Overall, the RE book has so far stood the test of time rather well, containing surprisingly little that should be rejected today. At its Oxford Brookes birthplace, however, much has been added. RE seems to have grown like a tree; with the original book at the heart of its trunk, and important rings of growth responding to key changes in urban design’s contextual climate.
The original RE was based on the idea that urban space should be designed, as far as possible, to open up choices in its users’ lives rather than closing them down: a proposition which seems even more valid today. From the 1980’s, however, choice gradually became a kind of Holy Grail in places like UK and Australia, supporting the rise of increasingly consumerist lifestyles. This raised issues of resource-efficiency which led RE to develop a first growth ring of values and spatial types: “sustainable” responsiveness was the focus of the 1990s.
Uniqueness of place
Once choice had become the Holy Grail, it also triggered other changes. Beginning to eat its own tail, it drove a search for ways of choosing how to choose, then choosing how to choose how to choose and so on without end; eroding all sense of certainty or grounding. Exhilarating, of course; but also giving new significance to the grounding role that the uniqueness of particular places can play. The acceleration of globalisation, rapidly making everywhere’s built form more and more like everywhere else’s, is eroding this uniqueness; but at the same time it creates a need to build increasingly multicultural societies in places like the UK and Australia. This calls into question any simplistic “keeping in keeping” historicist approach to making places unique; for the question “whose history?” is then all-too-obviously fudged.
Climate change – which, we now see, can only successfully be addressed through the building of more eco-aware societies – pushes us today towards the alternative source of uniqueness offered by ecological structures, which underpin any urban place in ways that transcend any particular culture. From the RE perspective, therefore, today’s key urban design issue concerns the creation and showcasing of places where human systems are interwoven with non-human ones, from water to wildlife, in mutually supportive relationships; so that people come, across cultural boundaries, to develop a sense of roots through living in more eco-positive ways. In fumbling towards ways of addressing this in practice, we seem to be opening up a welcome vein of poetry as a new growth ring within the RE approach, pointing towards a renewed sense of urban design as an art form.