The blog covers my reflections on the lecture “Design of Neighbourhoods” by Ali Madanipour, Professor of Urban Design and the Director of Global Urban Research Unit at Newcastle University.
Since ancient times urban planners, artists, sculptors, architects and philosophers were trying to reveal the secret of an “ideal city” that would meet the requirements of human needs and improve the quality of life. But what are the qualities of a perfect place to live in?
Urban design and town planning are the disciplines that design for the future. Designing cities that would be used by many generations after us, we, urban designers, must make sure that the criteria we addressing now would still be relevant in the future.
“When we build let us think that we build for ever”,
The Seven Lamps of Architecture, Ruskin, John 1849
Modernists’ vision of cities
This is the task that we have failed a number of times in the 20th century. Cities we live in now mostly represented by a result of a rather radical approach of modernists to urban design and architecture during 1940-1960 of the last century, the approach that completely neglected human scale and human needs and was dictated by a high demand in affordable housing and car popularisation.
Modernists had an enthusiasm for the zeitgeist-the spirit of the age where the past was labeled as hindrance to the future (Public places, Urban spaces, p21). They had a vision for cities as ‘machines for living’ (Jan Gehl, ‘The Human Scale’ documentary), mono-functional with total separation in uses and completely relied on car movement. Once delicate and intimate urban spaces with movement speed of 5km/h and the human at the centre of the narrative, suddenly were destroyed by heavy traffic motorways where the car became a central focus of design. Motorways with their high speed pace had a much deeper influence than a visual impact. They thorn cities apart , creating physical and social barriers in human interaction, destroying social inclusion and increasing gaps between social classes, making great contribution to air pollution in cities and climate change as an outcome.
“We had an old scale and suddenly there was a completely different scale. Homo sapiens still had the same height, they still had the same speed of walking, everything was the same with him. But not with his surroundings.”
Luckily, Corbusier’s plan Voisin for Paris redevelopment was never fulfilled. However, his idea, popularising brutalism and high density social living, quickly spread over the architectural world and these days we are dealing with the heritage that modernist architects left the cities with.
Now, half a century later a lesson is learnt and we know that it is impossible to achieve a sustainable community simply by building houses and expecting people to interact with each other. Social engineering was widely neglected in Urban Design during modernism movement emphasising the physical rather than social environment. Many copies of Le Corbusier’s prefabricated residential buildings were built around the world.
It is not surprising at all that most of those developments became crime-ridden neighbourhoods due to lack of legibility and distinction. Many of them have been labeled as errors in social engineering and demolished later on. As a reaction to mistakes done in the past, urban designers of our days have rediscovered the relationship between built space and a human, which means a return to a traditional urban design-organic and holistic urban habitat.
“Architecture is not a form, architecture is an interplay of life and form”
Coming to a realisation that not only a quality of the house is important, but also the quality of public urban spaces, a term ‘urban village’ becomes more and more popular among developers. London only has several new developments which position themselves as villages. But what is an urban village? Does it represent a high quality urban space built to a human scale as a response to human needs or simply a marketing tool to evoke a romantic image of English country side in our minds and attract potential buyers?
There is no single accepted definition to what a ‘village’ is as the image and concept of villages have changed over the time. Village identities are also locally rooted, which makes it difficult to define common characteristics and features.
London as a city of urban villages
London quintessentially is a city of villages which organically merged into one urban area. Some of the villages, such as Hampstead, Greenwich, Richmond, managed to preserve their distinctive character and sense of community through centuries.
Being diverse in character, architectural styles and accommodating various communities, these urban villages have some common features. Understanding what those features are will give us a hint to design good urban habitats:
Small and intimate with defined edges-all urban villages have identifiable boundaries and centre
Locally driven and locally responsive-local communities actively taking part in neighbourhood’s life
Possess unique identity-it can be anything from a unique community of artists to a landmark of local value
Designed to support social interaction-walkable neighbourhoods with public places to socialise and congregate
Mixed community represented by range of ages, income, employment, ethnicity
One of the best examples of new urban villages is Kidbrooke Village, a new development in South London. Kidbrooke Village is the redevelopment of the Ferrier Estate which was constructed by London City Council in late 1960s and was one of the best examples of modernist architecture of those times. Being originally an award winning development, it later had become one of the most economically deprived areas in London with unemployment rate as high as 75% where violence and crime became endemic.
A new development, Kidbrooke village, will offer homes to nearly 5000 people when completed. To integrate new development into the surrounding context better, developers started to build it from the edges continuing London urban fabric into the site. A priority is given to pedestrian access with 65% open green spaces for leisure and activities and only 30% of built infrastructure. All local facilities such as healthcare, schools, shops will be a walking distance
However, the question is will all the above work as perfect as it was planned? Will developments like Kidrooke village follow the fate of Ferrier Estate and once considered a successful development, would become alienated ghost town?
To conclude, local authorities should identify what kind of communities they designing the urban space for and continue work with people even after the development reached its logical completion. This should be developed as a strategy for many years ahead to avoid alienation and economical deprivation of the neighbourhoods. Moreover, the strategy should also include social engineering as experience of previous generation of urban designers showed that it is not the built structures that makes the place. Although it is people who give the space identity, it it impossible to build a strong community in a poorly designed place.
Cities For People (Gehl, Jan, 2010) Life between buildings, Using public space (Gehl, Jan, 2011) The image of the city (Lynch, Kevin, 1960) Responsive Environments (Bentley, Alcock, Murrain, McGlynn, Smith, 1985)