave an inaccurate impression of the pre-war city which was in reality pretty shabby and dysfunctional. The dark grey planticine similarly demonised the new Coventry and was particularly inappropriate since in reality many of the buildings were gleaming white Portland stone.  In the 1940s the people of Coventry who visited the exhibition certainly wouldn’t have been horrified. They were fully bought-in and signed-up to the notion that they should sweep away the past and, together with the Welfare State and the National Health Service, should build a better, fairer more socialist Britain.

2014-10-17 14.49.12Students from Coventry’s Architecture school nearing the completion of the plasticine model of the new city emerging from the remains of original medieval city.

/THEORY and PRACTICE

Coventry was the embodiment of that future and its anointment as one of the leading modernist cities came in 1951 with the 8th Congrès International d’Architecture Moderne. Founded in 1928 by the architect Le Corbusier, CIAM as it was known, had been responsible for laying the intellectual foundations of modern architecture and town planning. The 8th Congress was held, for some reason, in the sleepy village of Hoddleston in Hertfordshire, but the star of the show was Coventry. The theme for the congress was ‘The Heart of the City’ and the focus for the discussions was town and city centres. This was at a time when many city centres still lay in ruins following wartime bombing. In Germany the response had been to painstakingly reconstruct the city as it had been. In England it was an opportunity to put into practice all the theories and ideals that had dominated the architectural debate in the interwar years. It is no wonder that CIAM came to England. The star turn was Donald Gibson who told delegates that his plans represented ‘the first time that a central area (had been) analysed in terms of its main uses and a plan drawn up which retained only those necessary to its correct functioning’. Coventry was the future, a functional efficient town centre in which the traffic flowed, the air was clean and which civilisation could flourish. Not that it quite worked out that way.

LaS CoverThe title of the residency ‘Looking and Seeing’ was inspired by a series of school text books by Kurt Rowland published in the 1960s. The four books in the series are about patterns and shape; in nature, in art and, in the final book, in the ‘Shape of Towns’. There is something about the optimism of this fourth book on towns, written at a point when many of the early modernist projects had been completed, but before they had fallen out of public favour. It features Coventry only fleetingly, concentrating mainly on the new towns, but the book’s message is particularly useful in trying to understand the planners who build Coventry.

The structure of Kurt Rowland’s book spans the history of towns from the earliest civilisations through the Renaissance to the present day. The modernist city that it describes in its latter sections with its towers and underpasses, monorails and flyovers is set in stark contrast to the dirty, congested run-down industrial cities that it was to replace. However the modern city is not seen as a new invention, but rather a continuation of centuries-old traditions of city planning that had been interrupted by the Industrial Revolution. This is why these cities of the future still included piazzas and plazas, arcades, and squares. Their inspiration was Gordon Cullen who’s book ‘Townscape’ is still revered by urban designers today. We forget however that the ‘Townscape movement’ of the 1960s and 70s, championed by the architecture critic Ian Nairn in the pages of the Architectural Review, inspired many of the modernist planning schemes that seem to be the antithesis of what we now consider to be urban design.  It is a salutatory lesson in how the best of intentions do not always create the best of places.

The people of Coventry today are certainly not particularly enamoured with the modernist city that they have inherited. The members of the Coventry Society that we met on the second evening of the residency may enthuse about the boldness of Coventry’s buildings and planning, but the public are less keen. It is true that the city centre has not aged particularly well. However even without the staining, the peeling paint and pigeon droppings, the modernist notions of planning on which Coventry was built have not worked as their designers intended. Too many roads, too many unwelcoming underpasses, too many windswept plazas and split level public spaces that don’t quite work. The public today almost certainly supports the council’s plans for a new retail scheme with a covered mall and a larger range of shops. This of course speaks volumes about the change in society’s values over the last 60 years. But are the public today any more likely to be correct today than they were back then?

Cov - Steph bOne of the exercises that we set for the students as part of Looking and Seeing was to try and navigate the city centre today using 1912 plan. Walking the city centre on a bright morning in early autumn, some started to re-evaluate the city centre. Building the plasticine model helped them to understand the intent of its designers: The interconnected series of spaces. The serial progression though tightly enclosed routes that open to reveal squares and vistas. The three towers terminating the views each way along Market Street and the Upper Precinct with the view through the Lower Precinct focussing on the spire of the cathedral. The reliefs cut deeply into in situ concrete panels or cast in bronze. In the right light you could see what it was supposed to be like, to understand how beautiful it could have been, maybe still is.

