Gehl warning: urban design can contribute to urban regeneration but is not in itself sufficient

As I was saying, urban regeneration is about two things. Economic activity and place-making. Because the UK has been rubbish at place-making for most of the last century – and because getting design right is really important – much of the urban regeneration focus of the last dozen years or so has been on planning and design. Although the Urban Task Force report of 1999 actually had something like 105 recommendations (about 100 too many to be useful) even its authors sometimes acted as though there had been only 1:to improve urban design.

It’s worth pointing out that despite this emphasis – and despite the existence of CABE which the Task Force spawned – urban design in the UK got worse in the very period it was most stressed. CABE reports repeatedly confirmed this to the despair of ministers ( I was there) who wondered why CABE was being so ineffectual.We produced some of the worst developments in Christendom in the decade after the Task Force report. Bad regulation and bad business models were at the heart of this terrible failure. Yes the poor skills base of planners in the UK didn’t help but in my view the focus on that misses the big picture.Bad design is rooted in the UK development market and the way in which the regulatory framework has shaped it.

I wrote about this in greater depth in the 2007 commission into design I chaired for the Housing Corporation,published(megalomaniacally) as The Williams Report. Although that report was focused on social housing procurement and how that impacted on design(badly)it had much to say about the general conditions in the UK leading to rubbish housing developments. I won’t reprise them all here but clearly the short-termism of UK house-builders is pretty fundamental as in both the private and public sectors models which enshrine a long term engagement with the development and place have always led to better design and public realm management.

In the private sector the best results have been obtained in places like the London squares –where a single landowner retained the freehold over centuries ,provided enabling infrastructure and public realm management, and enforced a design guide and pattern book.Pari passu, the worst results have been obtained when the public sector sells its freeholds at top dollar to house-builders and then expects to enforce standards through the planning system, forgetting the short termism of the housebuilders means they will sell the units and basically bugger off.

As to the role of the regulatory and planning system in the UK design fiasco,this has been formative. The increase in the policy burdens,transaction costs and complexities around making a planning application has driven small boutique builders out of business, reduced competition and diversity and made the big 6 house-builders-and their designs-dominant.Nowhere else in Europe has big government and big business so conspired to cut out competition and indeed consumers. Add to this the absurd policy extremism around prioritizing brown field/inner city development – and you end up ,via the help of the funny money explosion which funded the building craze in the first place – with the smallest housing in Europe built in places few people with choice wished to live.

Then the government leaned on the social housing funders to focus on deliver unit numbers and not housing quality and you have homes and places that Lord Rogers wouldn’t take a dump in let alone actually live in. Made in Britain.

The only positive aspect of what the Aussies call the Global Financial Crisis is that the UK once built the worst housing in the world and now we’ve stopped. Will the nonsense resume after the GFC is history? Why not?

The funny money meant that any residential development could get funded between say 2001 and 2006 with quality no obstacle.I have argued before that the urban regeneration industry then mis-recognised this housing boom in places where local economic demand was not really driving development ,as the ‘regeneration’ of their towns and cities. In reality ,units were being built in such places even when the economic fundamentals had not changed. Indeed,in many northern cities which saw massive flatted development ,GDP stalled and worklessness increased.Hence my emphasis in this piece on economic activity and indeed GDP/wealth and place-making. The rhetoric and bubble around development in the noughties blinded us to the primacy of the former. It’s the economy stupid.

This frames my reception of an otherwise important new book by the doyen of urban designers, Jan Gehl,called Cities for People(Island Press 2010).Essentially a ‘how to make great cities work for humans too’ guide no planner,developer or city leader can plead ignorance after this work that they didn’t know what they were doing. Read this. It shows how to repair damaged places as well as build brilliantly anew,simply by focusing on the human scale ignored by the previous generation of modernist architects,developers ,traffic engineers and city builders and by designing out forces which actually prevent human interactions and blight places:zoned,single use, development,abstractly over-dense buildings having little relationship with places,people or the spaces between and prioritizing the car. Undo that lot and you are on the right track. Read nothing else if you want to fix the design of your place.

