urban design

Metro growth can make Planners cool again

The October report of the City Growth Commission  and The Guardian's November piece about "making planners cool again” are inextricably linked. James Brown, Director of The Urbanists, explains why. 

It is fifteen years since the publication of Richard Roger's Urban Task Force Report 'Towards an Urban Renaissance' and the centres of Britain's core cities are now very different places. Generally, much better places. It’s difficult to imagine just how lifeless most big British cities could be at certain times of the day in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Just as Roger's Task Force recommended; there are now many more people living, working and spending their leisure time in our principal city centres and they are much more vibrant as a consequence. An approach built around placemaking, creative town planning and urban design has helped to facilitate these changes. 

As we've remade our city centres, ideas about economic development have also shifted to recognise the potential for agglomeration and exchange. Professor Richard Florida has repeatedly outlined how the concentration of ideas and opportunities in cities have helped them to become engines for the knowledge driven economy. 

Into this context the October publication of the RSA's City Growth Commission, chaired by Jim O'Neill, called 'Unleashing Metro Growth' arrived. The report asserts that a new global picture of growth is taking shape. This is not about a transfer of economic power from North to South, or West to East. It is about the rise of cities. The UK is home to one of the world’s truly global cities. But too many of our urban areas outside London are failing to achieve their growth potential.  

Globally, growth is increasingly driven by cities. But very few in the UK are at the forefront of the nation’s economy and many are overly dependent on public sector funding. The key message from the Metro Growth report is that our centralised political economy is not fit for purpose. One could argue that the Metro Growth report is the natural successor to the Rogers report by promoting the importance of our cities. If the Roger’s report was about the design and planning of our cities then the O’Neill report is about their management, funding and governance.   

If one agrees with O’Neill, Rogers and Florida, then it follows that planners have a central role to play in the way our cities are planned, designed and managed. Rather than a troop of bureaucratic monkeys on the backs of economic growth, (as David Cameron might have it), then planners working in all sectors, for: developers, house builders, consultancies and in local government should be in a position to influence city planning and management from the regional scale down to detailed design. At the urban scale, planners are (as you read this) making decisions about development, urban management and urban design. Whilst at the regional scale there are planners involved with spatial planning, infrastructure planning and economic development. In fact: all of the above happens on a weekly basis in our office alone. 

The Metro Growth report is further endorsement of the importance of cities, especially the UK’s core cities (such as Cardiff, Manchester, Bristol, Sheffield etc). This continued importance should give investors, developers and decision makers the confidence that as our economy recovers then new opportunities to remake parts of our cities will continue to present themselves. 

For the resurgence of our cities to continue then the effectiveness of planners in both the private and the public sectors will be at the very heart of these changes. If that can’t make being a planner cool again, then I don’t know what will. 

Streets in the Sky for Cyclists?

Having awoken from a Quality Street induced coma on the 2nd January, I fired up twitter to see with interest a proposal for an elevated cycling network in London from Foster and Partners. SkyCycle, hoisted above London's rail corridors would carry cyclists safely and swiftly through London, segregated from traffic. Like a High Line for cyclists. The mainstream media have picked up the story (GuardianThe Express and The Times) and from a glance appear to have reacted warmly to the proposal. 

Yet the proposals are actually celebrity endorsement of a concept promoted back in the Autumn of 2012 by another architect, Sam Martin of Exterior Architecture (link to article in Daily Mail).

Foster and Partners vision for segregated cycling in London

Foster and Partners vision for segregated cycling in London

From the lay-persons perspective, what's not to like? SkyCycle offers the vision of being able to avoid potholed roads, not worry about left turning HGV's or having to become an aggressive cyclist as a form of self preservation. Sir Norman has also put a social spin on the vision; that SkyCycle could be used to enjoy cycling with friends as a leisure pursuit.

All of this is an alluring vision. Yet I'm concerned that many commentators are ignoring the cumulative impact of the details that could damage the connectivity and vitality at street level. The 200 access points, many of which will include ramps, will not be the easiest of structures to blend into a city. They are likely to jar against the places around them, whilst the transition points between the ramps and streets could become awkward junctions. This will probably occur because local highway authorities will apply their standard rulebooks to the interactions between different 'highway users' at these points. The results are unlikely to become celebrated places.

