David Rudlin asks the questions we would have been asking down the pub

David Rudlin_index

I’m writing this at the end of the first joint conference between the Urban Design Group and the Academy of Urbanism. This is possible because we are not where we should be, which is in the pub, dissecting and joking about everything we have heard over the last three days. Such is the drawback of online conferences that I am reduced to off-loading my thoughts in this a column rather than over a pint.

The UDG and AoU have similar origins. Both were created at the initiative of an RIBA president to focus on what we now call placemaking, rather than just the design of buildings. The UDG was started in 1978 under the name “Architects in Planning” by a group including the late Francis Tibbalds and is the professional membership organisation for those of us who practise urban design. The AoU is younger, having been set up by George Ferguson and John Thompson in 2006 to bring together everyone involved in the creation and management of cities.

I have always enjoyed the conferences of both organisations – great outpourings of passionate agreement as we hear from speakers who share our views and vie with each other to find clever ways of agreeing. The other side of the coin is frustration as we hear from places that have undergone remarkable transformations (on this occasion Rob Adams from Melbourne and Anuela Ristani, deputy mayor of Tirana) and then beat ourselves up about how impossible it is to achieve the same wonders in the UK.

The theme of this year’s conference was The 15-Minute City and both of these responses were very much in evidence. We were fortunate to have Professor Carlos Moreno as a speaker. Based at the Sorbonne in Paris and special advisor to Mayor Hidalgo, he is credited with originating the 15-Minute City concept. Squeezing us in between meetings in Milan and Florida (such is the benefit of being online) he introduced us to the concepts of chrono-urbanism, chronotopia and topophillia (sorry, you are going to have to look them up). The basic idea is that we should arrange the city so that we can do everything we need to do within 15 minutes of our home. This has gained huge traction as a result of covid, but that isn’t what he is concerned about. The idea is to slow down and take our time: the hectic, over-stressed city does not have to be that way.

Cue howls of agreement – mixed-use walkable neighbourhoods, after all, are very much our thing – followed by lots of handwringing about how difficult it is to translate theory into practice. But wait a minute. There were naysayers peppering the chat providing the questions we should have been arguing over in the pub…

First, isn’t all of this just an over-intellectual statement of the bleedin’ obvious? (which, of course, is very French). As we heard from Monica Jain and Shivani Bhatnagar of Transport for London, travel data shows that Londoners already do pretty much everything within 15 minutes of their home. The exception, pre-lockdown, was work, but that of course has also changed with mass home working.

Second, isn’t all of this a bit socially divisive? Does it not allow the middle classes to retreat within their very nicely provided for mini-Hollands while the residents of the banlieues are left to their own devices, forced to use public transport while having to cope with all of the displaced traffic?

Third, this is all well and good for a Parisian quarter but how does it apply to single-use suburbs? Suburbs may well be 15-minute places, but only if you are in a car and you count the nearest superstore as a local centre which I’m pretty sure is not what Professor Moreno had in mind.

Fourth, this is all a bit anti-public transport, and we have always believed that public transport is a force for good. As an anti-covid measure it makes sense to avoid buses and the tube if you can, but as a long-term urban strategy?

Fifth, as I have asked in a previous column, what happens to the city centre in all of this? What happens to the shops, the museums and galleries, the restaurants and theatres and music venues that can only exist because they draw trade from the whole city? What happens to our creative industries, our knowledge economy, our media and commerce when our cities are atomised into 15-minute neighbourhoods?

OK we may be overstating the case a little – we have had three pints – but urbanism works at different scales. The academy gives awards for towns, neighbourhoods and cities and each has their distinctive version of urbanism.

On the one hand the 15-minute city is everything we have been arguing for. But taken too far it will undermine the scale, intensity and connectivity that lies behind every great city. I think it’s my round?