Hedging on the pedestrian

February and March are traditionally the Spring conference season and have taken me this year on speaking engagements from Millbank (with RUDI) to Earls Court (with the Academy of Urbanism), the Royal College of Physicians (with the Architectural Review) and, ultimately, to the giant property toyshop of MIPIM in Cannes (with CABE). In more or less relaxed surroundings the pre-Spring period has been an opportunity to sit down with peers, discuss current practice and swap notes on future plans. First off the lips of those there was the global credit crisis, with opinions divided. On the one hand there was general concern over the detrimental effects of restricted borrowing on property development. On the other there were a significant number for whom the financial downturn presents opportunities to spend squirreled cash.

What unites many is the need to look ever more closely at property decisions and, as far as can be done, to base these on good evidence and analysis. Yet, for some, the current crisis provides the impetus for corporate change, professional diversification and geographical outreach. With work slowing in the traditional markets of house building and road building, engineers and architects alike are reinventing themselves under the common mantle of “urbanists”. Witness the queue of architects, sorry, masterplanners, lining up to imagine the future of great tracts of foreign soil. Drawn by the financial opportunities, driven by “scale-ego” and armed with eye-watering graphics, the rush of talent is impressive. The fact that many have barely a few hectares’ experience of such work in their portfolios is another matter.

Compounding the risk equation is the plethora of transport consultants who have moved into the conversion business – methodology conversion, that is. Today’s leading currency is the pedestrian, with the car continuing its downward trend and public transport struggling to maintain its profile. With its peaks and troughs, the bicycle is a volatile choice, which can bring strong returns but can equally lead to significant shortcomings, especially when it is a question of deciding whether cyclists are benign urban participants or a lycra-shrouded menace.

In response, the world of transport modelling is hedging on the pedestrian and, in the absence of established methodologies for assessing this strange tender, is lending techniques from elsewhere – witness the application of vehicle transport models that attempt to explain the behaviour of homo sapiens; as if calculations, based on the commuting patterns of car-borne workers could possible replicate the moving, browsing and buying patterns of people on foot. How can models that only include the main streets possibly reproduce the fine-grained subtlety of foot-based activity?

Time will out on the new-masterplanners and currency converters but what I expect will prevail is the notion that urbanity is important and that urbanism is more than the making of pleasing shapes or the efficient movement of vehicles – it is about the making of places and, especially, the social and economic transaction of people on foot. In order to understand it, I think two things need to happen. First, the industry needs to find consistent means of describing places – an urban design conference today is a showcase for several different ways of doing the same thing, with no accepted standards. Urbanism today is where structural engineering was two hundred years ago: aware of its importance but insecure in its identity. Second, these methods need to be developed for the specific purpose of understanding people and places, not borrowed from outside the field. A discipline of urbanism should be established within which there is a core of consistency and a crust of innovation.

Urbanity needs to be valued for itself; it is more than a label or an add-on. It is, when successful, a means of economic and social wealth generation. A well-managed, diverse, properly governed place is a means of production – a machine of society in its own right. It is not just the backdrop to events but rather the facilitator and evaluator of them.

To acknowledge this would be to recognise that the practice of masterplanning is not simply a means to an end – for architects, the process of urbanism is more than just getting buildings to build; for engineers, more than infrastructure to design. A masterplan is an end in itself, bringing with it responsibilities for creating social and economic change. Architects and engineers need to better understand and then accept these responsibilities if we are to see professional practice truly deliver.

RTPI magazine column, March 2008

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