42. Our future in place’ – or is it?

On coming to power in 2010, Ed Vaizey, a long-term enthusiast for modern architecture, was the UK coalition government’s first choice as Minister for Architecture.  In fact he quickly had to step down from the role when another Minister’s conflict of interest in the communications portfolio left Vaizey swapping architecture for broadband and the like.  Returning to the architecture role in 2012 to find that his predecessor had inexplicably wound up the Commission for Architecture & the Built Environment (CABE) – an organisation described by some as England’s answer to a national architecture policy – Ed Vaizey set about instructing Sir Terry Farrell to lead a review of architecture and design in the built environment.  The unwritten aim was to determine what should be done to fill the glaring vacuum that now constitutes English national policy on design in the built environment.  The result makes a fascinating read.

Deja-vu

Turning the pages of The Farrell Review of Architecture + the Built Environment “Our Future in Place”, I must admit to a certain feeling of deja-vu.  There are clearly obvious antecedents with the hugely influential Urban Task Force Report (1999), and the more recent Bishop Review into the future of design in the built environment (2011), both of which Farrell references heavily.  But my flashback moment related instead to a lesser known report from 2001of the Urban Design Skills Working Group (UDSWG), a report written for Lord Falconer at what was then the Department for Transport Local Government and the Regions (DTLR).  Lasting just a year, DTLR was perhaps the shortest lived incarnation of any of the multiplicity of ministries that have dealt with one or other aspect of built environment matters since the war (Farrell identifies twenty five of these), and a factor reflective of the confused and changing policy landscape in this area.

But I digress.  The reason for the strong association in my mind with the UDSWG was, first, the strong focus on skills in The Farrell Review, which runs as a sometimes explicit and often implicit theme throughout much of the text, second, the emphasis on thinking beyond our built environment silos as institutionalised in our professions, and third, the strong conviction that far more of our efforts should focus on the creation and recreation of ‘place’ as a collective endeavour, instead of on the constituent parts of our built environment: the buildings, bits of infrastructure, land uses and so forth.

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The Farrell Review and UDSWG report

The Farrell Review was long and rigorous and the report is considered and comprehensive in scope with 60 careful and wide ranging recommendations.  The UDSWG, by comparison, was quick and dirty and its report, short and more limited in its focus.  Nevertheless, in one of its introductory paragraphs the earlier report managed to sum up neatly in four key challenges what for me is still the essence of our larger failure to adequately value place quality.  It argues that a failure to understand the critical importance of good design:

“… must begin with four things. First, on the demand side, we must reawaken the public’s interest in the quality of the spaces outside their own front doors, on the journey to work and in the places they visit. Adequate community participation and the stimulation of grassroots involvement in the development process are essential. Second, on the supply side, we must increase the skills base available to design and produce better places. Third, we must reach a position where local authorities make use of those skills in administering the planning process and other statutory functions. Fourth, we must bridge the divide between different disciplines concerned with the built environment. … urban design, as an activity which to some degree touches on the work of all built environment disciplines, is well-placed to serve as an agent of rapprochement”. [1]

 CABE facilitated the UDSWG and therefore it is perhaps unsurprising that this statement also summarises a good part of CABE’s own agenda over the eleven years of its existence.  During this period huge strides were undoubtedly made on the second and third of these concerns – witness the expansion of urban design programmes in our universities and the spread of local authorities and other agencies in the public sector that took urban design seriously – although there has also been a good deal of back-sliding since.  Indeed, when things got tough, our commitment to place quality remains a first and easy cut to make as demonstrated by the recent rapid shrinking of urban design sections in local government across the country.  On the first and fourth concerns, even when CABE was riding high, these larger issues relating to the need for fundamental culture change amongst politicians and the public on the perceived value of design and the siloed nature of our professional institutes remained wicked problems that, arguably, CABE hardly touched.

The Farrell Review

So how does The Farrell Review address these four key challenges?

First, on the question of demand for good design, Farrell, like the UDSWG report, emphasises the importance of starting young and educating about the importance of the built environment in schools.  More immediately, the engaging of communities directly in the future of their built environment is recommended through the creation of an architecture and built environment centre in every town, and a programme of voluntary civic engagement amongst professional practices to “champion the civic” and involve industry leaders in the challenges of ‘everyday places’.  These, as CABE found, are large and complex long-term challenges requiring sustained leadership and investment to make anything happen beyond a few exemplar schemes.  In the current climate of austerity this will not be easy to achieve.

