Gehl warning: urban design can contribute to urban regeneration but is not in itself sufficient
As I was saying, urban regeneration is about two things. Economic activity and place-making. Because the UK has been rubbish at place-making for most of the last century – and because getting design right is really important – much of the urban regeneration focus of the last dozen years or so has been on planning and design. Although the Urban Task Force report of 1999 actually had something like 105 recommendations (about 100 too many to be useful) even its authors sometimes acted as though there had been only 1:to improve urban design.
It’s worth pointing out that despite this emphasis – and despite the existence of CABE which the Task Force spawned – urban design in the UK got worse in the very period it was most stressed. CABE reports repeatedly confirmed this to the despair of ministers ( I was there) who wondered why CABE was being so ineffectual.We produced some of the worst developments in Christendom in the decade after the Task Force report. Bad regulation and bad business models were at the heart of this terrible failure. Yes the poor skills base of planners in the UK didn’t help but in my view the focus on that misses the big picture.Bad design is rooted in the UK development market and the way in which the regulatory framework has shaped it.
I wrote about this in greater depth in the 2007 commission into design I chaired for the Housing Corporation,published(megalomaniacally) as The Williams Report. Although that report was focused on social housing procurement and how that impacted on design(badly)it had much to say about the general conditions in the UK leading to rubbish housing developments. I won’t reprise them all here but clearly the short-termism of UK house-builders is pretty fundamental as in both the private and public sectors models which enshrine a long term engagement with the development and place have always led to better design and public realm management.
In the private sector the best results have been obtained in places like the London squares –where a single landowner retained the freehold over centuries ,provided enabling infrastructure and public realm management, and enforced a design guide and pattern book.Pari passu, the worst results have been obtained when the public sector sells its freeholds at top dollar to house-builders and then expects to enforce standards through the planning system, forgetting the short termism of the housebuilders means they will sell the units and basically bugger off.
As to the role of the regulatory and planning system in the UK design fiasco,this has been formative. The increase in the policy burdens,transaction costs and complexities around making a planning application has driven small boutique builders out of business, reduced competition and diversity and made the big 6 house-builders-and their designs-dominant.Nowhere else in Europe has big government and big business so conspired to cut out competition and indeed consumers. Add to this the absurd policy extremism around prioritizing brown field/inner city development – and you end up ,via the help of the funny money explosion which funded the building craze in the first place – with the smallest housing in Europe built in places few people with choice wished to live.
Then the government leaned on the social housing funders to focus on deliver unit numbers and not housing quality and you have homes and places that Lord Rogers wouldn’t take a dump in let alone actually live in. Made in Britain.
The only positive aspect of what the Aussies call the Global Financial Crisis is that the UK once built the worst housing in the world and now we’ve stopped. Will the nonsense resume after the GFC is history? Why not?
The funny money meant that any residential development could get funded between say 2001 and 2006 with quality no obstacle.I have argued before that the urban regeneration industry then mis-recognised this housing boom in places where local economic demand was not really driving development ,as the ‘regeneration’ of their towns and cities. In reality ,units were being built in such places even when the economic fundamentals had not changed. Indeed,in many northern cities which saw massive flatted development ,GDP stalled and worklessness increased.Hence my emphasis in this piece on economic activity and indeed GDP/wealth and place-making. The rhetoric and bubble around development in the noughties blinded us to the primacy of the former. It’s the economy stupid.
This frames my reception of an otherwise important new book by the doyen of urban designers, Jan Gehl,called Cities for People(Island Press 2010).Essentially a ‘how to make great cities work for humans too’ guide no planner,developer or city leader can plead ignorance after this work that they didn’t know what they were doing. Read this. It shows how to repair damaged places as well as build brilliantly anew,simply by focusing on the human scale ignored by the previous generation of modernist architects,developers ,traffic engineers and city builders and by designing out forces which actually prevent human interactions and blight places:zoned,single use, development,abstractly over-dense buildings having little relationship with places,people or the spaces between and prioritizing the car. Undo that lot and you are on the right track. Read nothing else if you want to fix the design of your place.
However,while Cities for People is the best kind of design guide,it is not an urban regeneration manual – and it doesn’t claim to be- because its remedies work in places where there is basic economic demand .The issue in such places is to harness the economic force to good effect and to shape the best result. In such places,temporary blight is the issue and Gehl shows you how to fix it.He also shows the principles and practical steps which any new development should adopt. This is not however a primer for long term blight and historically bust places which have lost their market purpose and socio-economic vitality – which even brilliant design solutions cannot reinvent. It works at the level of enabling Cardiff to have a better café quarter and retail environment or for new housing to be better integrated in a mixed use development .It is not about the turnaround of the Valley towns.
Now if someone had the massive resources and the will to really reverse the decline of those communities ,I’m sure Mr Gehl could help. Until that time Mr Gehl will remain,I fear, a reformer for good times and easy places:my judgement on the entire design-led regeneration movement spawned by the Urban Task Force. I’ll get my coat…..