Anyone following the neighbourhood planning aspect of the Localism Act 2011 will be interested in seeing whether letting real people take the lead in shaping their own surroundings will actually result in better places. But professional planners are already failing to create decent places. In Middlesborough this appears to be because they are dropping acid during working hours.
People know intrinsically what they like in a place. To quote the heir apparent: “in a strange way we operate like bees making a hive and ants making a nest or whatever. The universal pattern is within us.” People want streets that feel safe from crime. They want convenient places to buy groceries. Places that are safe from traffic and easy to travel around. Places with a diversity of use.
You can always tell when you find a good place, because there are people around – and they look happy to be there.
One of the tragedies of the modernist housing projects of the twentieth century is that they constructed decent homes in solid buildings (whatever your personal view of municipal brutalist architecture), but put them into terrible contexts. Set in pedestrian canyons that are not overlooked at almost any hour of the day, they usually feel unsafe and sometimes are. They are starved of amenities. The eradication of traditional street patterns makes them difficult to traverse (I had to climb through a children’s playground while crossing through a Hackney estate the other day, because there was no other clear route through). They tend to be surrounded by dangerous roads as if by a moat. They are single-use structures dropped into dehumanising environments as if they were self-contained units.
And professional planners are still making the same mistakes. Middlesborough’s Middlehaven regeneration project reproduces these mistakes by plonking regeneration structures (a college, a museum, a football pitch, a hotel, and so on) into a wilderness, without considering how people actually use places and what they actually want from them.
Oh, and because they were taking acid when they were drawing up the plans, the regeneration buildings looks like fish and eggs, and stand in the middle of impenetrable jungles of gladioli.
Yes, this is seriously what expensive urban planning consultants came up with, and what the council signed up to. Random buildings dropped into cripplingly expensive, uncrossable, and hilly fields of flowers.
Here’s a close up of how they supposed a normal day would look in this part of Middlesborough in 2015.
Sadly this was done before councils were obliged to account for each item of spending, so we may never know how much acid their planning officers were buying on the rates, but even disregarding the LSD-induced design elements, don’t forget that this is supposed to be Middlesborough.
And here we have another problem with the planning establishment: their chronically, compulsively dishonest use of architectural renders.
Who are all these people? Where are they going and where did they come from? Are we supposed to believe that they are just taking a wander through the Willie Wonka wilderness? There are no shops here, no purpose for people being there. It’s easy to drop non-specific pedestrian activity into architectural renders: they come free with Google sketchup. But it’s incredibly hard in reality to get people to congregate in any given place.
Note also the crisp blueness of the sky, which is so characteristic of Northeast England.
Here’s another, just to make the point that, yes, they really are apparently envisioning replacing Middlesborough’s derelict docklands with colossal fields of gladioli. Take that, age of austerity. The non-specific pedestrians here are perhaps even more baffling. You might be able to make out half a dozen men standing on a platform half way up the Space Invader thing. How did they get there? What are they doing? How will they escape?
In conclusion, urban design is a discipline that could do with the dose of reality that community planning will hopefully bring.
The task will be to get people to think seriously and methodically about how they actually go about creating the kind of place they already know that they like, and find a way to articulate it. But I will bet everything that I own (ie, a framed portrait of Gladstone, one half-decent tweed suit, and a dog-eared copy of Jane Jacobs) that no neighbourhood plan will advocate bulldozing a street to replace it with a gladioli field or a giant Space Invader statue thing.