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Saturday26 July 2014

Put people before masterplans, Gehl Architects tells London Assembly

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Incremental change rather than rigidity is the key, says partner Helle Søholt

Helle Soholt, Gehl Architects

Helle Soholt, Gehl Architects

Architects must focus on people not masterplans if they want to reinvigorate failing town centres, one of Gehl Architects’ founding partners told the London Assembly this week.

Helle Søholt said cities that succeeded in attracting people and activity were also successful in attracting business.

It was about understanding the city as an organism, she told the London Assembly, whose planning committee is investigating the future of the capital’s declining town centres.

Søholt, who has advised cities around the world from New York to Melbourne, admitted there was still very little understanding of how to do this.
“We are in a paradigm shift with planning in the world at the moment,” she said.

“We don’t know what type of physical form actually supports people. There’s not a lot of knowledge so what we need to talk about is how to manage incremental change. That’s the model for change my company is advising cities on — not fixed masterplans.”

Søholt said densification was the key — not necessarily height but compactness — and cited Barcelona as one of Europe’s densest and yet most popular cities.

“It doesn’t mean the public spaces are cramped and dark: the spaces between the buildings are very nice and have a human scale,” she said.

“Spain might not be a great economic model at the moment but Barcelona’s compactness and liveliness are absolutely admirable.”

By adding residential storeys to existing buildings in the 1980s, Melbourne brought people back into the city grid, kick-starting its transformation from office ghost town to vibrant mixed-use city, she added.

Søholt’s analysis was supported by David West, partner at Studio Egret West, who cited its Clapham Library project as a successful example of a site-specific scheme that brought a mix of uses to the high street.

He encouraged local authorities to think of their town centres as “evolving” as they always
have done, rather than dying, and supported the use of meantime projects as a way of injecting new energy into an area. West added that often it took just one specialist shop or service to act as a catalyst for other
entrepreneurs.

“The power of one can be quite extraordinary,” he said.徔

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Readers' comments (11)

  • Robert Park

    Absolutely agree. Masterplanning, as we have come to know it, is out of fashion. Cities could be more vibrant, and more functional places without it. And yes, our cities could definitely do with being slightly denser - though that does not necessarily mean a rash of very tall residential buildings - we could all squeeze up just a little bit more. Jane Jacobs would be enjoying this conversation.

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  • We need to stop saying "vibrant". As for master planning: this was once a noble profession until it simply became a way of parcelling out plots of land for private development, rather than considering the whole city as - dare one even say it these days? - a work of art.

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  • Robert Park

    Thanks Sceptical, but I'll use which words I darn well please!

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  • Robert Park

    And I would opt for the parcelling out approach all the time, rather than the work of art. We just need to parcel out into smaller units.

    I can't think of anything worse than living in a work of art.

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  • Mike Duriez

    Binge drinking, dangerous dogs and high levels of anti-social behaviour all add vibrancy to Britain's otherwise dull urban areas.

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  • Masterplans have their place - Liverpool 1 is a beauty - but colluded with social cleansing in areas like Anfield, now in ruins following forced site assembly abetted by complicit design practices.

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  • It's fairly obvious if you look at cities around the world to deduce 'what type of physical form actually supports people' . The problem is that we ignore the evidence in favour of developers' desires to get the most financial gain from a site and government, councils, architects all go along with that...so sad that architects are included in that list.

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  • er... not all architects. Some of us care about the architecture more than the money.

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  • About height, isn't it time to go past the myth that skyscrapers are efficient to increase density ? It is simply Physically/Mathematically false (under same natural lights constraints) at the scale of the city.
    Strange that apart from Lionel March and Leslie Martin work on this in the sixties, almost nothing seems to exist.
    Two papers about this linked below :
    http://iiscn.wordpress.com/2011/05/15/densite-etages-lumiere/

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  • The fact is 'master plan' is a word that is misunderstood by many in our profession and there are not many who know how to do it well. The reality is you need people but you also need a plan. Master planning is not just a profession for architects, it involves a whole host of different professionals and many stakeholders that become part of a process. As planners and designers we can provide the initial framework to start regeneration - this can be the start of something wonderful but all good master planners and urban designers know this is not the end. This may involve a series of sub-divided plots and the invitation to many developers, users and designers to take part or it may be a complete scheme developed by one person. No project or site is ever the same. This process has to involve the people - whoever they may be from the existing community to person moving into their first home or the developer who has to build and have sleepless nights wondering how to finance the whole thing. I have worked as a master planner and urban designer in many different places - never would I be as ignorant to suggest that any of our project are MASTER PLANS per se, more the start of a long process. Also the sooner architects wake up the fact that developers are not all bad. They are our clients and we need them. Many are wonderfully creative people who have visions to create better places and communities. They are people as well. Of course, they want to make money but this is what has driven the growth of cities since time begun.

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