However,while Cities for People is the best kind of design guide,it is not an urban regeneration manual – and it doesn’t claim to be- because its remedies work in places where there is basic economic demand .The issue in such places is to harness the economic force to good effect and to shape the best result. In such places,temporary blight is the issue and Gehl shows you how to fix it.He also shows the principles and practical steps which any new development should adopt. This is not however a primer for long term blight and historically bust places which have lost their market purpose and socio-economic vitality – which even brilliant design solutions cannot reinvent. It works at the level of enabling Cardiff to have a better café quarter and retail environment or for new housing to be better integrated in a mixed use development .It is not about the turnaround of the Valley towns.

Now if someone had the massive resources and the will to really reverse the decline of those communities ,I’m sure Mr Gehl could help. Until that time Mr Gehl will remain,I fear, a reformer for good times and easy places:my judgement on the entire design-led regeneration movement spawned by the Urban Task Force. I’ll get my coat…..

  • Edward Harkins

    Tim, interesting juxtaposition you bring out about the period of existence of The Task Force, CABE et al, also being a period when the quality urban design in the UK, if anything, deteriorated. If I read you right, I agree that these entities were waging an unwinnable struggle against unfettered vested development interests.

    In fora that I attended in 2009 we heard from participants who argued forcibly that there was a readily available design talent base (in Scotland anyway) together with private developers who were aspirational on design matters. These participants also argued, however, that they could not compete commercially if there was not a level playing field. If short-term profit-maximising, speculative developers are unchallenged by inappropriate national planning frameworks, poor public governance, caviling politicians and inept and/or compliant planners then that old private sector adage applies; ‘bad money drives out good’.

    At one event, a senior manager from a major regeneration consultancy employed PowerPoint to defy us to identity wherever in Scotland were located a selection of utterly anodyne, placeless developments. These developments had, of course, met the local authority’s planning perspective of ‘if-you-tick-all-the-boxes-on-our-design-code/framework/guidance-that-we-prepared-earlier-then-you-will-gain-virtually-automatic-planning-approval’.

    A respected architect and developer bemoaned the impossibility of getting planning officials to engage on any kind of intellectual level about a piece of aspirational design and place making in a prominent location – and that was in a city that comports itself as a cultural leader in Scotland.

    I think that, conversely, it was in a RUDI paper (on masterplanning?) it was demonstrated that in one English local authority area private developers and funders responded positively to the authority laying down clear and demanding, but broad, quality design standards and then adhering to them in approval processes. The outcomes seemed to be planning, quality and commercial value gains all round.

    Is there, however, a problem at the heart of the “it’s the economy stupid” perspective that you posted on? If we are to initiate regeneration, only where there is an empirical and demonstrable case for the pre-existence of economic drivers; are we to then abandon those areas without such a case? And anyway would not there be a competent argument that the public and third sectors have no business being involved in regenerating areas where the market and economic mechanisms will ‘deal with it’.

    It all reads a wee bit like belief in the purity of the market – and thereby, surely, lie monsters and the ideological zealotry of the likes of the Policy Exchange?

    Incidentally, on your reference to Gehl’s urgings on buildings and the spaces between them and their relationships with people – Mike Galloway, Director of Dundee City Development does a first class presentation on all this (and on his favoured topic of turning ‘roads into streets’). For me, Dundee is an exemplar on what can be done on limited resources, provided you do proper partnership, masterplanning and work to very long timescales; at least the V&A seem to agree.

  • Tim


    We never had that drink.Next time I’m in Blighty. You are usually right. I probably over emphasise ‘the economic’ in this one but it’s driven by a desire not to passively react to economic forces but to initiatiate a new wave of private and public investment in areas where merely re-designing town centres will do little except put lipstick on the corpse. I’ll get my coat…..!