The other aspect of SkyCylce that concerns me is that it advocates the segregation of the City. With this we are at risk of returning to 'streets in the sky' (Le Corbusier) or 'graded separation of people and traffic' (Buchanan, Traffic in Towns, 1963).

Extract from Traffic in Towns 1963

Extract from Traffic in Towns 1963

It was exactly these notions that we have spent the last twenty-five years trying to unravel. (Ironically, it was the publication of Richard Rogers' Urban Task Force report in 1999 that validated the need to remake more British cities to become more humane and integrated).

If we learned anything from placemaking in the 20th century it is that cities work best when they are integrated at street level. 

Admittedly, space at street level in London is at a premium. Lessons from Copenhagen (which I visited on a cycling study tour last May) and Amsterdam can only translate so far because the street widths are often more generous. This means that we need to find new physical solutions that give people the confidence to cycle. Potentially, we might also consider adopting a similar legal framework to the one that exists in Denmark that presumes liability upon the driver in the event of a collision with a more vulnerable road user. The impact of this legal change upon street level interactions between drivers and cyclists in Copenhagen is enormous.

I'll be surprised if the SkyCycle concept is capable of withstanding further scrutiny. I'll be equally taken aback if this vision, beneath the glossy image, offers something that is holistic and in tune with what makes places function. In fact, when it comes to superimposed infrastructure like SkyCycle, history proves the opposite.


By James Brown

Successful cities adapt: can Newport be a successful city?

Great cities adapt. They always have. The ones that don't? They either slide slowly from relevance or find a new lower purpose, often via a series of unpleasant convulsions that can only really be observed in retrospect.

I was fortunate to have been a student of cities in Manchester at the very point in history when the Trafford Centre, an out of town palace of consumption, opened its gold leafed halls and at exactly the same time that the IRA detonated their largest ever and final bomb in an English city centre. This was a potentially catastrophic combination of events for city centre and Manchester City Council found themselves in a situation where they had to make not only repairs but undertake rapid and transformational surgery to enable the city to adapt to the new challenges that it faced.

With this in mind I turn my attention to my current hometown, Newport.

Tonight the City Council will vote on whether to make available a £90m loan to their development partner, Queensbury, to provide the funding necessary to complete the development of a new retail and leisure development.

Many local commentators are sharpening their knives for the Council, should they decide to make the finance available via a Public Works Loan. Typical negativity stems from the parochial view that Newport shouldn't have this kind of retail/leisure development because Cardiff has one and that Newport’s proximity to the Welsh capitol means that Newport must to do things differently.

If cities have an inbuilt need to adapt then Friars walk is about adapting to changed retail and leisure expectations. Shoppers and retailers both prefer large, regular shaped units that are easy to get to and easy to display goods in, but conversely, people also want real experiences that have memory, richness and meaning. The very things that one seldom extracts from a visit to an edge of centre retail park (or should I say car park!). So combining the best of both worlds has been a proven means of adaption for many British town centres.

In places like: Exeter, Bristol, Liverpool and even smaller Welsh settlements like Carmarthen and Wrexham have all integrated the expectation of retail and leisure predictability with more organic experiences with distinctly local provenance. In all of these cases, I guess that each had the right scheme at the right time. Sadly for Newport it has had an unfortunate a multi-generational track record of promoting the right scheme at the wrong time or just the wrong scheme. (Kingsway Centre - wrong scheme - right time) (Friars Walk 1 - Modus - right scheme - wrong time) 

Those that argue that Council backing of Friars Walk is just trying to make Newport into a poor version of Cardiff are out of touch with current trends in how people like to shop and how retailers like to sell. Friars Walk is a necessary adaption to the fabric and commercial offer of Newport just as the creation of Exchange Square was to the post-bomb Manchester.

I have to say that I am not a career supporter of the Council. For instance I feel that the broader economic strategy for the city lacks specialism and bravery and I also feel that the the Council have lauded Friars Walk as the end game when it is in fact only the beginning of the adaptive process. The fact that it remains so opaque as to the kind of place that the Council see Newport becoming simply sustains the argument that Friars Walk is not appropriate to Newport.

