“We shape our buildings; afterwards our buildings shape us”
– Winston Churchill on the rebuilding of the House of Commons after the Blitz
I’ve been reflecting recently on the role of design in shaping people’s behaviour and thinking more about how we can learn from service design (rather than say product design) in how we approach urbanism. I’m interested in how we can achieve a more humane urbanism, one which encourages people to lead happier and healthier lives, while also supporting genuine empowerment for people who lack a say in how our cities are built and governed.
Cities and buildings impact our behaviour in loads of little ways. The way a city is laid out dictates whether we walk or drive, and even small details like the kind of bricks we use come together to create an experience of quality. For me the best way to experience a city is always on foot, yet architects and other designers all too often set out to design a place from an impossible perspective, the bird’s eye view, or worse the isometric drawing. How can we create humane places when we start from such an alienating perspective?
When I studied urban design we were at the height of the master-planning cult of the early naughties. My professor at UCL claimed that most of the problems in a city, from traffic congestion to health inequalities were essentially problems of design. I (like any noviciate) was intoxicated by the idea that by drawing something on paper (or indeed building a model) we could find a way of fixing the mess and chaos of cities and make them more liveable. The Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) which I would later work for published an impressive catalogue of research, evidence and guidance on how to make places work better for people and the environment.
We didn’t know it, but those were the glory days for urban design and architecture; the days prior to the 2008 global financial crisis, and the austerity politics that followed. CABE itself was largely wound down and merged with the Design Council in 2011. But does master-planning lead to more humane places?
Many of our favourite cities weren’t so much master-planned as evolved through centuries of cart horses carving ruts which became roads on their way to market. The layouts that you find in medieval cities or villages tend to rely on small alleyways and twisting roads, which leads to the surprise and delight of unexpected vistas or buildings. It was this sense of journey and adventure that the great landscape architects, notably Capability Brown, of the 19th century were seeking to emulate.
Cities like New York, with long grids of streets and avenues provide something different – a sense of opportunity around every corner.
You can see the possibilities stretching out in front of you, lined with cars, taxis, cyclists, and yes, the incredible buildings.
That said… one of the things that strikes me about New York is how non-descript most of the buildings are – they create an impression of grandeur through their height and the sheer number of them, but by and large, they are without distinction. They were thrown up by developers who knew they were on to a good thing and were seeking to maximise their profit per square foot, an approach often justified by the prevailing architectural dogma of the day.
In Bologna, a fairly typical European medieval city, it was the little details that really impressed me. The door furniture in particular… everywhere you go there are incredible pieces of ironmongery begging to be fondled and caressed.
These little details invite you up to the building and welcome you. They create an intimacy which is so often lacking from life in the great big city.
Between master-plans, design codes, and a particular penchant for utilitarian design, how can we as urbanists create the space for intimacy and personality when planning a new development? We need to design to include, rather than exclude, dynamism and change so that we create the features that attract us to so many historic places and encourage people to linger and make their own mark.