Second, on the supply side, the emphasis in Farrell is on education from the schoolroom to the workplace, with a particular focus on the grounding in place-making that students get in their professional education.  At this stage, before our future professionals become set in their ways, we can choose to either teach a respect for the built environment as a whole or to entrench our silos.  The Farrell Review recommends a common foundation year for all built environment students, and improved access for those without independent means to the long and expensive architectural education (seven years, including five at university).  On the latter issue, this might equally apply to planning students who take six years to qualify (four at university) for a less than highly compensated career.

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A common foundation year for all built environment students

On the question of a common foundation year, this is certainly one possible model (indeed we used to have such a year at The Bartlett).  For my money, however, a superior model is to have place-making and inter-disciplinarily properly embedded throughout a built environment education to avoid it being seen as something that needs to be passed in year one, then forgotten thereafter.  To drive culture change, these issues need to be emphasised and re-emphasised throughout a university career, not just at the start when students may not be mature enough to fully engage with them.  Our BSc Urban Planning, Design & Management at The Bartlett School of Planning provides a possible model.[2]

Turning, third, to questions of public sector engagement with built environment quality, here, The Farrell Review makes some important arguments around the need to rethink public procurement processes and infrastructure assessment in order to give a greater emphasis to design quality, and to re-align heritage and contemporary design concerns as two sides of a quality coin.  Particular emphasis is also placed on the need to move from a reactive and regulatory to proactive and positive planning process.  Whilst these are not new arguments, coming from Terry Farrell they have an added resonance as his practice has consistently demonstrated the huge potential of a more propositional form of planning that is not afraid to advance positive proposals for change.

Yet the proposition, given considerable weight in the review, that the capacity for this new proactive planning would come from a simple switch of resources from development management made possible by a certainly dividend delivered through more upfront planning may be difficult to deliver.  My own research has suggested that this type of highly desirable planning requires a separate and continued investment that is quite independent from that required to run the regulatory side of the process.  It also generally requires quite different people with different, albeit complementary, skills.  Therefore, if we want more proactive planning (and I believe strongly that we should) then we should also be realistic that there will cost, not least in managing the additional engagement from communities and businesses that such a process will stimulate.  It is not either / or, but it is a price worth paying!

Coming to the fourth and final challenge, the need to bridge the divide between our different disciplines, here we see Farrell’s most significant, yet arguably also his most intangible, proposition: “A new understanding of PLACE” as a basis for our future shaping of the built environment.  The review argues:

 “The [built environment sector has come] to acknowledge and champion the importance of ‘place’ as a holistic way of viewing the built environment and the people who use it. However, this concept is not one that the wider public are readily familiar with and the cross-disciplinary approach that is implied by the idea of ‘place’ has been taken up to very different extents by educationalists, professionals and government, perhaps because it is an abstract concept”.[3]

Place, the answer

Cleverly, here the review suggests that the term should be reinterpreted as a means to re-align the professional institutes, educational processes, and built environment practices around a notion that the built environment is shaped by the core skill sets of the PLACE professions: Planning, Landscape, Architecture, Conservation and Engineering, and that all must have a commitment to the total place.  Reflecting on this idea, one might question the absence of the property professions from the list as a key contributor to place; and a vital contribution that the review itself recognises in, for example, its call for new methods of property valuation that value the quality of place alongside other more tangible factors.  At the risk of being accused of semantics, adding an ‘S’ for surveying would have given us PLACES rather than PLACE.

More importantly, the notion of place offers a driving idea that colours many of the most significant recommendations of the review:

  • PLACE Institutions, the idea that the professions should be guided by a common pursuit of place quality rather than their own historically more narrow pursuits.
  • PLACE reviews, a re-branding and extension of design review to explicitly include all the PLACE professions in making judgements about the quality of development proposals, including major infrastructure projects and already existing everyday places that need re-thinking, such as many high streets.
  • PLACE spaces, the provision of an ‘Urban room’ in every town to engage communities in design and to debate future strategies.
  • Chief PLACE Advisors, within government, with a Chief Architect to join the existing Chief Planner and Chief Construction Advisor with a remit to advise in a consistent and coordinated manner on the built environment.
  • And a PLACE Leadership Council, modelled on the Construction Leadership Council and constituting private and public sector representation in order to advise on policies and programmes across government such as those relating to the creation of a more proactive planning system.
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Every town or city should have an ‘urban room’ or PLACE space

Through all these means an emphasis a cross-disciplinary input, according to Farrell, could focus on delivering place quality, yet as a cross-cutting theme does it have the potential to bridge the professional divide?

