Reasserting principles of development

The speed of deep regeneration is slow; it takes a generation. It requires value holders who can stick it out for 20 years. Regeneration is too important to be left to the vagaries of the political cycle. Typically, the trajectory of development or renewal in an area starts with a philosophy and then a story - a story of what could be. Often this is prefigured by some temporary actions, such as a market, a bizarre arts event, an old building being brought back to life or a new type of project. Often these are led by urban missionaries, two examples in Britain being Eric Reynolds, whose long track record includes Camden Lock Market, Gabriel's Wharf and Container City in London,33 and Bill Dunster, the eco-architect. They in turn create settings that the pioneers occupy, examples being Dunster's Bed-Zed Factory,34 a zero emissions development with 82 residential units in Merton, London, or Ken Yeang's bioclimatic skyscrapers in Kuala Lumpur. The next group codify, replicate and make the innovations into a formula as the mainstreaming begins. Finally, there are those who benefit from the hard work of the innovators. The challenge is to ensure they do not take all the value out of the development.

The goal is to get a system that reinforces key actors taking a long-term perspective and encourages ordinary people to create the good ordinary and the great surprising. Good ordinary buildings build up like a mosaic, yet the debate about housing or public buildings tends to be dominated by architectural comment focused on loud buildings. To encourage the good ordinary requires principles.

The New Urbanism charter addresses three levels: the region, metropolis, city and town; the neighbourhood, district and corridor; and the block, street and building. Within each there are nine principles. For example, at the regional level: 'The metropolitan region is a fundamental economic unit of the contemporary world. Governmental cooperation, public policy, physical planning and economic strategies must reflect this new reality.' At the neighbourhood level: 'Neighbourhoods should be compact, pedestrian-friendly, and mixed-use.' Or at the block level: 'Individual architectural projects should be seamlessly linked to their surroundings. This issue transcends style.' The core aims are difficult to disagree with:

The Congress for the New Urbanism views disinvestment in central cities, the spread of placeless sprawl, increasing separation by race and income, environmental deterioration, loss of agricultural lands and wilderness, and the erosion of society's built heritage as one interrelated community-building challenge.

We stand for the restoration of existing urban centres and towns within coherent metropolitan regions, the reconfiguration of sprawling suburbs into communities of real neighbourhoods and diverse districts, the conservation of natural environments, and the preservation of our built legacy.

We recognize that physical solutions by themselves will not solve social and economic problems, but neither can economic vitality, community stability and environmental health be sustained without a coherent and supportive physical framework.35

The charter for New Urbanism is a useful mechanism. But it should be judged by its intention, aims and values, not only by what has hit the ground in its name. Many New Urbanism developments can have a cloying feel without the edge of surprise, overemphasizing, as they often do, historic references and context and giving little space for rethinking the new or making dramatic interventions.

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