Whilst urban design remains a broad, multi-disciplinary practice, there are several elements that urban design must consider when trying to create better places for people. These include aspects such as sustainability, aesthetics, functionality, diversity and flexibility. Such components are particularly relevant and necessary in residential developments in which, theoretically, people should be at the fundamental core.
Mark Massey from IDPartnership presents the Byker Wall – an urban housing project that saw the regeneration of the previous residential district of Byker into a liveable, diverse and comprehensive neighbourhood with strong foundations in community engagement (Muncaster, 2018). The project was appointed to architect Ralph Erskine, who composed his masterplan according to a design checklist which he created (Massey, 2019):
- “Does the work fulfil all reasonable everyday needs and some unreasonable ones?
- Does it form a step on the way to some better human community in which we could believe?
- Does it encourage group contracts? Can it also give privacy?
- Can it inspire those who may live there to partake in the task of giving it form?
- Does it form a meaningful part of, and beautify the community and landscape in which it stands?
- Does it open possibilities for future generations to adapt it to their needs?
- Are the technical solutions the best possible?
- Does it create satisfying work for those who build?
- Can it – as all creative art can – both disturb and give new and unexpected pleasure?
- Will the work mature and age with dignity?
- Does it give joy? Is it beautiful and full of charm?”
Erskine’s checklist addresses all of the relevant factors that should be considered when designing a place for its people, so should all residential masterplans utilise this checklist? And if we were to use the checklist as a set of urban design principles, for residential developments in particular, would we find that developments since the Byker Wall Estate have conformed to Erskine’s points?
Let’s apply the checklist to Staiths South Bank in Gateshead. This project saw the regeneration of former industrial land alongside the historic Dunston Staiths on the River Tyne waterfront to be transformed into residential development offering 760 homes (Hemingway Design, n.d.). The project is widely known to be successful, winning several national and regional awards including the CABE Building for Life 2005 Silver Awards and Best Residential Project and the RICS North East Renaissance Awards 2006 Residential Category Winner (IDPartnership, 2015). But whilst it is successful in terms of winning awards, is it successful in terms of the Erskine checklist?
Does the work fulfil all reasonable everyday needs and some unreasonable ones? The development comprises a mix of one to four bed accommodation with landscaping, courtyards, play areas, a cafe and information point. Bus routes are available within a 400 metre walk, connecting the area to Gateshead, Newcastle, and the Metro Centre, and there are pedestrian and cycle routes linking to Gateshead Centre and Baltic Square (IDPartnership, 2015). Whilst the development fulfils residential needs in terms of housing, play and public realm, it fails to fulfil everyday needs such as shops and schools within its immediate setting.
Does it form a step on the way to some better human community in which we could believe? One of the focal points of the concept for Staiths South Bank was to encourage communality by clustering houses around communal courtyards, where held events such as communal barbecues. A play strategy was also introduced through various children’s play structures scattered across the public realm to ensure opportunities for safe play (IDPartnership, 2015).
Can it both disturb and give new and unexpected pleasure? Staiths South Bank implements innovative design which moves away from standard highway design, including the concept of ‘upside down living’ – houses with living rooms and kitchens on first floors rather than ground floors, which at first “caused some ripples in the world of housing provision”, but was later recognised to allow for internal flexibility (IDPartnership, 2015, p19).
Will the work mature and age with dignity? One of the main successes of Staiths South Bank was in its “non-built aspects of sustainability”, particularly the prioritisation of removing car dominance, allowing for one car parking space per dwelling, and one visitor space per four dwellings (IDPartnership, 2015, p13).
I believe that the key aspects of Erskine’s checklist are communality, innovative aesthetics, sustainability and functionality. Of these four components it can be said that Staiths South Bank successfully delivers three, although slightly lacks in the functionality element due to the limited amenities and facilities within the immediate context. However, it does successfully provide connectivity to these facilities, and therefore the project should be deemed as successful according Erskine’s checklist, thus suggesting the checklist could and should be applied in practice.
Hemingway Design (n.d.) Staiths South Bank, Available at https://www.hemingwaydesign.co.uk/projects/staiths-south-bank/. [Accessed on 23/12/19].
IDPartnership (2015) Staiths South Bank: A Retrospective.
Massey, M. (2019) Place Making in the Garden Village Tradition, TCP8090 Principles and Practice of Urban Design, Newcastle University, delivered 14th November 2019.
Muncaster, M. (2018) The inside story of how Newcastle’s Byker Wall has dramatically changed over the years, Chronicle Live.