Climax City

Random writing on cities


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My Guilty Secret

Published BD 2nd October 2018

Shock news from Manchester this week, the planning committee actually refused a tower, well it wasn’t quite a refusal, they were ‘minded’ to refuse and this only on the casting vote of the chair. The proposed 35 storey tower, promoted by Logik, the developer fronted by the former cricketer Freddy Flintoff was admittedly virtually in the grounds of the Grade II* St George’s Church as well as being in a conservation area, but to be honest such considerations have not noticeably concerned the city’s planners in the past.

If Manchester has a tall buildings policy it would appear to run to just two words – ‘yes please’. As the graphic of Manchester’s changing skyline by Savills demonstrates there are seven towers, taller than the Logik tower currently under construction in Manchester including Simpson Haugh’s Owen Street B which, as it tops out at 64 storeys is already dwarfing their nearby Beetham Tower which has dominated the city’s skyline since its completion in 2006. However before long this too will be exceeded by the 67 storey Trinity Island scheme by Child Graddon Lewis architects and joined by 11 further towers that have been consented in the city with more planned in neighbouring Salford.

My guilty secret is that I’m quite excited by Manchester’s burgeoning skyline. It has a thrill that reminds me of Chicago and is actually quite in keeping with Mancunians’ brash, self-confident, f**k you attitude. There, I said it out loud, I know its wrong but I can’t help myself!

But from an urbanist’s perspective are towers so wrong? Sure there are many good arguments against them. Some relate to a feeling of unease at the excess that they represent. This is particularly true of the luxury, apartment towers in London bought as investment and left unoccupied. But the Manchester towers on the whole are PRS (private rented apartments funded by pension funds) mixed with a few hotels so that this is less of an issue. Property colleagues fret about the glut of housing coming onto the market and the unwritten rule that the building of towers presages a property crash. This is a very real concern but it relates to the volume rather than form of development. There are also strong sustainability arguments about tall buildings using more energy and the effect that they have on local microclimate as I notice every evening as I am buffered by sudden gusts of wind on my cycle ride home. Then of course there are arguments over conservation although these, as we say, have never really troubled Manchester except perhaps for Ian Simpson’s proposal for an upturned dometo limit building heights around the town hall.

From an urbanist perspective we can turn, as always, to Jan Gehl who argues that any property above the 6th floor of a building has no relationship with the street and might as well be in a far-flung suburb. But is that really true? It is a long time since people sitting on their balconies below the 6th floor held conversations across the street. People in towers will exit via the foyer at some point  (even if many of the PRS schemes include their own communal lounges, gyms and cafes). Would the streets of New York or Chicago be as lively if all the towers were cropped at 6 storeys? The reality, as Gehl has also pointed out, is that places like his home city of Copenhagen were full of life a hundred years ago because its apartments were crammed with families of up to ten people. The same properties today are occupied by single people, couples and small families so that the density of occupation is maybe a quarter of what it was. What is more, all this private internal space means that people can live their lives indoors, rather than out on the street, as they were forced to do in the overcrowded past. So maybe we need to build higher if we want really lively streets?

The key point in determining whether towers add or detract from the city is their design. Modern towers will only contribute to the city if they hit the street, like those of Chicago rather than those of Dubai. If they rise from the pavement have active frontages and disgorge their activity into the life of the street then they can be a force for good. Compared to this the towers of Dubai and elsewhere, rise from shopping and leisure podia, built over underground car parks and set within landscape so that their life is internalised. This is not a lesson entirely learned by the architects of Manchester’s towers. Some, like the Beetham Tower, relate very well to the street with the bar and reception of the Hilton Hotel visible behind floor-to-ceiling glazing and generating a constant buzz of activity. But some of Manchester’s other planned towers are, I fear, more Dubai than Chicago. We should stop worrying about the top of these building and focus instead on the bottom.


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What is it about architects and urban design?

First published BD 10th September 2019

Earlier in the summer I sat listening to an architect teaching urban design in one of our architecture schools. He started promisingly by showing a site which I recognised as being one of ours. However he ruined it almost immediately by then imposing a caricature of a plan (not ours) over the site and saying; ‘this is conventional urban design it is not what we do in this department’. He then showed a short film clip of one of the small squares in Manhattan, teaming with people, buskers and a craft stalls before announcing that this was the sort of urban design that they taught in the department. The next two days were spent looking at student work with beautifully done CGIs and photomontages, looking very much like that square in New York. Except that the people, buskers and craft stalls were photo-shopped rather than being real and many were in shown in locations where such urban vitality would just never happen.

The point is that the lively square was that way, at least in part, because of those boring old conventional urban design rules. You need a permeable hierarchy of streets and spaces, you need a certain density and mix of uses, you need some sense of urban enclosure, you need passive overlooking, active ground floors etc… to generate the people and activity that makes such spaces so successful.

This has been preoccupying me over the summer given that my conventional old urban design company has been invited by Lucy Montague at the Manchester School of Architecture to co-curate an urban design atelier for fifth and sixth years. The problem is that architect schools tend teach their students to design buildings as objects. How many degree shows have you seen where the main project is a building shoehorned into a city street with party walls on either side? You are much more likely to come across buildings as beautiful jewels surrounded by nothing. This presents a problem in teaching urban design in architecture schools because students can’t easily shine in the way that they need to get the best degree within an urban design context.

