I just read the excellent book by Matthew Green Shadowlands: A Journey Through Britain’s Lost Cities and Vanished Villages. It tells the story of places such as the medieval town of Dunwich, once one of the busiest ports on the east coast, a victim of coastal erosion in the late Middle Ages.
He says in the introduction how easy it is “for towns and villages to fall foul of the historical process and sink into oblivion”.
And yet is it true? The reality is that human settlements are remarkably resilient, those that disappear are very exceptional. As an urban planner and urban designer, this is a comforting thought. The places we design are likely to exist for a long time.
Some streets in Jericho have been around for millennia, but even in London, Bishopsgate and Shoreditch High Street are part of the original Roman road leading to the river crossing built when the city was founded nearly 2,000 years ago. .
This may even be true of the functions of a street. Steven Johnson in his book Emergence talks about the Via Por Santa Maria in Florence, the center of silk weaving for a thousand years.
There are streets in Brighton, Bristol, Nottingham and half a dozen other places that have been designed on the ping pong table that sits in the center of our office
During this time, the city and its culture have changed beyond recognition, the buildings have been replaced many times, but the street and its silk weavers remain. Architecture is ephemeral, town planning is eternal!
There are streets in Brighton, Bristol, Nottingham and half a dozen other places that have been designed on the ping pong table that sits in the center of our office. This is where we used to do our pre-covid communal design sessions and where these streets were sketched and discussed on layers of tracing paper, then traced to CAD, printed and sketched once more.
For the past few years we’ve done the same process on Miro boards which work surprisingly well, but it’s great to get back to our ping pong table.
Our plans were then discussed again with engineers and transportation planners worried about parking, bike lanes, garbage trucks and street trees. Once agreed, the streets were defined in regulatory plans and street sections. They were specified in design codes and subjected to detailed design by public realm designers and eventually entered into a planning agreement.
Then came the uncertain process of implementation. Our office has worked on over a hundred plans, but only a few have made it through this uncertain process to the point where they are actually built. But those who did could last forever, or almost!
What does not last is the fatherhood of the master planner. Only last month I read in the pages of this newspaper on the Port Loop site in Birmingham where I was told that Glenn Howells had taken over the master plan from Maccreanor Lavington. Yet it was a site we masterplaned – I screamed at the screen!
Granted, that was ten years ago and the planning permission we got was for landowners, before Urban Splash was named. But the project is progressing on the basis of this building permit and the plan still looks very similar to the one for which we were shortlisted for the Urban Design Award 2014. And yet, we are long forgotten and indeed, when I claim a certain paternity, I feel that people do not believe me or think that I am exaggerating.
Architects learn to push boundaries and question rules and clients are tempted to take shortcuts and bow to commercial pressures
To be fair Glenn made a master plan for the site prior to our involvement, sites like these are subject to multiple master plans and there is a degree of randomness when the music stops and things actually start to be built.
This is the essence of urban design: it is a discipline practiced largely in absentia. We make our plans and write our codes as an instruction manual to use after leaving the stage – clients very rarely see the need to hold us back after getting a set plan.
Design teams that follow rarely feel bound by our instructions. Architects learn to push boundaries and question rules, and clients are tempted to take shortcuts and bow to commercial pressures. It is often said that planning permission is the culmination of any plan, after which everything goes downhill.
Buildings are easy enough to attribute to their architects but master plans have many authors and the team that designed the plan that was built is quickly forgotten. But in a millennium, prone to pestilence, famine and rising sea levels, if the city still exists, then the street will probably be there too.