/BAD OR JUST MISUNDERSTOOD?

As we built the plasticine Coventry we started to ask whether its planners were misguided or whether their ideas were sound but poorly executed? Maybe they were onto something and we haven’t quite recognised the value of what they created, yet. Maybe in years to come when Coventry city centre has become a sanitised retail clone town, we will regret having destroyed the bold city centre created after the war.  It is hard to credit now, but as late as the 1970s the general feeling in architectural and planning circles was that Victorian architecture was of little worth. It was seen as crass, pastiche lacking in authenticity and generally not worth preserving. The point being that today we feel the same way about modernist architecture and particularly modernist town planning. Just as today we struggle to understand how previous generations failed to appreciate Victorian buildings, so future generations might feel the same about our attitude to modernism.

Cov - Cat bThe conclusion was that Coventry is not perhaps a model for  how city centres should be planned. We wouldn’t suggest that the redevelopment of other city centres should emulate its design. However that does not mean that it is without qualities, or indeed quality. It is possibly the best, most completely realised example of modernist city centre design and remains largely intact. Rather than sweep it away, it deserves a scheme that cleans it up and takes it back to something near to Donald Gibson’s original vision. If this were to happen it wouldn’t be perfect but it would be a unique reminder of a more optimistic time that the people of Coventry may even come to love one day.


Leave a comment

Should we loosen our green belts?

On 13th November 2013, I took part in a debate organised by Liverpool University in its ‘Policy Provocations’ series. The question was should we loosen our green belts? This is the text of my initial five minute statement….

Back in 1998 URBED wrote a report for Friends of the Earth. It was published exactly a hundred years after Ebenezer Howard published the first edition of his book. This was later to be republished as ‘Garden Cities of Tomorrow’ but the first edition had a more radical title; ‘Tomorrow: A peaceful path to real reform’. A combination of hubris and cheek caused us to call our report Tomorrow: A peaceful path to urban reform, something that really annoyed the Town and Country Planning Association.

However what upset them more was the subtitle – The feasibility of accommodating 75% of new homes in urban areas’. At the time the TCPA were not alone in believing that ‘forcing’ people to live in cities almost amounted to a breach of their human rights. Government policy at the time was that 60% of new homes should be built on brownfield land within urban areas (a target that had almost been met when we were working on our report). We forget that this policy was introduced by a Conservative Minister, John Selwyn-Gummer and opposed by his then Labour shadow Nick Raynsford. Labour were worried about housing being foisted on ‘their’ people in cities leading to town cramming – a response that may have made some sense when viewed from inner London but made none whatsoever in cities like Liverpool that had lost half of its population and was suffering terribly as a consequence.

It will come as no surprise to hear that our report for FoE did find that it was possible to accommodate 75% of housing growth in urban areas. Indeed soon after we finished it we got a call from Government to help them write a methodology based on our research to allow local authorities to measure the capacity of their urban areas.

Ten years later we looked again at the figures and found that in 2007, the year before the credit crunch, the percentage of housing built in urban areas had in fact exceeded 75% while the density of new housing had increased from 23 to 43 units per hectare. What is more, the capacity of urban areas to absorb new housing, far from being used up as had been predicted, seemed almost to be a renewable resource. For every acre brownfield land developed another had been created. If people say this evening that there is not capacity within Liverpool to built the homes it needs they are wrong. Having been written off as radicals and extremists at the time of the Tomorrow report we felt vindicated.

There is however a ‘but’. While housing output rose through the 2000s peaking at just below 220,000 homes in 2007 this was still less than the country needed. What is more, in that year for the first time the number of apartments built exceeded the number of homes. In many respects this was a good thing and heralded an age of urban living that has transformed our city centres. However it also had a dark side as crap, buy-to-let units were built as investments and never actually to be lived-in.  Policy had effectively choked-off Greenfield housing, forcing housebuilders into the uncertain territory of urban renewal, public private partnership and brownfield land – which they weren’t comfortable with, was more difficult and made less profit. So they focussed their efforts on city centre apartments contributing to the housing bubble. It is therefore no surprise that the crash in the apartment market has seen the number of new homes plummet to under 120,000 last year.

