Kelvin Campbell, a leading urban designer and founding partner of UK practice Urban Initiatives, says the problem has been caused by trying to replace the role of the public sector with the private sector. ‘The public sector has expected the private sector to deliver projects that are too big, too intertwined and often tooself centred,’ he says. The result is typically large, soul-less developments that suck life out of surrounding areas, and yet often struggle to prosper themselves.
Campbell calls for the re-establishment of a more fine-grained approach to defining and regulating new development, based on a street-plot-blockbuilding relationship. While a ‘big picture’ is still needed, he believes this is better achieved through a series of ‘extra small’ interventions rather than an ‘extra large’ masterplan.
‘The old delivery models are broken’ according to Sir Bob Kerslake of the UK Homes and Communities Agency. But are these models dead or just sleeping? Some would be inclined to blame the current recession for breaking the models. ‘It will all get better,’ they say, ‘when confidence returns.’ Others would say the models were broken long before the recession. Did society really get it right before, or was it just flogging a dead horse? Like many recently failed UK high-street chains, they would say that the recession did not kill the business, it merely buried it. So is this a time to reflect and change approaches or is a paradigm shift upon us, whether welcome or not?
What is now needed is an upside down version of the big architecture approach propagated in the last decade. This has been the underlying fault in many masterplans in recent years – the hit and miss of the wow factor. Many of these have forced the architecture rather than facilitating it – plans that are too predetermined to produce single outcomes rather than offering individual responses. The fault of the masterplanner lies in not understanding the absolute need for complexity and an obsession with making the plan look ‘interesting’. In the world of ‘form follows function’, if the building does not work, the masterplan needs to be reworked.
A new way of defining and regulating new development is required: something that focuses on the extra-small as the essential building block for our cities and towns. It is the cumulative effect of many ‘extrasmalls’ that will deliver the qualities society wants from a place – the million dabs on the canvas, the fine grain. This does not mean that everything needs to be small, but larger things should start from a consolidation of the small, always enabling the position to be reversed. In other words, once one has a plot one can combine this into a lot, a block or a phase of development, but one can always go back to the plot. It is against the grain of the collective small that the special buildings can be reflected.