Saturday, 24 July 2010

The role of buildings in education

The axing of school rebuilding projects continues to dominate the news (no doubt fueled by Ed Balls' Labour leadership campaign). Forgetting the regretful way in which the news was disseminated to the public, it raises an interesting question over what role school buildings play in education. This article provides an interesting reflection on both sides of the argument:

Without appearing to sit on the fence too much, I take a rather more pragmatic view that sits between the two views shared above. Most importantly the building should be structurally sound and meet all required building standards.

Repairing any school buildings with leaky roofs and unsafe playgrounds must be the priority. But I do wonder if architects have blown the BSF project out of proportion and see it as a cash cow to design over elaborate new schools. I don't doubt Rowan Moore's comments that good architecture can inspire children, but this does not require multi-million pound development projects. I would hope that creativity and imagination in the built form can still be demonstrated on a smaller scale.

Greater attention should be focused on meeting best practice standards for school buildings (see this CABE research). Only once every school in the country has met these minimum standards can the attention shift to more elaborate design schemes and innovations.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

The World's Most Liveable (and expensive) Cities

I've always kept more than a passing eye on the annual Monocle 'Quality of Life in Cities' Survey. It's a publication that unashamedly trumpets the importance of style, design and travel by congratulating cities that have the right approach to life.

I can see why some think that the magazine might be a tad pretentious with its focus on the jet-setting elite....but it provides a great range of stories and looks damn good as well!

Two things struck me about this years (and preceding years) listed cities:

1. The issue of affordability gets short shrift. I don't doubt that the number of art-house cinemas is of interest, but ultimately it comes down to how much bang you get for your buck. Especially with housing. For a city to be liveable surely it must also be affordable? Personally I have limited experience of the cities in this years Top 25 but from those I do know about, the issue of escalating house prices is never off the front page. Vancouver is a great example. It is a city that regularly wins surveys for livability and quality of life yet suffers horribly from astronomical house prices. It raises the question of how long can the good times continue? Even the most creative of cities needs a core of service staff that cannot (and should not) have to pay top rates for city living. The control and building more (affordable and desirable) homes.

2. London. Where is it? For the last three years the city has failed to place within the Top 25 list. It should not be ignored that Monocle is based in London and therefore the staff are open to all of the city's frustrations (as well as delights) which can easily count against it. The exotic is always more appealing and returning home after a foreign trip to the mundane aspects of home life is never fun. But since 2000 and the introduction of an elected Mayor, London has been unabashed in declaring itself the preeminent world city. From an urban planning standpoint the city has been nothing but ambitious since Ken Livingstone was elected and money was pumped into the Underground network whilst 'starchitects' were given almost free reign to build towers in central London.

So what's the problem? Here is my list:
  • the high cost of public transport
  • poor value for money on housing - small apartments at silly prices
  • too heavy a reliance on the finance sector for jobs and value
  • the risks of cycling on London's streets (could this change with the new velo scheme?)
  • the poor use of the Thames for transport
My fix? Well, I think having the Greater London Authority as a strategic body has helped guide development and other cities in the UK should take note. But....housebuilding is still at very low rates and what is built, in terms of apartments, is still too small in terms of internal space. Taking cars off the roads in central areas would be my biggest wish as it could have multiple benefits. As for London in the Top 25, maybe next year?!

Monday, 12 July 2010

What is the role of example from Portobello

I came across this opinion piece in the Evening Standard last week and it pulls no punches in criticising the role of a Local Authority planner.

I was less interested in why the antiques market is worth saving and more so on what powers planners should have to control development. The article's author calls the planner 'spineless' which I think is unfair as the problem lies within planning law. If the developer wants to change the market to high end retail units then he is fully within his rights. Plus, if the planner does refuse permission and the case ends up at appeal (as the author suggests he should do) the Local Authority will lose and the tax payer will foot the bill for wasted time and resources.

At a higher level the argument is with capitalism and the desire to increase surplus value from land. But what about the view from the street? Clearly the antiques market is prime real estate and could be turning over a greater profit for the owner and/or the shareholders if redeveloped. But what would be lost if the antiques market were to disappear? Character? Heritage? Tradition? Maybe all these things.

The article suggests that planning decisions should take greater account of the number of objections. I would prefer to see this the other way around. What about if policy took a greater account of local opinion in the first place? Alot of time and struggle could be saved later on when controversial applications like this arise.