Tuesday, 27 April 2010

The Peter Milo Lecture 2010 - Quality Streets, Quality Townscapes

Those of you who did not manage to visit the City Marketing Suite at The Guildhall, London on 26th April 2010 missed a fantastic opportunity. The Worshipful Company of Chartered Architects hosted two eminent Urban Designers/Planners to discuss City environments. Roger France, Master of the Company introduced the speakers.

Georgia Butina Watson, PhD (pictured left) is Head of the Department of Planning and a Research Tutor in the Joint Centre for Urban Design at Oxford Brookes University in Oxford, UK. Her experience is international and she has noted expertise in urban morphology and place-making.

Joe Weiss, FICE, FIHT  (on right) is the Transportation and Projects Director for the Corporation of the City of London, UK. He has wide-ranging experience of rail, highways, urban design and even airlines, the last of which had him arrive from North America moments before he was asked to speak.

Georgia’s segment of the Lecture focussed on the Art of Place-making and Sense of Identity. We loved her definition of place identity: ‘…any cultural landscape which users draw on in constructing their personal and social identities.’ Managing townscapes produces character and supports ‘empowerment’. According to Butina Watson, empowerment includes a sense of roots, inclusiveness, co-dwelling with nature (sustainability) and an evolution of the place. ‘Nostalgia’ is fine provided it doesn’t prevent development and gradual change.

Cities, and indeed urban spaces, require permeability, stability, perimeter blocks and variety, so that people can experience the place and connect with its identity. We need responsive environments that can be animated by people.

So, how does Georgia recommend we make them? Even in Oxford, a relatively small City (but it does have a Cathedral!), there must be districts, nodes, parks, edges, landmarks and legibility. Magic.

Joe’s section of the Lecture was very much the view of our City of London, the not-very-Square-Mile, and rightly so, given our lecture venue at Guildhall and his role in the Corporation. He started with a summary of the history of London, at least from 11th century; he didn’t have time to go back to the pre-Roman era. (Is Peter Ackroyd following our blog?)

Despite the seriousness of Joe’s talk, there were certainly some wonderful ‘sound-bites’ in his potted history. The ‘Blitz’ was ‘unauthorised town-planning’, but created the wasteland that facilitated a site large enough to develop the Barbican, an English icon.

Joe’s discussion of the recent past was more serious and possibly sobering, even for us. His map of what has been redeveloped/reconstructed since the 1970s was surprising. Over HALF of the City has been remoulded.

Sustainability-economic, social and environmental-is crucial. So Joe, picking up on Georgia’s themes, went on to discuss what the Corporation is doing to make the City a better place for people, vehicles and companies. Of course, the City can not exclude vehicles, but they have set up ‘security zones’, traffic capacity control to manage the number of vehicles that are in the zones at a given time. Clever, actually. To facilitate pedestrians the City has lowered curbs and defined what could be pedestrian zones (or vehicular zones, or even bicycle zones) by intricate paving patterns and an occasional ‘sleeping policeman’.

Artistic works, lighting and green spaces, even trees, feature in the Corporation’s all-encompassing plans. Making places that are easy to access for pedestrians and moving traffic appropriately are crucial to making a City that people actually want to be in. Even if Moorgate Junction is ‘Telly-Tubby Land’, many of the Corporation’s concepts seem to work well.

Knowing your customer, whether it’s the City-worker trying to get in-and-out of his/her office or the tourist trying to work out the intricacies of medieval Oxford, town-planning and an integrated approach are clearly critical.

© Worshipful Company of Chartered Architects, London

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