21. Suburban design – boiling it down

I am involved in an EU URBACT project through which local government and academic partners from across Europe are coming together to grapple with questions of design, regulation and sustainability in the suburban built environment.  Our latest meeting in Rome provided the opportunity to steel a little time to pound the well-worn tourist trail, and to re-charge my urbanism batteries through absorbing once again the delights of Piazza Novona, Piazza del Campidoglio, Piazza della Rotonda, and the like.  With my batteries well charged, I was looking forward to the final day of the meeting, when our collective effort and good behaviour was to be re-warded with a tour of contemporary housing developments in Rome’s fast expanding suburbs.  I was to be sorely disappointed!

It seems that despite Italy’s unique and enviable urban heritage, and the seemingly highly desirable absence of separate planning and architecture professions (planning and architecture are simply branches of the same urban endeavour), there is no real tradition of urban design in Italy (at least not in the suburbs).  In these areas architecture focuses on buildings, whist urban planning focuses on the production of two-dimensional zoning plans.  No one focuses on the bit in the middle, the public realm, which remains largely un-designed, and it shows!

Edge city – Rome-style

As a result, instead of being linked by a coherent and connected urban fabric that encourages walking and social and economic exchange, and which allows people to simply enjoy the city (as millions of Romans and tourists do every year in the city’s historic centre), what we have is buildings constructed in un-related plots, with the spaces in between dominated by parking and roads, and by very little else.  Instead of a corner shop of café, American style, these new suburbs rely on their privatised malls to serve their low-density edge city communities.  By comparison, even Rome’s 1970s Modernist social housing estates of the type that have been so soundly condemned across Europe, seem to offer a more liveable environment to their users.

Even 1970s social housing is better

In Rome, the result is all the more surprising given the historic context, although perhaps it shouldn’t be.  Presentations from the other nations represented at the URBACT meeting – UK, Poland, the Netherlands, and Portugal – soon revealed that we all suffer from exactly the same unsustainable anti-urban environments.  It seems that whatever the system, whatever the governance, no mater what our rules and regulations, however we organise our professions, and no matter what our histories, sprawl seems to be the inevitable consequence of our development processes.  Moreover, this is despite the ubiquitous condemnation of such environments as sub-standard by almost every built environment professional you ever meet (including all at our recent meeting).

On the flight home I began thinking.  What we all have in common is a love of crude regulations; the volumes of standards that together act to control and often indirectly perpetuate such unloved suburban space – parking standards, highways regulations, zoning controls, density guidelines, heath and safety regulations, etc.  Given our very obvious ability to deliver these, could we in a similar vein boil down some higher order urban design principles in order to establish a set of irreducible minimum standards for delivering a more human and coherent public realm?  In other words, what are the urban design ‘must-haves’ that could be coded across Europe in order to overcome our seeming inability to delver better urbanism?

Thinking it through I came up with seven simple rules, that it followed might at least improve the chance of a better quality suburban public realm; although no rules, I fear, could ever guarantee it.  Here they are:

  1. Streets should form a continuous urban network with all streets joining at least two others
  2. Streets should be designed for a maximum vehicle speed of 20mph
  3. Every street and / or building block should host at least two (preferably more) major land uses
  4. Buildings should face public space and create a coherent, continuous, building line
  5. Blank facades at street level should not be allowed
  6. Space for private front gardens and / or street trees should be provided
  7. Setbacks and front gardens, should never be covered by any more than 30% parking

Wherever we are, such a simple code could at least help to deliver the coherent urban framework that suburban areas so often lack.  Within the rules, huge scope would remain for different architecture styles, densities, housing forms (terraced, semi or detached), landscape treatments, road layouts, morphologies, sustainable technologies, and market segmentation, whilst ensuring that at least a basic urban fabric is delivered.  Everything else might or might not form the subject for local negotiation.

Our great cities, including Rome are surely based on a similar simple (and un-written) set of urban principles.  Planners today would do well to focus their design efforts across Europe on ensuring the delivery of at least this.

Matthew Carmona

Professor of Planning & Urban Design

The Bartlett School of Planning, UCL