This book is undoubtedly a seminal piece whose message is being constantly validated over time. Although partly inspired by Francis’ reaction against the qualities of alienating corporate urbanism which he witnessed emerging during the 1980s, it is the important observations and exhortations about synthesis – or ‘closing the gaps’, as he sometimes called it – which distinguish it from other, narrower works on design, planning, or urbanism. In many ways, by seeking to place urban design at the centre of a vision for a better quality of urban living, he was both of his time and ahead of his time.
Although Francis was passionate about towns and cities he did not simply wax lyrically about those places he liked. He wanted to turn his experience and insights – extensive in both time and space – into something which has practical value for professionals, politicians, communities, developers and investors. His analysis and recommendations are relevant today and will surely remain so for some time to come. This is why the book needs to be read and re-read by a wide range of new audiences over time.
Francis believed that urban design was a critical philosophy and discipline because places matter more than the individual components which make them up – buildings, spaces and structures. Fundamentally, the austere design simplicity of the modernist era of planning failed to create the enduring places people want and need. A new – or arguably, traditional – integrative approach to placemaking was required.
Although there is still a prevalent object fetishism in architecture and public art, the holistic urban design approach has continued to gain ground, not least on mainland Europe where it never really disappeared. It has been at the forefront of the much admired renaissance of post Franco Barcelona, not only in modest neighbourhood spaces but in the philosophy behind the Olympic Village. Other approaches have been pursued across the Netherlands and in the dramatic reconstruction of Berlin since re-unification.
Francis would be moderately impressed to find that urban design has slowly crept into the mainstream of UK planning and regeneration during the 1990s, featuring both in government guidance – which he pressed for strongly – and in the personal initiatives of John Gummer, when a minister.
Regeneration projects such as Newcastle Quayside, Birmingham’s Brindley Place, and more recently the post-bomb reconstruction of central Manchester, all exhibit the stronger sense of integrated urban design which has sought to emulate their international counterparts. On housing led development too, a distinctive neighbourhood approach has been pioneered by projects as diverse as Hulme in Manchester, Crown Street in Glasgow and the Duchy of Cornwall development at Poundbury, Dorchester. Some of these draw from the American approach of ‘new urbanism’ with its strong principles and building codes framed to challenge the placelessness of strips, malls and suburban sprawl. Francis’ former practice sought to apply these in their plan for the urban village of West Silvertown in London’s Royal Docks.
Perhaps one of the biggest steps in the UK has been the strong recommendation in Lord Rogers’ Urban Task Force Report that urban design – particularly three-dimensional spatial master planning – should play a key part in the regeneration of towns, cities and their neighbourhoods. Francis undoubtedly supported this objective – which he enjoyed undertaking himself – but would probably have settled for a less overtly ‘architectural’ approach than the Task Force report promotes.
The need for appropriate multi-disciplinary skills, training and practice was identified as crucial by Francis more than a decade before the Task Force, but with negligible follow through. A committed architect-planner, he was concerned that his was a dying breed, with architects acting primarily in the interests of individual developer clients, while planners focused on sectoral policies and processes.
The ‘joined up thinking’ which latterly became the watchword of political protagonists such as John Prescott, was trailed in Francis’ RTPI Presidential theme during 1988. He would have been delighted at the formation of the multi-professional Urban Design Alliance, following on his own founding of the Urban Design Group some 20 years earlier. However, the Alliance has a long way to go to make a telling impact on the training of its constituent professionals and on the environments they create. Nevertheless UDAL has made a positive impact in a number of areas, including widening the scope of the successor to the Royal Fine Arts Commission to become the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment. As a supporter of many of the developments which Stuart Lipton undertook – he would be urging us to watch the progress of CABE with interest.
Francis considered that narrow professionalism was at the root of many townscape problems and he was not afraid to become unpopular by charging fellow architects and planners, not to mention surveyors and engineers, with this crime. Nowhere was he more concerned about the gaps than in the design, implementation and management of the public realm. He would surely be impressed at the progress made in European cities such as Copenhagen, Prague and Munich in developing an attractive network of people-friendly streets and spaces. These have been matched in their own way by progressive improvements in central UK cities such as Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow and Cambridge.
Despite this progress many American cities retain a strong preference for vehicular access and dominance of town centres. There seems to be a general unwillingness to adopt the progressive removal of vehicles pioneered by Copenhagen over a thirty-year period. Nevertheless impressive steps have been made in Portland, Oregon, where a highway has been removed to create a new riverfront park; and San Francisco, where innovative public realm improvements are emerging along the corridors of elevated highways irreparably damaged by earthquake. Even New York’s sidewalks and public spaces have been improved dramatically over a decade which has seen Manhattan become cleaner, safer and more convivial for residents and visitors alike.
As Francis’ drawings in this book testify, he was a lover of variety, vitality and the richness of the urban scene. Drawing on the influential work of Jane Jacobs he was a passionate believer in the need for mixed use. This philosophy has clearly moved forward since the book was first published, gradually shifting towards the mainstream of a number of planning regimes across the globe. In the UK this has been stimulated by the advocacy of the Urban Villages Group, research by a range of bodies, and advocacy in government guidance. Some successes have been achieved in locations such as Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter, Newcastle’s Grainger Town and Edinburgh’s historic port area of Leith. Specific area strategies have been adopted in Sheffield, Belfast and Dublin, focusing on both the production and consumption of cultural industries.
The mixed use challenge is to secure enough interest to stimulate regeneration through human biodiversity, although there is always the danger of adverse impacts working against the intrinsic qualities which laid the foundations of success. One-time favourites of Francis, such as London’s Covent Garden and Dublin’s Temple Bar, now exhibit some of those problematic qualities. Perhaps they need some constraints on the level of commercial occupancy, as are applied in New York’s SoHo to protect the role of its artistic and creative communities.
Francis identified our love affair with the motor car as a long-term problem for the health of our cities and, more importantly, for global sustainability. While the problems have worsened in many areas over recent years there have been improvements too. I believe he would have welcomed Croydon’s new Tramlink in South London, which would have taken him from his Beckenham home to the Croydon Library, one of his most satisfying development projects. New public transit systems in Manchester, Grenoble, Portland and Sydney have all given new dimensions to those cities. Hopefully the Heathrow Express and New Jubilee Line would have mitigated Francis’ frequent criticisms of the shortcomings of the London transport system.
It is clear therefore that in many of the areas of urban design which were of great concern to Francis Tibbalds, some positive progress has been made. Francis would undoubtedly accept those, but he would not rest on any laurels. We have not gone nearly far enough. He would look to move the debate forward, spreading the word to new audiences, using different arguments. He might contend that:
- Good urban design is crucial to the local economy, both in terms of attracting and holding residents and workers. In the globalised, footloose economy of the information age, the comparative attractiveness of places is also important in retaining expenditure and taxation locally.
- Tourism is positively shaped by good urban design. Those with choice will tend to visit attractive places, whether historic or modern. Ironically, the once mocked Disney Corporation are now becoming leading exponents of urban design in creating successful new settlements.
- Our objectives of sustainable development can be assisted by good urban design which stimulates reinvestment in the existing urban fabric, rather than wasteful exploitation of virgin land.
- Most of all, I believe, Francis would argue that good urban design, the very nurturing of our towns and cities – is the responsibility of all of us, whether professionals, politicians, developers or members of the public.
If those of us who have the opportunity can take forward Francis Tibbalds’ urban design vision with even half of his passion, then together we can make a difference by creating successful places for real people.