This is also true of the profession – the architect news-feeds that I get on my computer every day (including BD) are full of buildings as sculptural objects in splendid isolation. Many architects tend to treat urban design in the same way; masterplans that start with the building and work outwards to the plan or sometimes treat the entire masterplan as if it was one enormous piece of architecture. Urban design works in the opposite direction – the plan comes first, then the public realm and the infrastructure, then the lots and plots, each with their rules for how they can be built. So dull!

Nobody likes rules, particularly when you are being creative, and architects are taught quite rightly to question and challenge the rules. They seem to see the rules of urban design like the Paladian rules of classical proportion, something that is interesting but essentially outdated and irrelevant to modern practice. This is not helped by all of those Poundburyesque masterplans with their strange mix of medieval and Georgian design that give the impression that urban design is a profession set on creating a pastiche of the past whether it be Georgian Bath or indeed Manhattan.

But there are rules that architects can’t ignore – the rules of structure and gravity of course (skyhooks aside) but just as important are the characteristics of us as humans. This is why we have the Vitruvian Man or Corbusier’s Modulor. Even the most radical architecture is scaled to our needs as humans to move around, to climb stairs, to live and work in comfort, to have access to light and air etc… The rules urban design are no different, except they relate to our behaviour collectively. How we move around, how we react to each other as friends or strangers, how we live as communities while maintaining our privacy, our need for constant stimulation, the scale of spaces in which we feel comfortable, the distance at which we can recognise people etc… This is the point that Jan Gehl has been making for most of his career. The point is that the rules are hard-wired into us as a species, they are not stylistic or reactionary. If you ignore them you will end up with dull lifeless places however many people you photoshop into the drawing.


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URBAN DESIGN: Are we doing it wrong?

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

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

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

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

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

Lost in translation

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

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

Urban Design are we doing it wrong

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

What’s to be done?

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

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

First published Urban Design Quarterly Summer 2015


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Coventry – as it was once imagined

As the Looking and Seeing residency progresses, we are releasing a series of images produced by architects and urban designers across the world. Each has taken a present day image of Coventry and sought to strip away the years to take it back to the way that it was imagined in the 1950s.

It is clear from talking to people in Coventry that many have mixed emotions about the city, particularly now that much of it is planned for redevelopment. The city centre built after the war attracted architects and planners from across the world who came to Coventry to wonder at its modernity and its bold vision of the future. This vision may now be a little tarnished and the city centre has not quite lived up to its promise. But before we sweep it away once more in a further comprehensive redevelopment we should try and understand what inspired the planners of the 50s, what worked and what went wrong. These images seek to take us back to the optimism of that time.

Cov - Steph a

Bulls Yard - Stephanie Fisher (Liverpool)

Bulls Yard – Stephanie Fisher (Liverpool)

Cov - Anna  a

Spon Street: Anna Wang - Chengdu, China

Spon Street: Anna Wang – Chengdu, China

Cov - Marianna a

Cathedral: Mariana Rodriguez Orte - Chile

Cathedral: Mariana Rodriguez Orte – Chile

Cov - Cat a

Market Street/Upper Precinct: Cat Goodall - Manchester

Market Street/Upper Precinct: Cat Goodall – Manchester

Cov - Shruti a

Broadgate: Shruti Hemani - Guwahati, India

Broadgate: Shruti Hemani – Guwahati, India


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Looking and Seeing – Coventry

LaS Cover

Today sees the start of Looking and Seeing, is a week-long residency in Coventry as part of City Arcadia a longer term art project curated by Laura Elliott and Michael Mayhew. We will be working in a shop unit in the city centre (32 City Arcade) from today with an opening on Friday evening (17th Oct 2014). The aim is to explore Coventry and through this to understand a little more about modernism.

There was great excitement in architecture circles in 1951 as the 8th Congrès International d’Architecture Moderne came to England. 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 the Coventry City Architect D.E.E. 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 (of socialism as it was then called) could flourish. Not that it quite worked out like that.

Looking and seeing is taking place in a shop unit in City Arcade, Coventry and is an exploration of the modernist movement using Coventry city centre as its lab. Coventry was built at a time when UK planners led the world. They actually built what the great architects of Europe could only talk about. It was a time full of idealism and socialist values that gave birth to the Welfare State and the National Health Service but also left us with some disastrous town centre redevelopments, council estates and new towns. Looking and Seeing is an attempt to recapture some of the idealism of these more optimistic times, to understand what it was that D.E.E. Gibson and his colleagues were trying to do. It is a case study in how high ideals and good intentions do not always create great places.

The work will involve three elements:

Mapping: Modernism V Tradition: A series of large-scale figure ground plans contrasting the modernist city with its planned and unplanned predecessors: London – Paris – New York – Brasilia, Venice – Barcelona – Frankfurt – Milton Keynes. All contrasted with the plan of Coventry.

Artist’s Impression: Architects always produce visualisations of what their schemes will look like when complete – full of smiling happy people beneath blue skies. These are deceptions and today’s architects are no less guilty of it than those in 1951. We have reverse-engineered some of these views of Coventry, starting with a modern view and taking it back to an artists’ impression of how it was intended to be.

The malleable city: A large scale plasticine model of Coventry built by architecture students at a scale of 1:1000. This will start with the medieval city that survived up until the war, then take out the bomb damage and build the post war city. The output will be a stop motion film showing the growth of the city.


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Feeling safe

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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.


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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.

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‘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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