We need to do something about this and the easy option is to loosen the green belt. Give housebuilders what they want, unleash the constraints, and housing numbers will rise. However before we do that let us think for a moment.  The impact of the policies of the 2000s on cities like Liverpool has been transformative. There remains much to be done, but the city is far more lively, busy and successful that it was when all of its new housing was being built in its far-flung suburbs. A radical loosening of green belt policy puts all of this at risk. We will need to consider the planned development of greenfield land, (even our radical Tomorrow report conceded this) but this needs to happen alongside moves to bring back the apartment market in a more considered way and to maintain levels of brownfield building within cities.

When we were working on the Tomorrow report we had arguments with Friends of the Earth about the loss of countryside. To us it wasn’t the main issue. Only around 11% of England’s land area is urbanised and much of the land on the periphery of cities is pretty poor quality. Our concern about loosening the greenbelt is its impact on cities and their sustainability. Allow cities to sprawl and their urban cores will decline, allow this to go unchecked and you risk ending up like Detroit. You risk ending up with a car dependent society, based in sole-less suburbs much as we did at the end of the 1980s. My fear is that the careful balancing act required is beyond policy-makers and that a knee-jerk response to the housing numbers risks undermine the renaissance of our cities.


Leave a comment

Feeling safe

IMG_5121

A few years ago I was back at my old university to give a talk to students. afterwards one of the lectures took me to task about what he saw as a contradiction in my argument. On the one hand I had railed against gated communities, on the other I had used the Homes for Change scheme in Hulme (that I had been involved in developing) as a good example of the new urbanism. But surely Homes for Change is a gated community, he argued – it is built around a courtyard (pictured above), most of the residents enter their flats through the courtyard and… the courtyard is gated! What did he know? He was clearly one of those relics that had spent a career teaching a set of principles for the design of new towns, housing estates etc… that, one by one, were being challenged by new urbanists. However the real problem was that he was right – Homes for Change is undeniably gated – it’s just that some forms of gated community damage urban vitality and some don’t.

The irony is going to be lost on the residents of certain inner city housing estates but, feeling safe was one of the original motives for people coming together in urban areas. There is safety in numbers, whether it be villagers coming together behind a stockade to protect themselves from wild beasts or the citizens of walled towns and bastions created to repel marauding armies. Throughout human history walls have provided protection against bad spirits, wild animals, outlaws, raiding parties, invading armies, or even just those sods in the next village who have been harbouring a grudge ever since… well let’s not go into that again. The point is that urban life, community, commerce – civilisation itself indeed, took place within the walls, protected from the wilderness, lawlessness and mayhem beyond their protection. Urban life was the thing being protected rather than the thing to be protected from.

However the threat is not always external, even the smallest settlement has its criminals. Nevertheless in a society where everyone knows each other, the threat is containable. As cities grew it became clear that urban life was not always so benign and that not all the threats were beyond the walls. Indeed if you were rich and powerful you may have cause to be fearful of the whole population if they became the angry mob. So the defensive lines were redrawn, the wall around the city remained to protect against external threats but individuals also had to create new defensive enclosures to protect themselves from the enemy within.

This gave rise to various urban forms. The ruling elite would retreat to castles or walled cities within the city – like the Kremlin in Moscow, the Forbidden City in Beijing or the Green Zone in modern day Baghdad. In Southern Europe merchants would build palazzos – fortified town houses built around an internal courtyard with only small barred windows into the street. The apartment block is another defensible form with its single entrance guarded by a concierge, or in cheaper blocks by a entry com system.

However the most common type of defensible urban form is the urban block with its public outer face and its private interior. This, by the way, is the sort of gated community that Homes for Change is. All of the ground floor units in Homes for Change have doors onto the public streets that define the four faces of the block (including commercial units on the high street). The courtyard forms the private interior of the block and it rightly barred to everyone but the residents. This is an urban form that is as old as cities and is the complete opposite of the modern gated communities that I was having a go at in my talk. As urban areas grew, these defensive urban forms became very efficient at accommodating large numbers of strangers in relatively small places. People could live safely surrounded by people who were not part of their family or close knit community, people who they didn’t know and indeed people who could be harbouring bad intentions towards them.

Zigmut Bauman in a lecture he gave at Sheffield School of Architecture defined cities as ‘places where strangers live together without stopping being strangers’. His view as a sociologist (which I’m not sure I would agree with as an urbanists) is that this is  something that humans are not very good at, creating a sense of perpetual anxiety or ‘mixophilia’. He goes on to say however that humans derive great benefit from living in cities and so have developed coping strategies. The city walls have been drawn every tighter until now every household has its own.

