Eight-lane freeways are still the most common method to connect US urban centres

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RIBA President calls for stronger
recognition of New Urbanism
By Andrew Stevens, UK Editor

8 August 2004: A call from an outspoken leading British architect for urbanism to be recognised as a vocation in itself has shone a spotlight on the movement for New Urbanism. The initiative by George Ferguson, the President of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), dictates a new approach to the planning of cities and calls for the various professions which play a part in the process of urban renewal – city planners, architects and regeneration consultants – to be bound by new institutions and a collective commitment to the better design of cities.

In doing so, he has prompted a debate on a professional field which remains fragmented and an ethos which is somewhat unheard of among British urban planners and policy-makers.

The New Urbanism design movement hails from the US and is a term attributed to the school of thought which emerged in the late 1980s that sought to harness principles of liveability and diversity in the way urban space is designed and managed. The movement represents a culmination in the attempts of policy-makers and professionals in a variety fields to galvanise ways of thinking around making communities better places to live, something recognised in the pitch of politicians to not only address the deficits in the lives of the ‘have nots’ but also ‘the haves’. New urbanist principles are reflected in the flagship development of Seaside, Florida, which famously provided the backdrop for the film Truman in the late 90s.  However, the utopian principles which influenced the development’s character and uniform arrangements have been criticised as culturally-bereft and bland by some commentators.

The movement represents a specific response to a specific problem, namely the inchoate and short-termist (if not absent-minded on some occasions) thinking of post-war planners in the US, characterised by strip-malls alongside tracts of highway, which are in turn blighted by poor public transportation and general aesthetic deficits. By emphasising the community in the heart of future planning rather than short-term commercialism dictated by the quick take-up of leases, it is hoped that such ways of thinking and attendant social problems that follow in their wake can be consigned elsewhere. Furthermore, the advocates of New Urbanism are critical of housing provision in the form of large-scale social housing for the poor and a lack of diversity for everyone else. This is something a recognition that big isn’t necessarily beautiful when it comes to the scale of public works and the demographic change that has occurred in recent years, the number of single people living alone for instance.  Although made famous by the stand-alone Seaside development, the movement also stresses its importance in in-fill developments, such as that in Bethesda, Maryland and in regional planning, citing New Jersey’s state-wide planning guidelines as a perfect manifestation of its principles.

In the US, the movement is led by the Congress for a New Urbanism (CNU), which despite the presence of the word ‘new’ in its title, is in fact directly influenced by the garden city movement of the UK known as the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA). The Congress is bound by set of guiding principles that underpin its ethos succinctly, found in the Charter of the New Urbanism, which emphasise the multi-layered approach at regional, city and street level. As well as stressing the need for liveability, which has been raised by British politicians as the defining issue on which governments are judged in recent years, and more diversity of provision, New Urbanists value the input of the community in participatory planning structures, another core ideal of the modern-day TCPA. Participatory planning represents a useful guard against what the critics of some New Urbanism tenets regard as bland or banal development, mostly dictated by real estate agents with no reference to how communities live. Because people convey their own experiences and aspirations into their surroundings, a useful reality check is obtained. Though this antithesis to top-down planning by city governors and planners working in concert sounds recent, it actually has its roots in the Situationists of Guy Debord in 1950s and 1960s Paris, who were keen to stress the psychogeographic significance of our surroundings. This analysis dictated that there is a direct correlation between the quality of the public realm and the actions of the individual, with its attendant ramifications for other aspects of social policy.

Critics might argue that considerations about density and scale of planning developments, not to mention the buzzwords of ‘sustainability’, ‘diversity’ and ‘community’ are tossed around with such regularity in planning circles that New Urbanism is just the here and now repackaged to sound better.  This could well be the case. However, Mr Ferguson’s call is radical in terms of its desire to restructure the way the various professions involved in the good planning and governance of UK cities both interact with one another and convey their policies to politicians. It is all the more pertinent because of the desire to see dilapidated city centres regenerated and street-level issues of neighbourhood nuisance such as graffiti or just bad urban design addressed so rapidly. Previously, urban renewal projects were handled by a myriad of government agencies who although endowed with large amounts of state largesse, often failed to deliver the regeneration sought because of an equally diverse number of reasons, including fragmentation. Mr Ferguson’s call for a New Urbanism in a UK context is broad, encompassing the need for a specific profession of the urbanist with specialist degrees and the teaching of urbanism in schools (in the same way that citizenship has been introduced to the curriculum recently) as well as the more immediate need for architects, planners and regeneration consultants to be brought together in a common professional body devoted to furthering urbanism. The crux of this new urbanism is that planning values the holistic and the bottom-up rather than quick-fixes and top-down decision-making.

While the movement is currently more associated with the US, specifically through groups like CNU, there are tangible examples of new urbanism in action across Europe, such as high-profile projects and developments in Barcelona, Berlin and Bilbao. Ferguson’s own practice in Bristol in the south west of England is accredited with popular and innovative developments in the city, while Manchester’s Northern Quarter and Urbis centre are frequently hailed as successful examples of community-led regeneration.  Manchester recently came first place in the ‘Boho Britain’ study of British cities that are the most exciting and interesting places to live, a judgement based on a formula that takes into consideration the number of patents registered per head, ‘gay-friendliness’ and the presence of ethnic minorities in each city (London came 2nd in the study). The study was undertaken by Professor Richard Florida, the charismatic US academic and figurehead of the ‘Creative Class’ movement there. However, Manchester is seen by many as a rare example of a city council committed to working with others and as willing to challenge tightly-held views on how the city works. It is no coincidence that the nationally popular new Lowry modern art museum is also sited there.

A recent study by the Office of the UK Deputy Prime Minister, the government department ostensibly responsible for urban affairs in England, found that the English 'Core Cities' (the major provincial capitals outside of London) lack competetiveness compared with their European counterparts due to their lack of financial autonomy and the centralisation ethos that stifles their creativity.  Clearly New Urbanism has a long way to go in terms of not only approaches to urban design but also urban autonomy.

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