A good friend of mine asked me a little while ago to name my favourite town or city. My mind flittered from Paris to New York, from Venice to Barcelona, and from Edinburgh to Hong Kong, but with the entire world to choose from, and after much thought, I have to confess that I named London. My friend looked at me incredulously and proclaimed that he would rather have his teeth pulled out one by one than live in London.
For him, speaking from his rural idyll, London was dirty, noisy, crime-ridden, too large, too busy, unfriendly and just plain unliveable; although great he admitted for an occasional visit. In many respects I had to agree with him, and regularly curse the city when stuck yet again in another hot tube tunnel waiting for the signals to be repaired. Yet for all its faults – and undoubtedly it has many – for me, the sheer variety and vitality of the city, and the amazing mix of people, places and experiences never fail to inspire.
Perhaps it means that we have to really get to know a place before we can appreciate what it has to offer. I once lived in one of the less salubrious parts of a large British city for a year and got to know it and its people well and to feel at home there. Returning five years later with my memories dimming, I have to confess to being shocked that I ever lived there, and more importantly, that others (with less choice than me) continue to do so.
Alternatively, perhaps it simply means that different people like different places, and furthermore, that even individuals will like different places at different stages in their life. With this in mind, I am sometimes concerned that urban design is increasingly reduced to a pattern book subject – ‘a little bit of permeability, some mix of uses (not too much), how about some legibility, and a sprinkle of distinctiveness thank you; and oh, cul-de-sacs are out this year!’.
It is undoubtedly a remarkable fact that in recent years urban design seems to have returned from the dead to become a central and indisputably important part of the national planning agenda. Unfortunately, perhaps because it has been off the agenda for so long, once again we are having to re-learn how to do it; hence our tendency to reach for the rule book or the last project of a similar size (irrespective of context).
The similarity between the multiplicity of masterplans, urban design frameworks and strategies that are being produced up and down the country both in-house and outside of local authorities represents a case-in-point. Of course they are infinitely better than what we had before (in many locations we had nothing), but can we do better?
We need to do two things that on the face of it may conflict and which may require different skills. We need to immerse ourselves in places long enough to get under their skin, to move beyond our first impressions, and to understand what makes places tick. That means people as well as spaces, or both the physical and social character of places. To my mind, the right and proper people to do this are almost always likely to be the representatives of the local populations (if not the populations themselves); in other words the local authority and its officers. But this takes time.
We also need to draw out our innate creativity as a means to move beyond the pattern book solution. Much urban design is simple common sense, but the difference between the very best and the simply average is often the spark of originality that makes spaces into places. This may flow naturally from a deep understanding of context, but it may also flow from an ability to think outside of the box, to what (if properly applied) has worked elsewhere, and to the art of the possible. This is the particular value of bringing in external consultants who will not feel so immediately constrained by what has gone before.
This mix of knowledge and skills seems rare in many contemporary urban design proposals. Examples abound of the former without the latter, and recently (perhaps as more architects climb on to the urban design band wagon) of the latter without the former. Both are required.
What, I think, draws me to London, is the endless variety of places cheek by jowl, with their own character and sense of place. We should aim for nothing less in our contemporary developments, large and small. We could do worse than to start by thinking about our favourite places and what works and what does not. Those places, and the qualities we identify will be different for each of us. But that must be right if we are to build places that will inspire us in the future because of what is special about them, rather than because of what is the same.
Reader in Planning & Urban Design
Bartlett School of Planning, UCL