Sustainable places …and how not to design them

Creating enduring places is one of the key challenges for those of us charged with delivering communities that will be successful throughout the 21st century and beyond. In this highly mobile and globalised information age, when individuals and companies can choose to locate anywhere, creating a ‘somewhere’ rather than a ‘nowhere’ has become a new holy grail.

f we get this wrong we will be wastefully retro-fitting or redeveloping our flawed places for generations to come. The ‘demolish and rebuild’ philosophy might work for those parts of our towns and cities that experience continuous cycles of investment.  In market terms these can support the necessary change. However, for many – if not most – parts of our towns, affordable change barely happens more than once a century, frequently less. These towns must have a template that will be functional over a very long cycle, way beyond normal, human life spans.

So, rather than advocate some ‘motherhood and apple pie’ concept of worthy, sustainable urban design, I thought it might be helpful to consider what to avoid if we genuinely want these adaptable, lasting places. Here are my ten easy steps of what not to do. What are yours?

  1. Completely avoid the idea of ‘place’ as a concept that influences people’s idea of where to live, invest, raise a family or just visit. Traditional notions of ‘places’, ‘streets’ and ‘squares’ are outmoded and, well, square. Think like an aristocrat or waiter:  place is simply your station in society, or perhaps your setting at dinner. Anyway, in the mobile, digital age of the camera phone, aren’t we all placeless now?
  2. Similarly, ignore the role of urban design as a structuring framework for creating and regenerating towns. There is no such thing as context – only demographic profiles, market responses and creative imagination. ‘We know our market and the crap we sold in the past will almost certainly sell again’. Radburn meets Ratner.
  3. Decide you need a ‘masterplan’ to deliver your new or regenerated sustainable community. An all-singing vision of modernity and progress with whistles and bells. Don’t prepare a complex and long-winded multi-disciplinary brief or appraisal – talented people rarely read them. Instead go for a design-led competition, unfettered by the constraining realism of a funding developer or investor.
  4. Consider whether to go for an open competition which encourages very young space designers – too young to be master planners – or select a la carte from tried and tested designer ‘names’, as if buying a suit, trainers or perfume. Don’t go for any planning or urban regeneration specialists who will dilute the clear thinking and clean lines of a pure designer.
  5. Encourage innovation above all else. We have nothing very much to learn from the past – other than that we have usually got it wrong, somehow. The poverty of historicism and all that… We need completely new places for this completely new age.
  6. Let the public view an exhibition of design ideas. But don’t let them vote or select – for what do they actually know?  And don’t let the ‘creatives’ be infected or diluted by collaborating with them; this rarely works because designers don’t like being told what to design, and communities don’t like being told what they are going to get.  Rather, inform the public of the result once you have made your choice.
  7. Select the preferred masterplan based on the most colourful and imaginative proposals, ideally by a recognised signature ‘hand’ which breaks the few guiding rules of your minimalist brief. Don’t worry that it is not buildable, that no-one will want to live there after five years, or that it makes your town look like a run-down, nowhere place that has completely lost its confidence and sense of identity. Your choice must be exciting and look good on video fly-throughs, especially going under all those buildings that don’t quite touch the ground. It is not really your concern what happens down at that level.
  8. Don’t take up any references to see whether your winner has designed successful sustainable neighbourhoods elsewhere. You might not get the response you want. Rather, make sure their professional indemnity insurance is above £10 million. That will cover your backside, just in case…
  9. Make sure you can get the selected scheme displayed and photographed as an internally-lit glass model. Image is everything, so is publicity. Get it written up in a glossy design journal or even featured by Jonathan Glancey in the Guardian.
  10. If you are getting a little nervous about all this, make sure you enlist validating support from the likes of CABE, English Partnerships or Scottish Enterprise, possibly with senior representation from the key professional institutes to legitimise the decision you have surely made in advance.

And if you have already implemented all these steps, it is probably time to move on …rather quickly …to screw up yet another urban environment somewhere else, just like you did in the 1960s and 1980s. You don’t want your past catching up with you just when it is due for demolition…

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