Wednesday, 27 October 2010

What is the English for urbanism?

If there is to be a CABE 2.0, then it would be good if it could be a proper champion for urbanism in England.

In a way, that is what it had already become - but it had never made this clear. CABE, rightly careful about use of language, has wherever possible avoided terms like urbanism and urban design, fearing that they are even more of a turn-off, for all except the professionals, than the word architecture (which they avoid like the plague). Yet its reviews of projects and its advice are far more focussed on urbanism than on architecture. Whether those architects and others who moan about CABE's activities are moaning because of this fact or in ignorance of it is not clear.

Architecture - designing buildings - is really difficult. Urban design is, in principle, easy by comparison. It is delivery that is the difficult bit. For various reasons, urban design is got wrong in England, constantly and everywhere.

The Urban Design Group, the Academy of Urbanism, the Urban Design Alliance etc. all exist separately, with slightly different remits - all are well intentioned and sound - but are little heard and not effective on the ground - certainly if the evidence of what gets built in most places is anything to go by.

There is no strong nexus for urbanism at the RIBA or the RTPI, and none in government. If a minister took and interest and got the point and asked who to go to to find out more, it would be hard to know where to point them.

If there is to be a new version of CABE more independent of the government, it should be a national centre for urbanism, with a strong physical presence, and a shop window prominent in central London. All of the organisations with an urban in the title should be rolled into it, and major developers and landowners should support it.

Then we might have the beginnings of a decent, public-facing Baukultur, as the Germans call it - an urban development culture, with a common language, free of gobbledegook, understood by professionals, public bodies, the private sector and the public. 'Civic architect' is an example of a term that gives the flavour and communicates readily to most people - Leeds City Council has just got rid of the last example of this once common post in England.

If we got that culture working properly, with better briefs, better clients and better planning authorities, there could be a framework where architects could be left to design buildings without the constant irritation (apparently) of busybodies telling them where they are going wrong.

This would all take several decades, and in this period the precepts of urbanism will probably change in all sorts of ways anyway because of climate change - all the more reason to get on with it.

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