Stretching boundaries

Interestingly, urban design, a discipline that binds built environment people together, has no professional institute in Britain. There is, though, the Urban Design Alliance (UDA), perhaps a threat to professional institutes' identity, which was welcomed by government when it was set up eight years ago. It seeks to think of professionalism in a new way within a broader urban vision, although it still seen as physical place-making. It argues professions should work together more, for example in training. In Britain the Academy for Sustainable Communities addresses some of these issues and will give credits for topics such as regeneration or urban-ism rather than for planning. There is also the National Planning Forum (NPF), set up by the government, with a similar objective to broaden perspectives. Both have rotating chairs - different professions take it in turn. Planners, architects and others moving between the public, private and community sectors are likely to foster the breakdown of compartmentalization. Ironically, the respect for individual disciplines is likely to increase when they open out and communicate as more people will know what they do. Being perceived as a 'secret brotherhood' fosters prejudice.

The openness implied connects well with the literature on leadership. For example in Good to Great, Jim Collins26 argues that there are five levels of leadership. Fifth-level leaders channel their ego away from themselves towards the bigger picture of building a great company. As Harry S. Truman once observed, 'You can accomplish anything in life, provided that you do not mind who gets the credit.' The equivalences here are the objectives of the UDA or NPF. Thus 'the post-modern profession is the profession that is not purely for the professions'.27

A critical factor in city-making is values. They cannot be avoided as these are embedded consciously or subconsciously in any place-making project. For example, opening structures out to the street reflects our views of transparency; the fact that the Dutch do not draw their curtains at night reflects an originally Calvinist view that we have nothing to hide; by contrast the repelling, reflective glass on office buildings exudes a sense of power and lack of approachability.

Britain, it is argued, is currently good at exhortations and producing good practice guidance. It is also effective in setting up alliances such as the UDA. Apart from creating useful noise, such alliances do not implement defined projects through which you can measure success and failure. They are thus not transformational. They represent advocacy. Raymond Unwin and his implementation of the garden cities is cited as a counter-example. Unwin and his followers built cities which were supposed to act as role models for future living - such as Welwyn Garden City and Letchworth. Here there was a clear statement of aspiration, values and the means of providing technical know-how.

The Congress of New Urbanism (CNU)28 is given as a contemporary example. Some say its focus is narrow, but it remains an interesting example of a group coming together with a clear charter of values and principles which can be argued against. They have tried to extend their understanding of how to go forward by being value-driven and asking how to work across professions and how to challenge codes. The CNU is a movement which took as its model the Congres Internationaux d'Architecture Moderne (CIAM) statement, which, whatever your views, is an aspirational charter of principle and practice. Another example noted is the Urban Land Institute, which has a strong track record in providing cross-sectoral learning models and training, although its background is as part of the development community.

The British government wanted a similar charter for the Academy of Sustainable Communities, one which is not just about good practice or aspirations but is clear about what is expected so it is possible to hold people to account.

Planning is about to be different from what it used to be - it is set to be a more holistic process. Soon the idea of planning as merely land-use planning will probably feel defunct, as will the reliance on technical code-based work. We are likely to incorporate new insights, such as psychological and cultural literacy, and new people will be brought in and consulted. We are moving from simply asking to actively involving. This paradigm shift in the worlds of planning will take time to unfold in its fullness. It will not happen in a smooth, soothing, business-as-usual way. There will be arguments and resistance, battles of will and occasional rage as well as pleasant surprise. Obstacles will appear, although some in the longer run could be seen as opportunities. The shift from 'participation in planning' where you merely consult to 'participatory planning' where you involve will get us beyond the knee-jerk consultation processes so common and yet unempowering. The planning professions should see this moment as an opportunity for them.

This shift emphasizes the democratic imperative. Democracy will cause problems, things will take more time, some kinds of vision might be curtailed or professionals will need to be more persuasive in leadership. But we must have it, especially locally, as the results on the ground are likely to be more sustaining if we use our creative capacities to do it in ways that tap imagination.

Boundaries are stretching from many directions to break down silos. A variety of initiatives and terms express this. Each has strengths and weaknesses as it tries to capture a sense of integration and connectedness.

The way it is used by the British government narrowly focuses on housing. Contrast this with Barcelona's approach (see later) with public space. Nor is it concerned with the global competition of cities, the role of core cities in Britain and their regions, or the economic foundations of cities; a similar class of problem exists elsewhere in Europe.

'Place-making' seeks to move us away from focusing on sites, locations and transport as if these in isolation could create 'a place'. The word place resonates and is emotionally laden in a positive sense. 'A sense of place' encapsulates a variety of factors, physical, atmospheric and activity-based. It centres itself on peoples' perception and experience of places. It highlights quality, good design and appropriateness to purpose and the jointly shared public realm as the connective tissue within which the buildings, forecourts and streets form a pattern or mosaic. It focuses on collective skills and techniques, including cultural and social priorities, that need to work together to make a space a place. Although it has a design focus, it asks itself the question, 'How will social or economic interactions be fostered by the design and layout?' Rather like urban design, it seeks to orchestrate the elements into a workable whole, so highlighting a concern with the lived life of the city as distinct from its mere structures.

'Urbanism' uses an even broader canvas. It is the discipline which helps understand the dynamics, resources and potential of the city in a richer way. And urban literacy, developed by learning about urbanism, is the ability and skill to 'read' the city and understand how cities work. Urbanism, it is argued, can become the meta-urban discipline and urban literacy a linked generic and overarching skill. A full understanding of urbanism only occurs by looking at the city from different perspectives. By reconfiguring and tying together a number of disciplines, penetrative insights, perceptions and ways of interpreting an understanding of urban life emerge. By seeing the city through diverse eyes, potential and hidden possibilities, from business ideas to improving the mundane, are revealed. Traditionally, however, the conversation on urbanism has been led by architects and urban designers. Urbanism provides the raw materials for creating urban strategies and decision-making. It requires a set of lateral, critical and integrated thinking qualities as well as core competencies. These draw on the insights of cultural geography; urban economics and social affairs; urban planning; history and anthropology; design, aesthetics and architecture; ecology and cultural studies; as well as knowledge of power configurations.

Each discipline contributes its unique quality, traditions and focus necessary to comprehend urban complexities. For example, cultural studies and anthropology bring an understanding and interpretation of the inherited ideas, beliefs, values and forms of knowledge which constitute the shared bases of social action. This is enriched by interrogating and decoding the world of signs (in language, narratives, film, music, and so on). The sociological focus helps reveal group dynamics and the processes of social and community development, while economics identifies the financial and commercial determinants driving urban transition processes. Cultural geography helps clarify the spatial, locational and topographical patterning of cities and design and aesthetics focuses on look and feel. Completely underestimated in the context of the city, psychology brings in emotional factors in urban development and how people feel about their environments. Finally, planning and the other built environment professions contribute the techniques and technology and sets of rules, codes and conventions to carry out the insights gained from these varied forms of knowledge.

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