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The new city beautiful

07th May 2012

By Rob Cowan

Urban designers are sometimes asked a tricky question: ‘If I want to see a recent example of good urban design, where should I go?’ When we were writing By Design (published in 2000, it was written a couple of years earlier) we highlighted Crown Street, the then new major development in Glasgow’s Gorbals district, as the sort of placemaking we were advocating. We still need to tell people about such places if we are ever going to persuade anyone to value what urban designers do.

Crown Street was brought to mind by a recent article in Scotland’s Sunday Herald by the noted urbanist Stuart Gulliver. Now Emeritus Professor at the University of Glasgow, Gulliver was the person who made Crown Street happen when he was chief executive of Glasgow Development Agency (not forgetting the considerable contribution of Crown Street’s masterplanner, Piers Gough of CZWG).

I was particularly interested to see Gulliver’s article for a couple of reasons. First, it reminded me a document I wrote in 1996 called Manifesto for a Campaign for Cities. I persuaded a whole raft of leading urbanists to put their names to it, and the Prince of Wales wrote a foreword. That all took time, and by the time I had all the signatures, I had rethought the manifesto. Instead of getting back to all the signatories and going on my knees to St James Palace, I rewrote the manifesto and published it (with Urban Initiatives) without any backers, under the title The Connected City. Among other things it presented the forerunner of Placecheck (which, incidentally, was relaunched a couple of weeks ago with the support of, among others, English Heritage – see www.placecheck.info).

All these years later a Campaign for Cities is still a good idea. Stuart Gulliver, writing from a Scottish perspective, makes a strong case for it. A Campaign for Real Cities would rest upon at least four principles, he writes. First, city boundaries should be re-drawn to reflect the economic and social realities of the twenty-first century. Second, Scotland’s cities should opt for elected mayors. Third, each city should establish a City Development Agency. Fourth, Scottish cities should adopt the vision and direction of the City Beautiful movement.

That last principle, evoking a movement that began in Chicago in the late nineteenth century, will strike many readers as rather odd. Gulliver explains: ‘“Real” cities of the future will need to be beautiful, otherwise talented people and high-performing businesses will not be attracted to, or remain in, our cities – they will go elsewhere. Successful, competitive cities will unashamedly seek to be beautiful cities.’

That certainly strikes a chord with Urban Design Skills. In 2010 we wrote – with Professor Alan Simpson, the UK’s leading City Beautiful enthusiast – the report York New City Beautiful: toward an economic vision. Yorkshire Forward (remember it?) and City of York Council was the joint client. The vision was drawn up in close collaboration with city’s amenity, business and political communities. The idea behind reviving the City Beautiful idea was simple. Yes, the focus was on the city’s economy. But a vision that was going to capture the imagination of the people who might play a part in making it happen (and that was potentially everyone in York) needed some strong visual ideas.

A good question to ask of any plan is: if you were to summarise it in a few strokes of a felt-tip pen, what would it show? The York New City Beautiful plan, at its simplest, showed a new approach to the walls and gateways; a new structure for the city’s green spaces; new ways of using the rivers; a new approach to streets and spaces; and a Great Street linking the Minster and the University of York. A few strong lines and a striking pattern: the essence of a good plan.

At the time when Urban Design Skills was working with Alan Simpson on York New City Beautiful: toward an economic vision, I tried to sum up our new approach to the City Beautiful. I wrote:

Urban design focuses on making successful places. Designers are told: 'Don’t mention beauty, it only confuses people'. We reject that attitude. The new model adds an aesthetic dimension that is often missing. It looks at what is beautiful in the place as it is; it makes proposals with a strong enough visual dimension to be easy to comprehend and to communicate; and it recognises beauty as one test of the degree of thought and care that have been applied to development and placemaking.

In my next blog I'll focus on what Crown Street has achieved.  

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