REVIEW: Good Design = Good Planning Seminar #3

 

On the evening of Wednesday March 6th, delegates swarmed into New London Architecture (NLA) for the third installation of Good Design = Good Planning. As the final episode (of this series), the evening focussed how urban design can address such challenges as viability, water supply resilience and densification.

This was to be a Pecha Kucha evening. Hailing from Tokyo, Pecha Kucha is a presentational technique developed by Japanese architecture students in 2003, which has mushroomed into a worldwide phenomenon. Under the rules of Pecha Kucha, presentations must include exactly 20 slides, with 20 seconds per slide. This inherently requires a presentation to be brief, fast-paced and to the point. It is an excellent way to engage a large number of presenters, whilst adhering closely to an intended timetable.

Following an introduction from series organiser Tom Venables, the presentations began. The first speaker was NLA Chairman Peter Murray, talking about Designing in an Uncertain Future.

Peter described London’s urban structure as an “apeothis of incremental pragmatism”. Historically, the city has grown and developed with no real overall plan; the only exceptions to this are the Great Estates. Grand aspirations such as Wren’s 1666 plan , or the 1950s pedways have, on the whole, never really succeeded. While European countries plan their cities with a vision, we in the UK argue about it. This can produce pragmatic responses, such as 122 Leadenhall (a.k.a. The Cheesegrater) which preserves the view of St Paul’s Cathedral, by virtue of its backward slope. Despite the changes that continue afoot in London, St Paul’s remains as a true symbol of London.

The second presentation was on Designing for Density by Peter Bishop, Director at Allies and Morrison Urban Practitioners. Peter’s started by illustrating that dense cities are a natural form; historically, cities’ densities have facilitated defence, trade and social interaction. Despite a post-war move away from density, cities such as New York, London and Paris are now re-densifying.  Densification can be difficult and it requires good design. Residential developments such as Donnybrook (designed by Peter Bishop) and Coin Street are good examples of this. The design of social spaces in dense cities is essential; they need to foster interaction and social richness.

The next speaker was Michael Henderson, Associate Director of Sustainability at AECOM. Mike’s presentation was on Designing for Water. Just as cities have historically been dense, they have almost always tended to be located by water. As populations and economies grow, water resources can become very stressed, as is the case in South East England. This raises the need for water sensitive urban design (WSUD). This involves integrating the water supply into the design of the city, ranging in scale from individual buildings to city-wide strategies. A good example of the latter can be found in Australia, in Melbourne.

Water was followed by Designing for Health by George Weeks, Urban Designer at Transport for London. This presentation explained how the human body is designed to by physically active, as per our hunter-gather origins. Post war planning has tended to produce cities that are relatively unwalkable, with commensurate rises in obesity and heart disease. Physical inactivity is, in developed countries, second only to smoking as the leading cause of preventable death. People only take enough exercise when it makes sense as part of their daily routine. The only way to do this is by designing cities where it makes sense to walk and cycle for transport.

The fifth presentation was by Mike Lowndes of Turley Associates, who had kindly sponsored the evening’s drinks. Mike’s talk on Planning for Viability introduced the beauty and humanism of Renaissance town planning principles, before defining viability as “something capable of working, something practical”. He cited the example of Stanmore Park in Harrow, where viability was achieved by flood attenuation (effectively increasing the developable land area) and optimising the amount of residential development. Residential development can also cross-subsidise other developments, which themselves add value, such as the artists’ colony at the former Windsor & Newton print factory.

Esther Kurland from Urban Design London (UDL) spoke about Design Skills, focussing on the Taylor Review of planning guidance. The Taylor Review is an effort by government to condense 7,000 pages of planning guidance into a more manageable size, reached via a single website. While some of the guidance dates back to the early 1960s and is clearly obsolete, there is widespread dissonance in the urban design professions at the amount of guidance that is proposed for removal. According to a survey by the Urban Design Group (UDG), the principles of By Design are not well understood in mainstream planning practice – 93% of UDG members shaid it should be kept. This consultation has formed the basis of a response to the Taylor Review, coordinated by UDL and the UDG.

The final speaker was Colin Haylock, 2012 RTPI President. Colin’s presentation exhorted the audience to understand the strength of government policy and think about the places that we want to create. He cited LB Brent’s Place Making Guide as a good example of how to link policy and intended outcomes. Planners and designers should make friends with amenity societies, use best practice guides and champion good placemaking. Above all, it is important to enjoy working with communities.

Following the presentations there was a panel discussion. Questions included the economic viability of water sensitive urban design, the fees associated with consulting with local government and the difficulty of measuring urban design quality objectively. In response, Michael explained that, while it is hard to articulate, it is cheaper in the long run to use a water sensitive approach, as at Cambridge. Colin Haylock pointed out that if local governments were funded properly there would be no need to charge fees for advice. Peter Murray noted that the long term value of a place is generally an accurate measure of a place’s quality, citing his own neighbourhood of Bedford Park. Policy is not the same as politics; however Esther Kurland pointed out that the two can be merged or overlapped, with unsatisfactory outcomes. “Policies that are politics” should not be encouraged.

Following the panel discussion, the delegates adjourned to the gallery to carry on the discussion with refreshments provided by Turley Associates. Throughout the evening, various common themes had emerged. One consistent point was that cities are built by and for people; successful cities will work well for human beings, from the largest to the smallest scale. This is reflected in the iterative nature of London’s development, the inherently sociable nature of dense cities and the relationship between urban movement and health. Given the innate complications of the built, natural and human environment, the need for partnership working to deliver successful places is especially evident.

This is the final iteration of Good Design = Good Planning. It has been a delight to be a part of this series and I would like to congratulate Tom Venables on organising a superb trio of events. We look forward to a follow-up series in due course.

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