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Ninety-four per cent of masterplans fail

04th November 2012

By Rob Cowan

What can we learn from the success of the masterplan for the Olympic Park? Not much. We already knew that a masterplan is likely to succeed when it enjoys an elastic budget and total political support, and when any last-minute hitch can be solved by bringing in the army. Masterplanning is a process of negotiation through which people with an interest in a site or area agree how it should be developed. A masterplan – whether that term is used to describe a plan or a document describing a process – usually represents an agreement between a wide range of competing interests, at a particular point of time.

Those interests are reflected in political policies and decisions, community opinion, regulations, market forces and much else. Usually those conditions change long before the masterplan can be implemented. Politicians lose power, new policies are introduced, the market enters a new point in its cycle, or the site changes ownership and the new owners want a masterplan of which they can say that it is their own; or professional opinion among planners, architects, urban designers, traffic engineers, valuers or whoever. For the other six per cent of masterplans, circumstances stay unchanged for long enough for the proposals to become the basis of actual development.

Some masterplans fail because they are too inflexible. Others fail because they never were at all realistic: they were drawn up by people with an inadequate understanding of scale, economics, planning processes, or any one of many other factors. Usually when a masterplan fails we are back to square one: the product of the complex negotiation no longer carries any weight. We need to learn how to plan in stages, setting out some matters that are not negotiable before moving on to agree the details of other matters that are negotiable.

What is the most basic element of a particular masterplan? Perhaps it is a proposed pattern of streets, a way of connecting into the existing street network; or perhaps it is even a single proposed main street. Let’s find a way of enshrining that in the planning process, so that even if the development delivers nothing else of public value, at least it delivers that. If later stages in the process – a full masterplan, for example – can enshrine more detailed elements, so much the better. But if such agreement is not reached, or if the masterplan later unravels, all will not have been lost.

The starting point for that sort of planning is the question: what is important? The answer will come from an understanding of the place. We find that often the simplest and quickest way for local people to reach such an understanding can be to carry out a Placecheck, asking of the place: what do we like? What do we dislike? What do we need to work on?

Such matters came to mind recently when I was speaking at a symposium on masterplanning at the Geddes Institute for Urban Research at the University of Dundee. The event, organised by the indefatigable Husam Al Waer of the Geddes Institute, featured Diarmaid Lawlor of Architecture and Design Scotland, and two Scottish luminaries of masterplanning, Brian Evans and Kevin Murray. It was also good to meet Rowena Statt of Anderson Bell and Christie, who worked on the Gigha masterplan, which I have long admired.

A hot topic at the conference was charrettes, currently popular in Scottish masterplanning and the subject of another recent symposium at the Geddes Institute (The Practice of Community Charrettes Design in the UK, 26 October). A charrette, the Dictionary of Urbanism tells us, is an event (ranging from a couple of hours to several days) that brings together a range of people to discuss design issues.

The word charrette originates in the name for the small cart that at one time collected Parisian architecture students’ drawings to take them to the Ecole des Beaux Arts to be assessed. The students, as ever, left their projects until the last moment, and may even have added the finishing touches ‘en charrette’. The word for the cart became transferred to their intensive (often all-night) design sessions. The term has been widely used in North America in the last two decades, had limited currency in the UK by 1998 and has become more widely used since then. (Before the 1990s, charrettes tended to be called ‘design workshops’. A new term ‘hackathon’, borrowed from computer software design, is now sometimes heard.)

A member of the audience at the Patrick Geddes Institute symposium asked: are charrettes good things, or are they just a means for those who are drawing up a masterplan to manipulate people who are taking part in the process? The answer is that some charrettes are very good ways of bringing together information and opinions, organising processes of discussion and negotiation, finding common ground, and coming to joint agreements. Other charrettes may be cynical attempts by people with power, money and influence to manipulate people who lack those things. Most charrettes are somewhere between those extremes: usually on the low-manipulation end of the scale, we hope.

Charrettes have the benefit of concentrating a great deal of discussion, argument, understanding and negotiation in a very short time. Their success depends on the right preparation being done to make that intensive effort worthwhile, and the timing being right, so that the charrette’s proceedings in the planning and design process come neither to early nor too late. (One member of the audience mentioned the phenomenon of ‘charrette hangover’: a feeling that participants in some charrettes have when they realise that they do not have the capability to follow the event up.)

Charrettes are not alone in being open to manipulaton. The longer, often tortuous, processes that may be the alternative are also open to manipulation by any of the parties – landowners, developers, professionals, communities, politicians – who are involved. A charrette’s concentrated timescale may make the process more open to manipulation, but it may also make the process more transparent, and any manipulation more visible.

Charrettes are very useful tools in the masterplanner’s kit. Like any other tool, their use needs to be carefully planned and they must be used with integrity. 

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  • Valuers 28th June 2013

    Master plan fail due to certain reasons They may use various techniques to establish a project budget including cost planning,

  • valuers 13th November 2012

    The report summarizes all the qualities and defects of the asset. The depreciated value of asset is then reported in the report and one can easily analyze the leftover life of that asset.

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