Climax City

Random writing on cities

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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….


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).


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.


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”.

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.


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.


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.

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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.

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Feeling safe


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.


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

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Chorlton Living Streets

This presentation was prepared for a public meeting on 27th Sept 2012 as part of the Chorlton Big Green Living Streets campaign (hashtag – #CBGLS). The brief was to talk about some of the options for dealing with the streets of Chorlton as the possible basis for a resident-led campaign. The title ‘Carefree Chorlton’ comes from a confused conversation in a pub when we were talking about the possibility of a car-free Chorlton and someone though that we were talking about it being a happier, carefree place – which somehow seemed appropriate.

Chorlton Living Streets Presentation

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Cycling around Paris

In March this year I was invited to speak at a conference in Paris. It wasn’t an unqualified success, there being no translator and my French being fine for chatting in a bar but not really up to presenting at a conference. However the nice people at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture de Paris-Belleville agreed to pay for my hotel for a second night giving me a whole day to myself with the city to explore with the help of a vélib. The notes below are transcribed from my note book and were written in a bar just outside Gare De l’Est. The maps are from the sequence that we are producing for the Climax City Project.

Figure Ground Plan of Paris – Drawn 2011 for the Climax City Project


A March saturday in Paris, unseasonably warm, taking full advantage of the Pari-bike scheme to undertake a bit of psycho-urbanism. Starting from Montparnasse and travelling via the Eiffel Tower to the Bois de Bologne then back across south of Sacré-Coeur to the Grand Boulevards and St. Denis. Then weaving through the tourist crowds across Île de la Cité to the Rive Gauche and back up the hill to Montparnasse. A route that I will measure on Google Earth when I get back to an affordable Internet connection (15 miles). The first thing you notice when cycling in Paris is that it is really quite hilly, there is a third dimension that doesn’t come out in the urban design analysis. The Arc de Triomphe sits on top of a hill that is really quite steep when you approach it from the river – must try and get a contour plan to add to our mapping.

The other thing that you notice is how absolutely beautiful it is! It is no false claim to to say that it is the most beautiful city in the world, but less easy to work out quite why this is. As you cycle around you constantly come upon set pieces that have been planned – the vista along a boulevard, the six pointed Étoile, the formal park or promenade. But the city’s beauty lies in the interaction between these set pieces and the organic chaos of the older city which reasserts itself around every corner. The European norm is for a dense organic old town and a modern (relatively speaking) brash extension of avenues and Boulevards. Barcelona and Milan are particularly stark examples, but this arrangement is the norm in many continental cities where the old town was extended to create a new planned district. Freed from the restrictions of existing buildings and ownerships these ‘new towns’ are grandiose and impressive but they don’t have the richness of Paris.

In Paris generation after generation of urban designers have tried to impose order on the unruly city. They have sliced it up with new streets straight as a die, radiating from grand six pointed junctions (les Étoile), squares and parks. Some schemes have failed like the great masterplan for Temple that Eric Hazan describes in his book The Invention of Paris: A History in Footsteps although echoes of these plans can still be found if you know where to look, as Hazan does, in the angle of a street or the position of a small square. However many of the plans were realised by fiat of King or Emperor and still have the power to take your breath away when a vista suddenly opens up. The city is a collection of these set pieces, rather than a coherent plan, and within a few footsteps of the grandest formal urban composition can be found a tight medieval street that predates it all.

We have this idea that it was Haussmann who masterplanned Paris, but in fact he was just one of a long line of a planners who have sought to put their stamp on the city. They take their place alongside those who built Paris’s five sets of walls, the engineers who cut her canals and the paysagistes who laid out her parks. London is a similar mix of the planned and the organic but in the chaotic free market (if you are French) freedom and democracy (if you are American) of London the organic generally wins. The unstoppable force of the market and the inalienable rights of land owners have thwarted attempts at grand planning line Wren’s masterplan for London after the Great Fire. Further more, when grand planning was tried, be it in Bloomsbury or Knightsbridge, which were laid out on estates at the edge of the city, they were designed in an anti-grandiose fashion, grandiosity being very un-English.

So London is an organic informal city for all its planning, while Barcelona and New York are planned cities for all their riotous growth. Paris by contrast stands at a point of balance between the organic and the planned. Its effortless urban set pieces took great effort to impose on the unruly city. They required the power of a centralised state – absolute monarchy or emperor – set against a teaming riotous urban population. Not necessarily a model to be emulated but the formula for a beautiful city.

Paris at three scales: A Trellis plan (left) with a 10km circle, the 2km Figure Ground Plan (centre) and an 800m Tissue Plan (right).
Below – Paris as it would have been if Le Corbusier had seen his plans for the city realised

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The Urban Renaissance Happened – its official!

In the last couple of months census data has been published in the US and UK that provides evidence that the urban renaissance really did happen in the 2000s, as we predicted it would!

