We are what we street. The elements of successful #urban placemaking

PART ONE – THE ELEMENTS OF SUCCESSFUL URBAN PLACEMAKING
Location
How the site fits into its context, including complementary and competitive attractions; in other words, what else is nearby to which the design should respond? The success of any development, no matter how large, is a function of the wider setting.

Linkage
The specific points at which connections can be made into this context, including public transport connections; in other words the “gateways” into the design.

Layout
The spatial layout design of the project itself in terms of its streets and spaces, whether public/private or open/covered, and the importance of:

– first, encouraging through movement connections between gateways

– second, providing a simple, intelligible internal circulation network through a grid of streets and other connections.

This is the most important of the five elements since the spatial layout, once created, tends to be the most permanent part of the development. It is the most expensive to alter once constructed since it sets out the footprints of buildings and, importantly, since it carries the bulk of major services such as energy, water and data supply as well as waste handling.

Land use
The quantum of different land use attractions and the disposition of these within the spatial layout both in two and three dimensions; in other words where uses are and how they stack up, especially the land uses that occur at street level and any other principal pedestrian levels.

The location of land uses should follow the hierarchy of spatial connections created by the spatial layout design, with the most movement-sensitive land uses located on the most spatially important connections and so on. This alignment of land use attraction with spatial layout attraction is a fundamental property of both historic cities and successful modern places.

Landscape
How the spatial layout is “dressed” both in terms of the “green/blue” landscape of planting and water and the “architectural” landscape of building frontages at the principal pedestrian levels.

Here what matters is that the spatial layout is not overly fragmented or dispersed by planting and that the principal pedestrian levels are lined with open, active frontages.

PART TWO – THE DESIGN
The five elements of successful placemaking establish a framework for design practice. What matters next is the way in which these generic principles are translated into a specific design proposal. This is a creative step, which relies on a blend of imagination and craft, honed by experience.

The challenge for future urban practice is that the five elements are not commonly appreciated in the field of retail development, which has instead adopted principles of gravitational attraction that tend to create anchored, inward-facing, covered malls rather than open, street-based shopping streets, whether we call such streets “high streets” or “souqs”.

PART THREE – THE WAY FORWARD
It has been, and will continue to be, down to pioneering organisations to point out what is increasingly obvious to all but those who are too immersed in it: that anchored malls create sterile places; and then for these pioneers to deliver new places that work because they employ the timeless elements of successful placemaking.

Fortunately, this challenge is facilitated by the continued emergence of technology-based tools for analysing location, identifying points of linkage, testing different layout concepts and modelling the interaction of these with different land use and landscape treatments.

We don’t guess the structural performance of individual buildings so why do we guess the human performance of entire cities?

The structural steelwork of a large and complex building would not be designed without running engineering calculations. Even the smallest of buildings is subject to objective structural analysis. No client and professional team would rely on guesswork, no matter how famous or experienced the architect or engineer.

So why do we leave the human performance of places to the whim of architects who run no calculations and rely only on their instinct and ego? Why is the science of human behaviour so poorly developed? Why is chronic failure still tolerated?

In the early sixteenth century, William Harvey challenged the medical profession to take a more objective, more observation-driven approach to the understanding of the circulation of blood. At the time, medical thinking was largely based on the beliefs of Galen of Pergamon, who had set these out in the second century. Harvey challenged a medical mindset that hadn’t changed in one and a half millennia. And he encouraged his peers to embrace advances in science that allowed new forms of investigation.

We can see a similar state of affairs in the prevalence of, and institutional inertia around, twentieth century planning. Based on belief, not observation-based science, a doctrinal approach to urban planning and design pervades the professions. This is the case, whether the specific approach is Modernism, the Garden City movement or (and especially) Landscape Urbanism. Each is to some degree unscientific.

These approaches propose different kinds of urban outcomes but what unites them is a belief that the future should look fundamentally different to the form of continuously connected, dense and mixed-use urbanism found in cities for as long as there have been cities – the kind of urbanism that architects and town planners visit on their holidays.

The kind of urbanism – and here’s the irony – that Galen would have recognised. If only architecture and town planning were stuck in a fifteen hundred-year-old mindset. We would still have vehicles on the road but we wouldn’t have vehicle dominance. We wouldn’t have land use zoning that generates long-distance commuting, traffic congestion and negative health impacts. We wouldn’t be encroaching on the rural landscape with semi-detached, density-fearing dwellings.

Fundamental change in our professions is needed and science has an important part to play. In the spirit of Harvey’s observation-based approach, we need to embrace the new capabilities offered by sensing, analytics and modelling. We need to understand how cities truly work before we then form ideas about how to change them. We must move beyond the beliefs of twentieth century practice. The evidence is there to demonstrate that practice based on belief hasn’t delivered great places with the consistency required either by the investors in them or the users of them.

We can learn from Harvey, even if our end goal is the urbanism of Galen.