Climax City

Random writing on cities


Climax City Book

The Climax City Book is now out! Together with Shruti Hemani, I have spent the last five years working on a series of large scale, some might say obsessive, hand drawn plans of cities across the world. Initially the idea was to produce an urban atlas. However as the project progressed, the maps developed a hypothesis based on what they were learning through the process of drawing these maps. Climax City, published by RIBA publishing is the result.

There will be a series of book launches over the next few months including the following events with Shruti, who is travelling to the UK from her home in Jaipur:

Nottingham Urban Room Tuesday 1st of October

University of Manchester Wednesday 2nd of October

Manchester School of Architecture Thursday 3rd of October

RIBA Portland Place London Tuesday 8th of October

In addition to this I will be talking about the book at the following events: 

The Therapeutic City Festival in Bath on 27th September

Ceramics Biennial, Spode Works Stoke Saturday 12th October.

York Design week Tuesday 29th of October



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The Regeneration Curse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The New Elysians

Published BD 7th August 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.


An Urbanist in Shanghai

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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The Urbanist and the Architect

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

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

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

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

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

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

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An Urbanist in India

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

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

The Haveli of Ahmedabad

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

The Blue City of Johdpur

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

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The Offenbach Block

URBED were recently invited to take part in the Architektursommer Rhein-Main Lab involving 8 architecture and design practices from across Europe*. This culminated in a week long residency in a temporary pavilion in Goetheplatz in the centre of Frankfurt. The film of the installation can be seen here.

Frankfurt is actually a conurbation of six cities and, on the southern bank of the River Main, lies the City of Offenbach. This once the focus of the city’s Jewish community and is now home to a large Arab community. People in Frankfurt told us that we should be careful when walking its streets but, as people who have lived all of our lives in the cities of Northern England it didn’t seem very threatening. OFF context

We became fascinated by the large urban blocks of Offenbach enclosed by a grid of streets but retaining the older geometry of field boundaries and plot divisions from a time when the area was rural. These messy urban blocks stood in contrast to the looming presence of the European Central Bank being constructed over the river. The Offenbach blocks were full of life, ringed with shops and cafes below apartments housing a wide range of people. Deep within the blocks could be found all manner of activities, workshops and garages, artists studios and warehouses all alongside more housing. It seemed to us, as outsiders, that this was the interesting part of the city, and was likely to be where new ideas, creativity and start-up businesses would emerge, rather than the shiny towers of the banks and corporate offices. The Offenbach Block was the building-block of the creative city.

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The Offenbach Block (illustration Ste Garlick)

In her book the Death and Life of Great American Cities Jane Jacobs said something like ‘you can only have new ideas in old buildings’. New buildings are too expensive and tightly controlled, you have to sign up to long leases and you can’t make a noise or a mess. Old buildings, by contrast, paid for themselves years ago, they are cheap, flexible, relaxed and you can occupy them on easy in-out terms if your idea doesn’t quite work out.

This is true in Frankfurt/Offenbach as it is in our home town of Manchester and particularly the city’s Northern Quarter where URBED has its studio. The block structure of Manchester, made up of former textile mills and is very different to Offenbach but it serves a similar function. Old building provide cheap, low-commitments space for people and businesses trying new ideas and the old warehouses have filled with architects, designers and other creatives alongside the remaining wholesale clothing retailers and scores of bars and cafes at street level. The problem in Manchester as with Frankfurt,  is that there is precious little of this type of space left. It has been squeezed out by the corporate city centre, new residential schemes, fancy refurbishments and suburban areas of industry and housing.  MAN context

In the modern world of tech start-ups and the weightless economy cities have become reliant on their creative class. Those that can foster a strong counterculture and a diverse economy of creative business will become magnets of young people, energy and investment. This has profound implications for the way that we plan cities, places that were once dismissed as ghettos or backwaters could become more important than shiny business parks and office blocks. The Offenbach block or the Northern Quarter block could be the building block of a whole new economy.

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The former textile warehouses around URBED’s studio in Manchester  (illustration by Ste Garlick)


* Recently in this context is a relative term – we were initially involved in ASRM In 2014 and the installation took place in December 2105. It just takes me a long time to put things up on this blog.

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As part of the installation in December 2015 we built a large plasticine model with the people of Frankfurt. This was done over three days and can be seen in the film of the event

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We built the model with quite a lot of help in a temporary pavilion designed by the architect Ian Shaw (who practices in Frankfurt but comes originally from Manchester)  

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The URBED/Rudlin team: Ste Garlick, Sam Atkinson, Nan Wang and Helene, Jonah and David Rudlin  


When Nan returned a week later she found that the people of Frankfurt had added to the model!

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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