However It is not just a case of being able to retreat behind the palazzo walls, into the safe heart of the block or your fortified home. As the citizens of New York in the 1970s found out or indeed the present day residents of certain South American mega cities, there is no point being safe indoors if you are in danger as soon as you step onto the street. In some South American cities affluent residents commute from their apartment or gated villa to their office building via rooftop helipads never setting foot on the street. The role of defensible urban forms should not therefore just be to protect their own residents but to contribute to making the rest of the city safer. The point about the urban block is that it makes a clear definition between private and public space and it makes both safer. The former is made safer by being inaccessible to strangers the latter in quite the opposite way by being busy, over-looked and looked-after.

Bauman makes a similar distinction if in slightly less positive terms. He suggests that urban communities have generally adopted two strategies to keep themselves safe – the ‘panopticon’ and the ‘banoptican’ both of which he considers to be bad ideas.

The panopticon is based on the ideas of Bentham, the Victorian reformer who created prisons with radiating wings so that the inmates always felt themselves to be observed from the central control tower. In an urban setting the idea is that the street will be sanitised by exposure to the potential stare of authority. The boulevards of Paris were cut through the winding alleyways of the medieval city in the belief that crime and immorality thrived out of sight, around corners and in the shadows. The boulevards were designed to civilise the city to quell the crowd and to make it easier to police. Today’s equivalent, of course, is CCTV and the sense that in the modern city you are always potentially being watched.

The opposite of this is the ‘banoptican’ in which security is maintained through rules and barriers. These can be physical measures such as walls and gates protecting the interior of urban blocks. However more likely in the modern world the gates will be at the entrance to the housing estate, business park or shopping centre and the aim will be to keep out the ‘wrong’ sort of people. Thus the public realm becomes privatised and controlled as Anna Minton has described in her book Ground Control. The problem this causes is, as Bauman points out, that social groups increasingly mix only with people like themselves, losing their ability to live within a diverse society and increasing their level of fear thus fuelling a vicious circle in which they feel the need for more protection and control.

Bauman’s view is that the pan and ban opticans are as bad as each other and argues for a new form of informal, collaborative urban society with negotiated rules of behaviour, which would be lovely, but is perhaps where his argument is slightly weaker. We (URBED) spent some time last year collaborating with a well known Swedish architect on a masterplan in London. Sweden is perhaps as close as we can hope to get to an informal collaborative urban society and it was interesting how it influenced the way that the architects approached urbanism. They were interested in the idea of creating semi-private space within urban blocks that could provide secondary pedestrian routes through the neighbourhood. Indeed visiting schemes in Stockholm these areas work very well. However in the context of London the idea that there be any ambiguity about the status of space within the centre of urban blocks was, in our view quite literally asking for trouble.

Until the day when all cities are as civilised as Stockholm we need to find ways of making cities safe for everyone. The panopticon described by Bauman seems almost to be a police state. However the underlying principle that people will not do bad things if they feel that they are being watched holds true. The watchers don’t need to be the state, the effect is even more powerful if they are fellow citizens. Indeed this is how the self-organising rules of behaviour are negotiated and enforced. Many of the winding alleyways of Paris such as in The Marais or the Latin Quarter feel perfectly safe despite being narrow and winding. This is because they are lined with shops and cafes and thronged with people. This is not to say that danger may still lurk  down the deserted back streets and byways, however it does suggest that what sanitises urban areas is people and activity whether crowded into a narrow street or promenading on a boulevard.

This is the core principle of urban safety. Strangers in cities are inevitable. However most of them are not a threat, quite the opposite, they are the people who will potentially intervene to stop or report wrong-doing. Many of them of course will be the ‘walk on the other side of the road and pretend not to have noticed’ types, but that is not the point, the ne’er-do-wells will not be sure. The problem with many modern forms of crime prevention is that they are designed to exclude strangers. The suburban community, gated or not, is designed to welcome only its residents. This might make it easier to spot people up to no good but it also means that there are fewer people to do the spotting.

