Good placemaking also requires well educated clients, writes Ben Flatman

Ben Flatman

Ben Flatman

A new report from Policy Exchange, a centre-right think tank, has identified the low standards of “placemaking” as a major reason for why there is so much opposition to new development (particularly for housing) in many parts of the UK. It also identifies the poor quality of our contemporary built environment as both a symptom and a cause of the economic decline and disparity that is so widespread across the country.

Authored by Ike Ijeh (a former BD architecture critic), with a foreword by Michael Gove, the report proposes a new government-backed “School of Place” to foster improved urban design skills and a common understanding of best practice among architects and planners. The theory goes that if new developments were better designed then it would help break down resistance from nimbies, while also having the added benefit of improving the quality of people’s lives and promoting economic confidence and investment. Gove’s foreword explicitly links placemaking to the government’s levelling-up agenda.

But do we really need a new School of Place to solve the housing crisis and improve urban design? As the report itself acknowledges, such an institution would not be able to address the underlying structural issues that confront those wishing to build more and better-quality housing.

You could make a strong case that many of the skills already exist but are simply poorly utilised

The way in which land is owned and controlled is perhaps a more important factor in why we don’t build enough good quality homes. Private sector housebuilders have little incentive to meet demand or improve quality in ways that are perceived to add costs, thereby undermining their business model and profits. As Gove himself observed at last year’s Tory party conference: “Many of the large housebuilders are land investment speculators, not really housebuilders.”

There are other notable omissions in the report in relation to the reasons for why the UK either lacks the necessary skills or fails to utilise them properly. It fails to mention the role that neoliberal ideology and economics has played in undermining the very idea of a public sector role in the built environment. Neither does it consider the impact that austerity and the dismantling of design watchdog CABE may have had on the paucity of placemaking skills in national and local government.

And is the reason for so much generic and placeless housing really down to a lack of skills and knowledge, or more to the fact that the volume housebuilders rarely make much use of architects and urban designers in the first place? You could make a strong case that many of the skills already exist but are simply poorly utilised.


Source: Maccreanor Lavington

Futurehome Passivhaus, South Gardens, Elephant Park, by Maccreanor Lavington

Plenty of contemporary architects have been experimenting, very successfully, with traditionally inspired urbanism and housing typologies in recent years. John Pardey Architect’s Lovedon Fields in Hampshire, and Maccreanor Lavington’s terraced housing at Elephant Park in south London both demonstrate how successful placemaking and a contemporary vernacular architecture can happily go hand in hand. These examples are still rare, but demonstrate that when given the opportunity, our best practices are more than capable of good urban design.

The slightly convoluted logic that it’s a lack of design skills that is holding back housebuilding is something that emerged from the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission’s final report. But perhaps the efficacy of this theory is actually less important than the desire to raise the standard of placemaking more generally. This is surely an ambition that everyone can agree on.

Is there more than a kernel of truth though in the report’s argument that somehow the split between architects and planners in the UK has too often left urban design as an afterthought?

And yet, with some notable exceptions like Lovedon Fields and Elephant Park, we continue to build what are often dismal car-centred places for people to live and work

A commonly held view is that many contemporary architects tend to focus on individual buildings and ignore the public realm around them, while local authority planners have been reduced to the role of development control officers, without the expertise or power to create good places.

This is not a new observation, and there have been numerous attempts, going back decades, to achieve a better understanding about how to create good quality places. Courses have been designed to provide a common grounding for undergraduate architectural and planning students. And much of the theory behind contemporary urban design is a reaction to the perceived failure of post-war architecture and planning.

And yet, with some notable exceptions like Lovedon Fields and Elephant Park, we continue to build what are often dismal car-centred places for people to live and work. With design codes now increasingly on the agenda, new training is also arguably required so that we have the people equipped to create them. Perhaps then there is a case for a new educational model that explicitly bridges the gap between the built environment professions. If a new school is part of the answer, then what form should it take?

Oddly, it fails to mention The Prince of Wales’s Institute of Architecture

The Policy Exchange report refers to a number of possible precedents, including the École des Beaux Arts (orignally a state-sponsored institution) and the Architectural Association (fiercely independent). Oddly, it fails to mention The Prince of Wales’s Institute of Architecture, which attempted between 1992 and 2001 to combine traditional architectural design with a place-focused urbanism and is perhaps the most obvious forerunner to the School of Place concept.

The report is careful however to push back on any suggestion that the School of Place should prioritise “traditional” architectural styles over any others. In truth this was also the case at the Prince of Wales’s Institute. Although students were free to work in a classical or vernacular style, it was not a requirement, and the Institute’s last director, Adrian Gale, was an arch-modernist, who had worked for Mies van der Rohe.

There is an admirable desire underlying the School of Place proposals to move beyond those tired debates about architectural style and carve out a consensus on good urban design. In many respects that consensus already exists. A lot of contemporary architects would jump at the chance to design a new village green, a boulevard of mansion blocks, or an urban square surrounded by terraced townhouses.

What architects lack though are the opportunities and inspired clients to put these ambitions into practice. Good urbanism is rarely achieved without good patrons. Perhaps then, what we need more than a new school for architects and planners is a new school for clients – somewhere that teaches housebuilders and developers to dream of better and more beautiful placemaking.

Also read >> Oxford’s failure to teach architecture is a disaster for architects and the country