Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Why Study Cities?

Before entering urban planning I completed a Masters degree entitled Urban Economy and Culture (see here).  The course was being run for the first time by the University of Southampton as a sign of the growing popularity of urban geography and cities.  I thoroughly enjoyed the course, in particular the wide range of reading it exposed me to.  This included texts on the creative economy, global cities and urban economic development.  It also introduced me to Jane Jacobs, Richard Florida and Ed Glaeser among others.

In the six years since this course interest in urbanism and cities has, if anything, excelled.  Richard Florida is invited to Downing Street, Andrew Marr is making documentaries on Mega Cities, and Ed Glaeser is invited onto the Daily Show with Jon Stewart (cultural kudos indeed!).

It was therefore interesting to see Rowan Moore's review of two new books grappling with contemporary cities (here).  I have yet to read either book but Moore makes an excellent point I agree with.  The study of cities is becoming so all-encompassing that it covers all aspects of humanity.  As Moore discusses, if half the population live in cities then what can we exclude from urban studies?  Potentially nothing.  While this gives the academic field plenty of scope to undertake research it does weaken the concept of urban studies.  I gained a great deal from my urban studies course but it did lack specialisms that were directly relevant to the workplace, in particular urban planning.  The breadth of urban studies is excellent for providing context but can be portrayed as too generalist.  A greater engagement with the field of urban and land-use planning could refine urban studies and move it away from trying to achieve too much.  

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Listed Buildings in the News

Over the past week a number of media stories have centred on Listed Buildings and the opportunities and challenges that heritage preservation creates.  Here are three examples:

Broadgate Square

The Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt MP, has today announced that Broadgate Square will not be listed despite recommendation by English Heritage (see here).  This now paves the way for Ken Shuttleworth's new office scheme which requires the demolition of two buildings in the Broadgate Estate.  Christine Murray provides an excellent editorial on English Heritage's worrying behaviour in this case (see here).  If Broadgate Square was such an important example of 1980s architecture, why did English Heritage only become vocal after planning permission had been granted?  Surely if they felt so strongly that the area warranted Grade II* listing, noises should have been made much earlier in the process.  The belated recommendations by English Heritage make them appear reactive and go against the principle of front-loading in the planning system. 

BBC Television Centre

The BBC have finally confirmed that Television Centre at Wood Lane will be sold, as reported here.  This follows the Corporation's relocation of many its services to Salford and the recent redevelopment of Broadcasting House in central London.  The move is also a reaction to the BBC's requirement to cut costs, including cutting property holdings by 20%.  Parts of Television Centre are Grade II-listed which will have to be incorporated into any redevelopment proposal.  While there has been talk about a museum or creative studios on the site, it is likely that residential development will allow the BBC to maximise their returns.  Shepherds Bush has excellent transport links and with Westfield shopping centre opposite the site is a prime housing spot.  The bidding war begins. 

Park Hill, Sheffield

Finally, The Independent reports today on the Grade II*-listed Park Hill estate in Sheffield.  The estate was the subject of a recent documentary that traced English Heritage's involvement in the redevelopment of the estate by Urban Splash.  The article questions whether the regeneration of the estate will price out working families and turn it into a 'yuppie paradise'.  As Europe's largest listed structure it is fascinating to see how the estate has been redeveloped while retaining the original concrete structure.  Whether the original social structure remains is another question.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Musing Urbanist in Architects' Journal - Localism

In this week's Architects' Journal I have an article published on the role architects can play in the forthcoming Neighbourhood Plans.  The article can be seen here (subscription required).  I argue that the new neighbourhood level of planning policy requires the expert input of architects because planners do not have the necessary design skills to promote and protect the interests of clients.

Building Cheaper Schools

Back when Michael Gove MP was bogged down in cancelling the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme, I wrote this article (here).  I argued that whilst good design was important in education buildings, the BSF programme had been a 'cash cow' for contractors and consultants.  Surely it was better to establish minimum design standards that could elevate all schools to an acceptable level without the largesse of some new schools.

It was therefore interesting to see a comparison of two new schools in The Independent (here).  The article compares the City of Westminster College with Catmose College in Rutland.  The former was designed by international Danish practice Schmidt Hammer Lassen and cost £70m or £2,900 per sqm.  The latter, designed by Jonathan Ellis-Miller, adopted a more flexible approach and came in at £1,800 per sqm.  From the article's review of the two designs, it is encouraging that a 'social and functional' school can be developed at this lower cost.  Lessons should be learnt from Catmose because with public spending facing a continued squeeze, no education authority can rely on the grand dreams of BSF any longer.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

A Letter to London

With the Musing Urbanist soon to depart these shores for the glass towers of Vancouver, I felt now was a suitable time to reflect on the state of urbanism in London.  While the popularity of ranking cities according to liveability shows no signs of abating, my letter to London hopes to inform the debate from a specific planning and urbanist standpoint.

Dear London
I first got to know you on annual weekend visits as a child. Your famous monuments and overpriced hotels opened my eyes to a type of settlement a million miles away from the rural idyll of the Channel Islands. After I relocated to the city in 2006 I have got to know you on a more personal level and have seen you and at your best and worst.  So as I depart for a city often feted for its approach to urbanism and liveability (rightly or wrongly), I leave with you my thoughts on what makes you world class and not bottom of the class. 

London's parks come in all shapes and sizes, shabby or royal, overgrown or majestic.  Having lived in west London for the past two years I have been spoiled for choice with access to Hyde Park, Holland Park and Ravenscourt Park - not to forget the future plans for the redevelopment of Shepherds Bush Green.  London's parks often appear from nowhere, surrounded by terraced housing and suddenly providing open greenspace in the heart of the city.  Clearly we owe a great deal to the Royal Parks for establishing a blueprint of substantial open parkland which the city continues to benefit from.  

Public Transport
Mind the Gap
It is all to easy to mock the Tube for cramped carriages and weekend closures.  But the geographical coverage of the network is truly inspiring.  I often think that if the tube were being developed today it would consist of less than half the number of lines and stations.  Though some areas of the city are not well served by the tube (i.e. Hackney) the growing London Overground service is providing the necessary linkages to offer multiple options for your journey.  While Vancouver gets excited about one underground train line, London operates with 13 lines and significantly more buses.  As London grows eastwards the extension of public transport will be vital to support the new communities.  Just don't mention the strikes!

Old and New
After visiting Paris I was suddenly struck by how London brazenly mixes new and old architecture.  Central Paris is a museum city whereas London embraces contemporary development alongside its historical monuments. While one can endlessly debate the architectural and design quality of the new buildings, the sheer fact they are being built is testament to the city.  London has its fair share of architectural mistakes, but overall I think the city embraces change in its more central areas whilst not neglecting the Gherkin and the soon to be finished Shard add to the character of London and have quickly become part of the urban fabric.

Strategic Planning
The London Plan Key Diagram
The changes described above can be more recently attributed to the establishment of the Greater London Authority in 2000.  Though Mayor Livingstone's pandering to certain property developers was regretful, his time as Mayor saw the establishment of the London Plan and the strategic planning function.  Currently there is a national tension in planning between localism and the requirement to plan certain development at a regional or national level.  Only recently the Government were criticised for constraining wind farm development due to the absence of a strategic plan. The London Plan has set a framework which identifies the key issue to London's future - the growth of East London, the importance of climate change and the role of public transport.  It is an excellent template which other city-regions would benefit from. 

Musing Urbanist