Today, in the absence of a publically funded CABE, much will depend on how the professional institutes react.  Back when the UDSWG reported, much store was put on those same Institutes working together through the auspices of the Urban Design Alliance (UDAL) to deliver on the earlier action plan.  UDAL, for those who don’t remember it, was a cross-professional organisation set up in the mid 1990s by the RIBA, RTPI, RICS, ICE, Landscape Institute, Urban Design Group and The Civic Trust at a time when John Gummer was driving forward his ‘Quality in Town & Country’ agenda and the Institutes had finally woken up from a deep sleep to recognise their joint responsibility for the thing that both united and divided them, the urban design.  Unfortunately, this shared commitment lasted little beyond the publication of the UDSWG report in 2001 as UDAL faded away not long after.

The danger, of course, is that PLACE becomes simply the latest in a long line of politically acceptable but ultimately transient concepts such as: Quality, Urban renaissance, Sustainable communities, Place-shaping, Localism, and others; each of which have shinned brightly for a while, and then faded (usually when the next Secretary of State comes along).  Instead, for a subject-matter such as the built environment that effects us all so profoundly, what we need is fewer buzz words and short-term initiatives, and more continuity of a type found across much of continental Europe.

So what is different now that will make PLACE stick?  Well, for a start, each of these earlier concepts encompassed or was centrally concerned with place quality, which hopefully gives the new focus a distinct advantage.  And second, we no longer have CABE.  This may sound contradictory, but I myself am currently leading a research project that is evaluating the work and impact of CABE over the eleven years of its existence as a free-standing agency, and whilst we have had many very positive views expressed about CABE and its work, some contributors to our research has argued that an unintended impact of such a high profile publically funded organisation was to unintentionally undermine the efforts of others by virtue of the shadow that the larger organisation cast. UDAL might have been such a casualty, as, others have argued, was the Civic Trust.  A more grassroots (or at least less top down) movement for place quality is certainly more in tune with today’s zeitgeist, and, with publically funded CABE gone, its voice may be that bit louder.

The resource elephant

That said, there remains a rather large elephant in the room – resources.  On this issue, The Farrell Review politically avoids making the simple and necessary recommendation that design (or place) quality needs properly resourcing.  In this regard our approach to place should not be dependent on how wealthy we feel; a luxury to be cut out when times get tough, and we can’t rely completely on the good will of professionals to give up their time for free, or on companies to always subsidise a high quality public realm.  Instead, place quality is a necessity that requires an investment from society, via the public purse, as well as from individuals and the private sector.

Nan Ellin asks and answers a critical question:

“Should we step aside and allow the city to grow and change without any guidance whatsoever?  No, that would simply allow market forces to drive urban development.  Markets are only designed to allocate resources in the short term and without regard for things that do not have obvious financial value like the purity of our air and water or the quality of our communities”.[4]

I would put good design (or place quality) in the same category, as something that needs stimulating and safeguarding as a public good in the recognition that private sector, acting alone, will not always deliver.  For its part, The Farrell Review rightly talks about the importance of the built environment industry as an export earner for UK plc, and has much to say about the positive role Government can play in helping in promote this.  At the same time we need a commensurate investment in our public sector, and an equal focus on driving up quality at home.  As Farrell argues, we can certainly be smarter in order to do more for less than we have done in the past, but if authorities don’t have the staff to be proactive in the first place, they are left with needing to meet their minimal statutory obligations in whatever way they can.  As place quality is not one of those, such efforts are unlikely to include the time required to focus on design.

So whilst, as the title of the report suggests, our future should focus on place, I fear it will be a long haul until such an environment is in place, and this is unlikely to happen if the Government is unwilling to put its money where its mouth is.  If it does, the rest of us will surely play our part.  Over to you, Ed …

Matthew Carmona

Professor of Planning & Urban Design

Bartlett School of Planning, UCL

m.carmona@ucl.ac.uk

April. 2014

[1] Urban Design Skills Working Group (2001) Report to the Minister of Housing, Planning & Regeneration DTLR, http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20110118095356/http:/www.cabe.org.uk/files/urban-design-skills-working-group.pdf

[2] http://www.bartlett.ucl.ac.uk/planning/programmes/undergraduate/bsc-urban-planning-design-management

[3] The Farrell Review of Architecture + the Built Environment (2014) Our Future in Place, http://www.farrellreview.co.uk/download: 157

[4] Ellin, N (2006) Integral Urbanism, Routledge, London: 102