London calling: introducing this special issue on London, Terry Farrell considers the dynamic, intricate and rapidly evolving nature of the metropolis and how propositions for urban planning must respond to its unique spirit of place.
Of course, without a client there is no fee or salary. But in the volunteer tradition of the National Trust, Oxfam, Housing Associations etc, voluntary energy can be harnessed and be extraordinarily effective. In Edinburgh, in London and the Thames Gateway, working independently and voluntarily with planners, architects, engineers, surveyors, we have all joined in (p100), made plans, attended workshops, drawn up proposals for parts of the cities and their landscape. Often, 'seed money' to small firms of designers and planners, modest bits of funding to get started, have proved very powerful as catalysts to release considerable energies and skills. There is also a considerable array of public, semi-public and charitable bodies whose resources and know-how are readily offered and available--CPRE, Royal Parks, Civic Trust, Demos, the Countryside Agency, English Heritage, universities and so on.
Planning and placemaking are conventionally thought of as being the domain of local, regional and national government. But just as good health is not solely down to the medical professions or state health authorities, encompassing a much broader spectrum of diet and exercise, the responsibilities of planning and designing the physical environment essentially lie with individuals and their own voluntary and collective actions, quite separate from the state. There has been an inexorable shift from the late 1940s Welfare State vision of town planning and its associated legislation (which pre-assumed state control and leadership in planning), to a culture of 'non-plan', with development control the primary operating force at town and city level--a kind of built-environment-traffic-warden-culture that relies on others doing the actual planning. It's a far cry from the late '70s when town planners tried to organise themselves to promote all public planning to be carried out only by public servants.
Deregulation of the City of London's financial services sector in the late '80s was perhaps seen as a model for British urban and political management since. Simon Jenkins' book Thatcher and Sons is essential reading, particularly on expanding the private sector's perceived efficiencies and the public sector's centralising role of control for its own sake. But missing from this equation are larger forces such as climate change, which will have to be addressed by positive not reactive public planning. Or, as Isaiah Berlin noted in the late '50s, by positive liberty not negative liberty. Public town planning and design is a good thing and since it is for the benefit of all, it must be executed on a broad range of skills and talents; a state, public service-based control system of private sector planning can never ever be enough.
Leadership and vision in urbanism can come from any appropriate sector. Patrick Geddes, Colin Buchanan and Ebenezer Howard moved easily between professional sectors and boundaries. Great mayors and effective officer level city leaders have often been equalled by private entrepreneurial visionaries such as Joseph Rowntree, George Peabody and Titus Salt. At Thames Gateway, the panoply of government agencies invariably do not have anything like the worldwide, large-scale skills, resources and experience of the UK's renowned international developers, contractors, engineers, architects and planners. They should have public leadership roles and not just be seen as the peripheral ('self-interested') fish that feed off the ('responsible') thinking of government.
But, again, the power of the non-public sector in London's urban planning affairs is often unrecognised. For centuries, private interest has governed the great aristocratic, landed estates, such as Bloomsbury and Notting Hill (p68). Together with the monarchy, through the Crown Estates and Royal Parks (p64) these private interest groups own and 'control' much of central London. Add to this the infrastructural estates of hospitals and transport, and the extensive public estates of mass housing, then it becomes clear that there is an astonishingly large proportion of London not in the conventional open market and therefore not answerable to normal development control planning. Taking streets, roads and urban motorways run by highway authorities and police into the equation, then the amount of land democratically answerable to local planning committees is nothing like enough to mean that the actual democratically elected planning committees plan most of London. Actually, nobody 'plans' London.
But this is not to say that the extensive network of bite-sized bits of land stewardship and management is a bad thing. Admired the world over, the Great Estates and Royal Parks are the epitome of town-planning achievement, accounting for much of what is perceived as core 'quality of life' values in London. How can the qualities of town planning and stewardship be spread? How can the multiple ownerships of the neglected 'lands between'--the chaos of Oxford Street and the rambling suburban High Streets (other than Marylebone and Kensington)--be brought on and become places that actually work and of which communities can be proud?
It is only in new, mainly privately led, developments that much urban planning happens today. Unlike the '60s and '70s when London's publicly funded New Towns and great public housing estates, such as Roehampton, Churchill Gardens and Thamesmead were built, today it is the private estates of Canary Wharf, Broadgate, King's Cross, Paddington Basin, Stratford City, Stockley Park, Wembley and Greenwich Peninsula, that involve the energies and skills of those that make new places. In between is the public domain of overlapping controls and authorities--invariably an area where non-plan prevails. One borough leader described it to me as 'the best we can hope for is the managed decline of the public realm'.
Scale in planning is now a primary issue. In between the two extremes of large area structure plans and smaller private sites subject to development control, is the bite-sized, understandable, place-based world of urban design--neither town planning nor architecture, a discipline, an art form and skill area of its own. In London it deals with the terrain as it is--a process closer to collage and bricolage and placemaking, than either to the design taste or social Utopianism of many architects--and also with pattern discernment, pragmatism and the belief that cities are shared in their creation, the work of many hands rather than individual 'artists'.
The nature of London is this collage of places villages, towns, mini cities and many estate lands, and yet political expediency has parcelled up its democratic boundaries and management in ways that do not relate to communities and places. The genius of London was Nash, inspired by the landscaping techniques of Capability Brown and Repton, Nash's great collaborator. The Paris of Haussmann is inspired by the formal classical landscapes of Le Duc and the Palace of Versailles. However, London is very different from Paris and Barcelona. Their city politics and management, planning processes and activities do not readily translate to this metropolis.