In July William H Frey from the Brookings Institute published his analysis of US census figures to show that between 2001 and 2011 US cities grew by 1.1% compared to their suburbs which grew by just 0.9%. Not startling figures – I hear you say – but this is after-all the US, the country of endless urban sprawl. It is in fact the first time that cities have outstripped their suburbs since the 1920s and it happened in 33 of the US’s 51 metropolitan areas.

Earlier this month the UK census figures were published for England and Wales so that we can compare and contrast. The extraordinary conclusion is that despite the credit crunch, the collapse of urban apartment markets and a deep recession, the cities in the UK’s six metropolitan areas (on the table above) grew by 10.6% between 2001 and 2001 compared to their suburbs that grew by just 5.6%. If that isn an urban renaissance I don’t know what is!

Our book contains the above table of city populations in the UK from 1911. It is a sorry tale of urban decline that shows the haemorrhaging of population from inner London, Manchester and Liverpool. The other cities do better, particularly Birmingham and Leeds – partly for economic reasons and partly because their boundaries are drawn to include most of their suburbs.

When we updated our book in 2009 we used mid census figures from 2006 to update this table. This was because they were the most up to date figures at the time. However there was apparently also a technical problem with the 2001 Census (that managed to lose 250,000 young men!). As well as being more reliable , the 2006 figures were also slightly more effective in backing up the central thesis of the book, namely that the turn of the millenium would herald an urban renaissance of a magnitude similar to the suburban explosion triggered by various factors at the beginning of the 20th Century. In the  2001 figures (shown on the above table) all the UK cities outside London were still shrinking. In the five years that followed to 2006 they appeared to have stabalised (plus or minus less than 1%), the exception being Manchester which had grown by 2.1%. We concluded tentatively that a century’s worth of urban decline and suburban sprawl had finally run its course and that while not yet growing, UK cities seemed to have turned a corner.

In this light the 2011 figures paint an extraordinary picture. They were heralded in the Manchester Evening News with the headline ‘Boom City’ prompted by the growth of the city’s population by very nearly 20% in a decade. Inner London had grown by 13%, Birmingham by 9%, Sheffield by 7% and Leeds, Liverpool and Newcastle by 5-6%. Overall the 6 metropolitan areas in the table grew by 1.4 Million people a significant proportion of the 3.7M growth in the overall population of England and Wales.

As to why this has happened, commentators in the US have cautioned against pronouncing the end of the suburb. They suggest that the sub-prime crisis has been mainly a suburban problem. As people struggle to get mortgages they are putting off having families and staying in their urban apartments. However they also concede that it is a function of economic trends that have seen jobs growth in urban areas outstripping the suburbs as cities become economic drivers. This we predicted in our book. We argued that demographic change (in which 80% of new households did not have children), environmental issues (such as the rise in fuel prices) and social trends (people seeking different forms of community) would combine with economic factors to create a strong pull factor to urban areas. At the same time the closure of polluting industries and the regeneration of many inner city districts would make cities much more appealing. There were many who argued that this was wishful thinking, which of course it was, it is just that some times wishes come true.

The question now is whether these trends will continue at a time when the housing industry is retrenching and the UK government is toying with loosening the constraints on suburban development. In the book we concluded that the jury was still out on the robustness of the urban renaissance, the 2011 census figures give cause to be slightly more optimistic.

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The Human Zoo

As Desmond Morris says – the 20 square miles that once supported a hunter/gatherer group of 60 people might now accommodate a city of 6 million.

Not so long ago a friend of mine, Paul Bower came across a second hand copy of a book by Desmond Morris called the Human Zoo. Written in 1969 it is a book that reflect’s his generations misgivings about cities. The central premise of the book is that the human animal evolved to live in hunter-gatherer groups of around 60 people. This extended family group would need around 20 square miles to support its needs. Today the same area could accommodate a city of 6 million people crammed together in a way that human are unable to cope with. This, he argues, is not natural and it is hardly surprising that some people in cities act a little strangely. Indeed Morris equates this strange behaviour to the compulsive traits exhibited by many animals when they are confined in zoos; mental health disorders, sexual perversion, violence etc… Hence in Morris’s eyes the modern city is the human zoo.

However the books conclusion is not entirely negative. Morris suggests that the remarkable aspect of city living is that most of us don’t exhibit this compulsive behaviour. We have moved from living with 59 neighbours to 5,999,999 in the blick of an evolutionary eye and have coped extremely well. As he says; “The least experienced zoo director would never contemplate cramming and cramping a group of animals to the extent that man has crammed and cramped himself into his modern cities and towns. By all the rules the human zoo should be a screaming madhouse… cynics may argue that this is indeed the case, but plainly it is not. …aberrant behaviour is startling, not for its existence but for its rarity”.

Indeed Morris goes on to argue that the secret to human success as a species is that we actually thrive on these conditions: “Just as colonies of nesting seabirds are reproductively aroused by massing in dense breeding communities, so the human animal is intellectually aroused by massing in dense urban communities. They are breeding colonies of human ideas.”