Having put out a call for an alternative to the term ‘master plan’ David Rudlin reviews some of the many suggestions

David Rudlin_index

David Rudlin

The other week I was in Sunderland and thought I would visit the Vaux site which my team master planned a few years ago. We were not the first people to master plan the site – I remember a high-profile scheme by Piers Gough that I saw him present in Mipin. But we were the last, and it was our master plan that was being built, or so I thought.

Our plan was based on two intersecting grids designed to create a long vista to the iconic Wearmouth Bridge. The scheme had secured planning permission and the key building at the fulcrum of the two grids, designed by Fielden Clegg Bradly had been completed along with the key bits of public realm.

I was therefore confident when I arrived, and it was great to see the new council offices built in accordance with the plan. However my optimism evaporated as I turned the corner, I found that a block had been built across the main axis blocking the view of the bridge – I was gutted, the plan no longer made any sense!

This never happened to Nash, Haussmann or Cerdà. Or maybe it did – maybe we just don’t know about their compromised plans. I suspect someone in Sunderland made an innocent decision to square-off that block without realising the central idea of the plan. We don’t have a system in the UK by which masterplans can be regulated over time.

Which brings me back to my appeal in my last column for a new term to describe a master plan. Of course, I realise now that answers don’t come on a postcard but via social media. However it did trigger an interesting debate that was as much about the process of master planning as the term itself.

There were plenty of suggestions for more acceptable names such as Urban Plan, Metropolitan Plan and even Big Plan. A number of people proposed Strategic Vision although they worried this would imply that we are visionaries. However, the alternative Strategic Framework felt a bit too prosaic.

So the word Master might be important – good planning requires a bit of top-down imposition

Some sought to counter the idea that master planning was too top-down. Maybe names like Community Plan or even Commons Plan would encourage a more bottom-up approach? I rather liked Commons Plan but it still doesn’t really describe what we do.

Then there were the concerns that master plans over-simplify the process and fail to recognise the temporal nature of urban design. Maybe Area Evolution Plans or Framework Integration Plans capture the idea that we need to be managing urban change rather than focussing on end-state plans. Both terms describe quite well what we do as urban designers even if no one else is going to know what they mean.

Then there were Assemble Plans, Regulatory Plans, Parameter Plans or even Flight Decks. I assumed the latter was a management consultancy term, but apparently not. No one supported Place Making as a term and quite a few people suggested that Master Plan may be terrible, but it is the best we have.

One of the arguments, for which I have some sympathy, suggested that Master Plan was the right term because sometimes there was nothing wrong with a bit of top-down planning. Bottom-up plans are not really plans at all, they are just an agglomeration of current assumptions and biases. The world will never change unless someone is prepared to stick their neck out and postulate what a better future might be.

There is no harm in drawing a plan of that possible future and, if it is agreed, fixing this as a master plan. Flexibility is obviously a good thing, because the plan must flex and evolve in response to changing circumstances (this is why another of the suggestions Blueprint doesn’t work). However too often flexibility is used as an excuse to ignore the plan which just negates the whole exercise as happened in Sunderland.

So the word Master might be important – good planning requires a bit of top-down imposition.

The question is whether there is a better word that conveys this without being gendered or otherwise compromised? I think the closest suggestion was Civic Plan, which also has the advantage that we can revive the term Civic Design which I have always liked. Of course, one of the oldest planning schools in the UK is the Liverpool School of Civic Design - there are, after all, no new ideas.

>> Also read: Master plans are for Bond villains