I think that local government often gets a raw deal for failing to make big and bold decisions. Tonight Newport Council will make a significant decision about whether the Newport will be enabled to adapt to changes in society or whether the City will be held in perpetual limbo because it doesn’t understand its place in the new world. 

I hope that the Council take the bold step that allows Friars Walk to begin so that we can use this as a platform for future interventions, which funnily enough, is exactly what happened to post bomb Manchester city centre.

by James Brown, Director of The Urbanists

First impressions of an unfamiliar city

I visited Nottingham today to study the design of the NET Metro public transport system and meet some of the people behind it. While I was here I thought I would have a look around.

As an urban designer I love cities. Discovering new cities, or parts of cities, is a bit of geeky hobby of mine. As a city nerd I am also quick to be critical about a city: what it does right, what it does wrong, what excites and what disappoints.  This was my fist visit to Nottingham. Here are some first impressions of the city...

My first impression was formed by the NET Metro itself. Quiet, efficient and clean. It gave me the impression of a forward thinking city. Somewhere that is investing in the future, not just clearing up the mess of the past.

I got off in the Gustavson Porter designed Old Market Square. The only reason for this impulsive departure was because it was the only thing about Nottingham that I knew about. So I thought I'd go and have a look. 

Old Market Square showed what can be achieved when the designer is brave enough to take out all of the crap and clutter. That level of emptiness can look terrifying when its on the drawing board, but alongside a building like the imposing, but unfortunately named, Council House it works beautifully. The materials were carefully contrasted with the sandstone slabs used everywhere else in the city and the details and standard of maintenance were top class. However, it was very sad to see that the innovative water feature, which was so important to the original design, was out of commission.

After Old Market Square I followed my nose and tried to spot something interesting and walk towards it. What took my eye was the cities way finding system, an effective network of signs and columns that is effectively a finger post system and a roving Rough Guide rolled into one. Taking the time to read and follow it transformed my experience of Nottingham.

Having seen part of contemporary Nottingham I was cast back in time to the Old Lace  Market. National chains gave way to smaller indie businesses in handsome red brick buildings, side streets and intimate squares. More info panels explained that whilst the city's lace production went back to Saxon times it was Thomas Adams' approach to production and employee welfare that helped put the city on the map.

Having had a glimpse of 19th century Nottingham and the hint of a more ancient past, I thought I'd try to see what the city could reveal about its medieval history. I followed the frequent info panels and found my way to Maid Marion Way, a cruel urban motorway surrounded by grey brutalist car parks, towering facades and stark structures that arrogantly divided the new city from its medieval past. Most British cities have places like this, but the experience was still a bitter disappointment. This area must be a future priority for the city council who will need to unstitch this sorry mess that segregates the city from 1000 years of history.

Once I'd reached the gates of the Castle I was disappointed to see carelessly located planters, devoid of actual pants (just mud) in front of probably one of the most important buildings in the city. It seems that the attention to detail, so evident in Old Market Square, had not managed to cross Maid Marion Way and had given up and turned back. This wasn't the only example. Other historic buildings, that would be celebrated in other cities, were left marooned in amongst disabled parking bays and double yellow lines. It seemed that the City Council, or certainly departments of it, are guilty of not being precious enough with some of their most prized possessions.

A short walk around the sandstone outcrop upon which sits the castle revealed Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem, England's oldest inn, dating back to 1189 and a stopping off for medieval squaddies on route to the holy land. I expected to find some of them still there trying to master the most addictive pub game in the whole of Christendom. I was thankful that I got lucky and beat the game after twenty minutes.

In two hours, thanks to the information provided by the city council, I had a good feel for the city, it's past, present and its future. The question that i was left with was: for a city as good as this why does it have such a non-descript national persona? If half of this stuff had been in Liverpool, Manchester or Glasgow the whole world would know about it. In a competitive market place for tourism and business investment Nottingham has more than enough assets to stand out but needs to shout more confidently about what a great little city that it is