This may work well enough in middle-class suburbs with low levels of crime. However in urban areas it doesn’t work on a number of levels. At the most basic there is a danger that it doesn’t even make the estate safer  – in defining all space as private and relying on the gate for security, the community is at greater risk if the gate is compromised because there will be fewer people to witness and deter crime. At the next level the lack of contact with people from different social groups, as Bauman points out, increases anxiety and the perceived need for even more protection. Finally these gated communities are not fulfilling their responsibilities as citizens to contribute to the security of the wider city. The inward-looking, gated estates turn their backs on the surrounding streets making them more attractive to criminals

Having said that, there is no problem with gates. The role of the urban environment it to create a clear distinction between public and private space. The job of the urban block is both to create the secure private interior and the lively surveilled external streets. The density of the block, the number of doors and windows, the active used on the ground floor all can help to make the surrounding streets safe through surveillance. At the same time Mr. Lecturer, the interior of the block – like that in Homes for Change should be gated and secure. The irony is that, when you get this right, even in a high crime area like Hulme, then the gates can be left open as our Swedish friends were advocating. The level of overlooking and stewardship in Homes for Change is such that the gates aren’t always needed, but of course it is still important that they are there just in case they are.


3 Comments

Wasn’t built in a day

Which of course it wasn’t, at least not quite. The task of building, let alone rebuilding the whole of Manchester in plasticine in 12 hours was always going to be a challenge even with the help of more than 40 architecture students from Manchester School of Architecture. However we did build a huge model and the process did reveal some truths about how cities are built through collaborative action and how futile it is to pretend that any one person can control the process.

‘Wasn’t built in a day’ was a A project to make and re-make Manchester in 12 hours. This was part of a project called Urban Future, Human Future that evolved from a series of discussions between Mike Mayhew (artist), Stefan White (architect and academic), Jenny Savage (artist), Steve Potter (psycologist and academic) and myself. The discussions took place under the umbrella of the wider 12.12.12 Humanity project facilitated by Mike Mayhew included a series of activities across Manchester on 12th December 2012.

‘Wasn’t built in a day’ was not an urban design exercise, an urban strategy session or a public consultation. The aim was not to model a utopian future for the city, such futures are always doomed to failure (or worse still to being taken seriously). The model instead sought to explore what it means to be human and how we as humans collaborate with each other at the scale of the city.

Victor Hugo described the city as a ‘self made tapestry’ created from ‘successive evaporations of human society’. If the city as an artefact is a physical representation of human relationships, then the shape of the city, its beauty or ugliness, might say something about the society that it houses. Are the car-based, out-of town, business-park and suburban estate cities of the modern age representations of the atomised society in which we live in which the largest unit of human interaction is the ‘hard working family’? On the other hand might the historic cities that we love to visit say something about a time when units of human interaction as communities also existed at the scale of the neighbourhood, town and city?

If this is true there must be a process by which the nature of human society shapes the city in which it lives. We assume, because cities are human constructs, that they have been designed. The professions of architecture, planning and urban design are based on this idea. There is however another way of looking at cities; as places that have grown. As soon as you introduce the idea of growth you open up the field of complexity theory, in which a simple set of rules over a long period of time can create hugely complex patterns and shapes. This further links to the idea of emergence in which order starts to resolve out of this complexity – a theory that makes the city the human equivalent of the termite mound or ant colony.

2012-12-12 19.46.40 HDR

‘Wasn’t built in a day’ was an attempt to explore this process. The model was built over twelve hours, the first six concentrating on building the city as it is today, and the second half looking at how it could change. Built at a scale of 1:1250 the model was around 7m square and, as we have said, was built out of plasticine (in fact it was built out of Newplast, which is what we all think of as plasticine even if the lovely people at New Clay Products, who sponsored the event, no longer own the trade mark). At this scale a single strip of Newplast is the equivalent of a two storey building and the model uses grey for the existing buildings and red for the interventions. Many of the architecture students had been working with local communities across the city on masterplans for their neighbourhoods, which they transposed onto the model in the second part of the exercise. You might have supposed that this would have imposed some order on the chaotic model of the existing city – if so you would have been wrong.

At URBED we use Newplast all the time in our work. For more than ten years we ran training courses for the Glasshouse Foundation and the National Tenants Resource Centre in Chester. Local community groups who were facing the prospect of their estate being redeveloped would come on a three-day residential course and we would teach them masterplanning. The aim was for them to understand the process and the concepts of urban design so that they were better equipped to negotiate with architects working on the masterplan for their estate. The third day of the course was spent building a Newplast masterplan of their estate. We would have people from up to six estates on each of these courses and, over the years, have overseen the making of around 100 of these models. In most cases something happened at the moment when we brought out the Newplast – something we came to call the ‘plasticine moment’ (with scant regard for New Clay’s trademark). The smell of the clay as we unwrapped the packets would transport people back to their childhoods. Battle-hardened council tenants from some of the country’s roughest inner city estates would start to… there’s no other word for it… play.

