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Podium: People at the heart of urban design

From a speech given by the architect to the Socialist Environment and Resources Alliance
OVER THE past 30 years, the quality of our urban design has been undeniably poor. We have moved from the ill-fated "stack 'em high, build 'em cheap" comprehensive treatment approach of the Sixties, through the backlash against any form of urban planning to homogeneous "anytowns", with their sprawling out-of-town housing estates, business parks and retail centres.

It is practically a requirement at this sort of event to point to the dramatic failures of standard-issue high-rises and bulldozing of so-called slum neighbourhoods from the safe distance of the Nineties. But sadder perhaps are these more insipid mistakes of recent times, where any reference point to locality has gone, any acknowledgement of the real needs for sustaining life and livelihood in nearby towns, cities and villages is ignored, and the demands of short-term institutional investment are allowed to dictate the pace and style of new development.

We cannot fall again into the trap of thinking that there can, or should be, a fixed blueprint for good urban design. But we also know that simple laissez-faire does not ensure long-term quality either.

What we need, instead, is an urban design framework that gives a strong, strategic direction at the national level, based on high standards and good practice, but which also allows, and indeed encourages, flexible interpretation at the local level.

They are a host of areas where, without being overly prescriptive, we can agree on some basic principles of good practice. The creation of new developments, or the regeneration of existing areas, provide unique opportunities to develop ecologically sustainable urban environments.

Great strides are already being made in ever-improving standards for environmental construction methods and materials. But more important, perhaps, is the contribution we can also make, through design, to easing the way for the future occupants and users to make positive changes in their ongoing approaches to energy and water consumption, and to transport and waste.

Perhaps most critical amongst these is transport. This has gathered something of a bad press recently - the different forms being seen as little more than a hierarchy of environmental sin. But really, what we are talking about is the connecting of people. Movements that enable the economic, social - even environmental - transactions of everyday life.

Ironically, the very act of reintegrating transport into the community (along with the shops, offices and workshops we now also welcome in mixed- use development) can in itself reduce the need for many journeys. We also need to re-establish streets and squares as social places, not just channels for traffic, where transport can contribute to creating an attractive, lively and safe environment. And we need to look at the whole palette of transport with a view to making going by foot, by bicycle and by public transport as easy and as convenient as using the car.

Another design issue with a slightly tarnished image of late is density. In fact, it is at the heart of one of the key contributions that urban design can make to urban renaissance - vitality. The temptation is to see the creation of higher density developments as simply a necessary evil in the cause of alleviating pressure for develop-ment in the countryside. But this is short-sighted. High density does not automatically mean low desirability.

It is about time we cleared up the long-standing confusion between density and over-crowding. The Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian terraces of Islington, over which estate agents rub their hands so gleefully, are in fact of higher density than many of the old, apparently crammed, high-rise blocks which we now decry.

Indeed I would even argue that there can be a strong positive correlation between high density developments and increased urban vitality.

Of course high density development can be done badly - and there have been plenty of overcrowded slums to prove it. But when well-designed - socially, aesthetically and environmentally - high-density areas can be the most vital places for people.

At the end of the day, we must learn from the past.

One experience after another has shown that physical regeneration does not last if it is not welcomed and cared for by the community for whom it is intended. The so-called "soft" parts of the regeneration package are easy to pay lip-service to or to ignore.

We must never forget that we plan for people, design for people, regenerate for people, not for houses or cars - or even buses and bikes.