Reflective planning

One of the benefits of an international staff is that the office becomes quieter in the run up to Christmas as people leave for home. Since the New Year is an opportunity to take stock and think ahead, the directors took advantage of the lull. We devoted two days to “reflective planning”, a process of simultaneous backwards and forwards looking. We tested past successes and failures against the opportunities and constraints that we believe will shape our business in the years ahead.

The overriding message was change. A child today can access computing power that would make Neil Armstrong blush. The change we have seen in one generation will continue apace. What will this mean for the practice of urbanism?

A key challenge of urbanism is that its practitioners successfully orchestrate diverse professional inputs – design, transport, property – at every scale. We are hindered by ineffective communication between disciplines; we use incompatible assessment methodologies and we speak different languages.

There is a powerful lesson to be learned from what has happened in the home. Yesterday’s word processor is today’s “home hub” that lets you type, watch films and make phone calls. Objects once separate are now not only connected but united. Could it be the same for urbanism?

But there is an additional difficulty: our actions are as often subjective as they are based on objective assessment. There is, in particular, a critical divide between the subjectivity of much design thinking and the objectivity of transport planning and, at least on the face of it, property assessment.

We have a long way to go and nowhere more than the field of design – a place of too much bad  poetry and unbridled emotion. Most design decisions are not subject to the same level of objective analysis enjoyed by transportation and property decisions for two key reasons. First, designers are culturally suspicious of any technology that might “determine” their design output. Second, the fundamental effects of space/form design decisions on human activity are not well understood.

In this regard, the integration of designers is lagging behind other recent and significant moves in planning. The rise of the pedestrian in transport modeling methodologies has been profound. The “roads must roll” paradigm, that says cars and pedestrians should be separated so that the traffic can keep flowing, has been successfully challenged by the social and economic failure of the subway networks that were built to deliver it. There may be further to go – to slow traffic and boulevard our ring roads for example – but the Manual for Streets is another giant leap.

One of the risks of design falling behind the increasing objectivity of planning and property is that designers will become increasingly suspicious about the real agendas of other consultants – “They’re just trying to build more roads” or “They want to turn the town centre into a giant mall”.

Another less obvious but potentially more damaging consequence of the divide is lack of interest and therefore engagement between designers and non-designers. I already see this happening. The architect doesn’t understand and isn’t interested so leaves the room to let the others sort it out. This is a risky development for urbanism and sets back the potential for integration between professions.

The way forward must be to arm designers with design tools that objectify and, in doing so, legitimise their design decisions. At Space Syntax, the tools we have developed link design issues such as layout, orientation and land use to outcome variables such as pedestrian, cycling and vehicle movement flows. We aren’t alone in trying to demonstrate the importance of design – both to designers and their audiences – in being not only about how things look but, more importantly, how they work. Again this seems to be a cultural problem in much of the design field. The current generation of design leaders has been taught that the link between form and function isn’t there. What matters is how things look. This is hazardous because it appears to absolve designers of a responsibility for affecting outcomes.

If the existing technology can be disseminated to the immensely creative fingertips of designers and they can see, from the earliest stages of initial concept sketching, how the marks they make on paper have real social and economic implications, then another important step will have been taken. This was one of the main messages we took from our reflective planning event. With this impetus came another thought: we are no longer tied to the telephone table in the hall if we want to make a phonecall. Nor are we obliged to move between different parts of the home to do our work or take our leisure.

Technology has intervened in the domestic environment ways that create new forms of behaviour and new ways of living. It will continue to do so and we will work out for ourselves which of these ways work for us. How will these lessons translate to the ways we move between places and the forms of behaviour we engage in once we reach our destinations? We need fresh thinking to ensure we can anticipate the outcomes of urban development in a changing technological and, with that, social climate. Designers should not be left behind because their creative talents are needed more than ever before.

RTPI magazine column, January 2008

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