A Design for Change workshop in Anfield, Liverpool

A Design for Change workshop in Anfield, Liverpool

The process of building a model with Newplast is very collaborative. There is no one person holding the pen as happens when you draw a plan and as a result everyone feels able to get involved. The clay is malleable and movable, you can try things out and scrunch them up if they don’t work, you can make suggestions, discuss, amend and agree. We have had groups of tenants of all ages working along side their housing and planning officer, local councillor, vicar and sometimes even occasionally their architect, all pitching in to create a masterplan for their estate (even if their contribution is just confined to modelling a giant Godzilla to tower over the local park).

So successful was this process that we started to use it for consultation rather than just as a training tool. The first time we did so, in the Wernerth neighbourhood of Oldham, it was with some trepidation. We worried that local people would see it as too frivolous an exercise for the serious business of creating a plan for a neighbourhood that would involve homes being demolished. But we needn’t have worried, the ‘plasticine moment’ had the same effect and somehow the process of play created exactly the right atmosphere to deal with the serious issues we needed to address. Since that time we have run the ‘Design for Change’ process (as we call it) all over the country and there are only two occasions where it has not worked: East Ketley in Telford and Kirkolt in Rochdale – but those are stories for another day.

A masterplan for Acton in West London

A masterplan for Acton in West London

The thing about the ‘Design for Change’ process is that the masterplans that emerge are really good – sometimes so good that they cause us urban designers to question what we actually bring to the process. If we can teach a group of local people with no professional training to produce plans this competent in just three days then what value our own professional training? Many times we have been able to photograph the model and transcribe it directly onto a masterplanning drawing. The irony is that, easy as these local people seem to find masterplanning, it is something that still eludes many architects. It is amazing how talented creative architects can completely miss the point when working on a masterplan. They overcomplicate things, tie themselves in knots and get things wrong.

Which brings us back to the ‘Wasn’t built in a day’ model. The process of creating a model like this tells us something about why tenants find the process so much easier than architects and planners. One of the ways to understand this is the DIY analogy. When my architect friends do a DIY project they plan it in advance – they draw a plan, work out the construction details, buy the right materials in the correct quantities and build it as they originally conceived it. I don’t work this way. My DIY projects may start with a plan, but only one in my head. I use whatever materials I have to hand, which I add to with occasional trips to the DIY store. I will decide on each stage of the work, only after I have completed the previous stage stepping back to decide whether what I have done works. This is not necessarily an approach to DIY that I would recommend – it is wasteful and inefficient and the results are uncertain. However the aesthetics of my projects are quite different to those of my architect friends. The architect-design projects tend to bring order to the domestic environment, whereas mine add complexity and end up with juxtapositions of materials and forms that I could never have planned in advance.

The point, of course, is that cities are built by a process more similar to my haphazard DIY technique. Cities may be designed, but they are designed one site at a time and the designers of each site don’t know how the neighbouring or preceding sites will be designed. Instead they stand back, look at what has been built and decide how to add to it. As such cities grow by a process of accretion and, just as with the ‘Wasn’t built in a day’ model, the end result of this accretion is unpredictable and arguably unplannable. Because this is a process that takes place over time the incremental decisions of each generation reflect their ideas of society and how its members live together. This is how Hugo’s ‘successive evaporations of human society’ are crystallised in city form.

All of this is an oversimplification, of course, planning does take place on a city-wide scale. Plans are drawn and policies are written that shape the process of city growth. The grid of Manhattan or the boulevards of Paris were designed and have shaped the growth of their cities. City ordinances and planning policies have also placed restrictions on the buildings that have been built in these cities. But this doesn’t contradict the idea that these cities have still grown into their grids and boulevards by a process of accretion: That this process of accretion carries within it the imprint of the society in which it was created; and that the end result of this accretion is unpredictable. All cities are a combination of planned and natural growth and it is the process of natural growth that is least well understood. The act of building a Newplast model of the city somehow mirrors this process and helped us understand a little more how it works.

David Rudlin

December 2012

2012-12-12 19.47.42 HDR