Consultation and community participation are always essential, but the prevailing contemporary culture of relying too much on these processes to divine a way forward is seriously flawed. To choose or assemble a jigsaw, there has to be a picture on the box. My most inspirational teacher when a graduate student of city planning in Philadelphia during the '60s, was not Louis Kahn or Ed Bacon or Robert Venturi or Kevin Lynch, but Paul Davidoff whose 'choice theory' perceived planners as being essentially 'advocates'. Their role was to put forward propositions, advocate them, debate them, consult on them and then let the communities decide. It puts the planner forward as a creative person, with responsibilities for the leadership of ideas.
London is and has always been, a place (like all the UK) without a constitution, without a plan or even overall urban management and stewardship. It is even a place without a firm belief in the great Continental qualities and benefits of the urban life--there is always an underlying belief that rural values are better. London is perceived as a collection of villages and small towns with the Royal Parks, former royal hunting grounds, as pieces of trapped countryside. Social leaders--monarch, aristocracy, business magnates--all not only live in outside country estates, but they also want their London homes to have gardens and (density allowing) to be as much like their rural homes as possible. Aspiring lower social orders buy their houses with gardens in leafy streets and don't like to rent or live in apartments. The 'civic' life, the shared, the urban has not been the preferred option. Yet, seemingly contradictorily, London is the great, liveable metropolis, described by the Lonely Planet Guide as having more to tempt the visitor than any other European city, more diverse, more artistically pioneering and capable of offering 'the very best for everyone'. London has changed: urban is now OK.
But this great teeming place faces many issues. It is not just a place for the tourists or the well-off. It has a great deal of freedom, but at the price of social injustice, urban decay and public realm decline, and faces (admittedly not alone in this) very significant future issues from global competitiveness to climate change (not least the rising level of the river Thames and its estuary, p92). London is actually a triumph of town planning, albeit of a more informal Nash/Repton style, based on mid-scale increments of villages and Great Estates rather than on city-making boulevards and civic gestures. The reliance on this strategy makes it much more vulnerable than the great European cities whose innate, visible and top-down structured spatial planning, will endure. It should be remembered that in the mid twentieth century, London (like its like-minded twin, New York), was a metropolis in a serious, almost terminal, state of decline. But it is also a place that can very readily and flexibly respond and react to new wealth, new technologies, new social cultures and new rules. As such it is both more vulnerable, yet more creatively responsive.
I have always been engaged with voluntary propositions for London. The linking of the Royal Parks as a primary public realm was drafted in 1974 and my involvement continues today as honorary planner to the Royal Parks and Walking Champion for Central London Partnership. Alternative schemes for Hammersmith and Wimbledon town centres were drawn up with local communities in the '80s. With 'Save Britain's Heritage' I produced schemes for Mansion House and Spitalfields. For the South Bank arts complex and the broader River Thames, I worked with the South Bank Board and the Royal Fine Arts Commission--predecessor to CABE. More recently there has been the Marylebone Road/Euston Road project which began with the GLA Architecture and Urbanism Unit and the London Borough of Camden and work on the Thames Gateway with English Heritage, the Campaign to Protect Rural England and Demos the think-tank group.
The more you look at our towns and cities, the more it becomes clear that they could all be improved with care, thought and ideas. The vacuum of public realm inertia needs ideas and advocacy. The more choice there is, the more chance there is that the skills of the urban designer can make a contribution. Public realms need imaginative ideas and propositions that are public spirited in origin and publicly available for potential realisation.
Where does London go in the twenty-first century? With the Olympics arriving in 2012, there is a real chance for London to emerge as the world's model virtual city, based not just on new IT and communications technology, and its roles of trading capital. Instead, there is a chance to create a metropolis based on the media's role of communicating and connecting, of twenty-first century style, urban culture and the broader spectrum of the arts. London is increasingly becoming a city of artistic freedom and of festivals, where the Olympics is just a part of street events, of arts events, open markets and outdoor activities of a nature and scale very different from the formal, contained public squares of European cities. Uniquely, it is all of the dynamic metropolis that engages in this enterprise.
RELATED ARTICLE: PLACE AND URBAN DESIGN
SOME GENERAL PROPOSITIONS
A. URBAN DESIGN
1. In this metropolis of accretion and collage, the art and discipline of urban design leads; architecture and town planning follow.
2. Urban design is primarily scale and territory related based on bitz-sized propositions and projects for communities and place.
3. Urban design is a skill--some 'get-it' and some don't; and often those that 'do' can be from any of a wide range of disciplines. (One of the best I've met is a vicar!)
4. Urban design can be visible or invisible (changing one-way traffic gyratory systems or pedestrian underpasses radically changes how we use our cities).
5. Urban design is proactive and leads development control.
6. Urban design can be individual or team led or vision led: there is no leadership rule.
1. There is for humans a generic, almost DNA sense of place for all places.
2. But urban design and placemaking can only deal with place as specific, not utopian; analysis of existing form, its history and context and what makes the place what it uniquely is, is the starting point. Place can be seen as a culture 'frozen in time'.
3. Place is always a silent client and often the best clue is what it 'wants to be'.
4. Mono-cultural entities like shopping centres, hospitals and airports are kind of half-places but they invariable revert to the natural DNA of human places diversifying and layering with shopping, chapels, housing etc and become structured with a hierarchy of streets and squares.
5. Place is always changing; city planning and designing is invariably about recognising directions and rates of change. London's docks and authorities still prevail over new urban forms.
6. But in the end nature and global changes will prevail over all; less than 10000 years ago London's river, the Thames, was a tributary of the Rhine and the UK was not an island. Climate change and changing sea levels have been, and will be, the norm.
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|Publication:||The Architectural Review|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2007|
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