If we are to make really interesting places it will take collaboration - and risk, says Martyn Evans

Martyn Evans index

It’s always fascinating to discuss the similarities and huge differences in the challenges faced by built environment professionals in a city thousands of miles away with the same population as London.

I was able to do that this week over dinner with Tim Tompkins, president of New York’s Times Square Alliance, and our mutual friend Patricia Brown, director of the consultancy Central.

The one thing we all agreed on is that our cities are nothing if not complex and if we in the business of changing them don’t understand that then we are doomed to fail.

Given this, it’s always been interesting to me why our response as developers in particular is to try to remove complexity and focus on simplicity.

There are good reasons. Firstly, our development industry has grown through specialism. Housebuilders, office developers, retail developers – you could write a long list. These specialists are by definition only really interested in the type of property they know how to design and build. In difficult economic times, their specialism becomes a refuge – how to build ever more cheaply, ever more efficiently to reduce costs and protect margins. You only have to look at the un-let retail units on the ground floor of many residential blocks to understand that they are there only at the insistence of planners, contribute little in financial value to the developer and are at the bottom of the list when it comes to disposal.

Then there’s the money. Investors like simplicity because it removes risk. On the larger, more complex, mixed-use schemes we work on we might have five or more forward funders, each taking care of an individual element of the scheme. In itself this is not a problem – it just adds more complexity for the developer, running a multi-channel funding project with each element dependent on another for its success. Not easy.

Thirdly, professional teams tend to specialise. That is as true of architects as it is of any other professional team contributing to a development project. So, again, the developer, when faced with a complicated project, often has to hire an orchestra of advisors and act like the conductor up front, keeping everybody on track. More hard work. More risk.

Of course the problem with all this is that towns and cities are messy places that, apart from a rare few, weren’t designed by one team. They grew organically over many centuries without planning departments (imagine…!).

Today, though, we have the benefit of hindsight, a sophisticated world of planning expertise and experience and the design knowledge to create beautiful, practical and fulfilling places.

But we have to embrace complexity. We have to take responsibility, particularly those of us in control of large parts of our towns and cities, for the needs of our many-sided lives and all the things we need to live them successfully.

That either means embracing complexity ourselves, not fearing it, working harder to manage it and enjoying its fruits – or collaborating with others to deliver complexity through partnership.

I’m often asked by architects how to pitch more successfully to developer clients. One of the things I advise is not to say you can do everything. Specialism is good.

I have really enjoyed architects’ pitches lately where a lead team recognises a lack of particular skills in their own practice that a scheme might need and brings one or more other practices to the table in a collaborative proposal. It feels exciting and energising.

What we have to offer back from the other side of the table, though, is to be brave and accept the challenge to manage the risk that such proposals might offer for the ultimate benefit of the places we are making.