Category Archives: Urban Design

London's proposed new Garden Bridge

London's proposed Garden Bridge (image courtesy Arup)

London’s proposed Garden Bridge (image courtesy Arup)

Let us join the chorus of support for London’s Garden Bridge. The government and the Greater London Authority have promised to pay half the cost – so finding the rest should be a formality. The idea was conceived by the star actress Joanna Lumley in 1998 (she is also a patron of the Druk White Lotus School). But her idea slept for 14 years, until TfL asked for ideas about new ways of crossing the Thames. Thomas Heatherwick, working with Arup (coincidentally the architects for the Druk School), published the above design last summer – and half the funding was promised this month. The Garden Bridge will be 367 metres long and 30 metres wide at its widest point. It will connect a point near Temple station to a point near Gabriel’s Wharf on the South Bank Centre.
As an idea, it is wonderfully superior to Hungerford Bridge and, of course, to the London Eye. But what all three projects teach us is THE DESIGN PROFESSIONS SHOULD NOT WAIT TO BE ASKED. If designers, especially landscape architects (because of their concern with the public realm), have a good idea then they should draw it and publish it.
Useful links re the Garden Bridge:
TfL consultation on the Garden Bridge
Garden Bridge Trust website (with video)

Hermitage Wharf, Joseph Conrad, Norman Foster and the River Thames Landscape

The above photograph from Tower Bridge was taken yesterday on my way to the cycle petition hand-in. It struck me as a real Joseph Conrad view of the river and Andrew Cowan Architects design for Hermitage Wharf looks much better than Foster’s design for Albion Riverside. Then I remembered having written a critical comment on Hermitage Wharf a few years ago. Checking it, I was pleased to find that I had praised the architecture and that it was the wretchedly dull riverside space I had criticised. Maybe Tower Hamlets’ planners mandated a bad landscape design because of the South Bank type crowds they were anticipating?

Lord Norman Foster's Thames-side Boom Boxes

We are pleased to publish the hitherto-unseen concept which so evidently inspired Lord Norman Foster’s pair of Thames Boomboxes. As previously agreed, Lord Norman does ‘an awfully good box‘. His heart is in the right place: he speaks with enthusiasm about urban design and works with good landscape architects. The problem, I fear, is that his head is in the wrong place. He sees buildings as objects, not as the creators of space. His own office (the left-hand building, above) is a fine box. But, like a hifi box or another consumer product, it could fit equally well in any context. There is nothing-London and nothing-Thames about it or the curvy adjoining residential boombox – except of course for its wannabe name: The Albion. The above photograph was taken on a warm day in late summer. Re-visited last week a howling gale was being funneled through the arch under the Albion. The ambient temperature was 11C and, with wind-chill, felt like -1C. So, while perfectly able to admire Foster and Partners architecture, I condemn this example of the firm’s the landscape architecture and urban design. The half-doughnut building faces due north, so that its wings keep out all sunlight except for mid-day in mid-summer. This is not my idea of good conditions for enjoying a good outdoor life beside a great river.

The skyline, architecture and landscape of the River Thames in Central London

I see the Banks of the Thames as a place where, during the twentieth century, unimaginative planning and selfishly mediocre architecture often conspired to produce designs better suited to a rundown provincial town than to the heart of a great city. Skylines, landscape and architecture should be considered together, looking to the past and looking to the future. ‘Protecting’ views is important but insufficient. Proposals for ‘high buildings’ ‘tall buildings’ and ‘towers’ should be viewed in context, never in isolation. Studies of their visual and environmental impact require scenic quality assessments, a policy context and full testing on a digital model of the city. As the below quotations reveal, London’s river is both a Place of Darkness and a Place of Light.
William Blake, in 1794, found ‘in every face I meet / Marks of weakness, marks of woe’ where ‘the Thames does flow’.
William Wordsworth, 8 years later found the Thames a river of beauty and romance. He declared that ‘Earth has not anything to show more fair’ (1802).
Joseph Conrad, in 1899, knew the Thames as a place of history, romance, toil, darkness and light. He saw London as ‘the biggest, and the greatest, town on earth’, a place which had known ‘the dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empires’ and was yet ‘one of the dark places of the earth.’
Since 1945 property developers have seen the Thames as a place to make a quick buck
Since 2000, some wealthy immigrants have viewed riverside apartments as great places to launder the ill-gotten gains of financial scams and miscellaneous corruption.

Recent blog posts about London’s River Thames skyline landscape

See also:  Rem Koolhaas on London’s skyline. Koolhaas remarks that ‘London has always changed dramatically and it’s still is not a very dramatic city. So it can go on. I think that in London whatever you do you do not disturb an earlier coherence. You do not disturb an earlier utopia like in Paris. It can stand a lot of development without suffering’.  I read this comment as a polite way of saying that most of London’s riverside is pretty dull, as the above video shows, it has its moments – but not enough of them.

The Shard architecture and skyline landscape symbolic reviews

Salisbury Cathedral, The Shard (with a cross) and the Albert Memorial as Christian architectural symbols in an urban landscape

If you build a skyscaper in London you can expect a shovel of reviews. Here is a selection of opinions about the symbolic impact of Renzo Piano’s Shard on London’s landscape.
Tom Turner: If The Shard had a Christian cross on top most of the critics would change their minds
Nathan Hurst: The Shard is an irregular pyramid with a glass exterior, evoking a shard of glass.
Fergus Feilden: I find the Shard lacks soul
Richard Rogers: The Shard is the most beautiful addition to the London skyline.
Owen Hatherley: The Shard is rammed unforgivingly into Southwark
Peter Buchanan: The Shard is much too big, as is Piano’s building rising beside it, and completely out of character with the surrounding area − the evocation of spires and sails is fatuous.
Simon Jenkins: This tower is anarchy. It conforms to no planning policy. It marks no architectural focus or rond-point.
Paul Finch: Like any icon, the Shard demands attention and has received it in spades from London cab drivers (split views), architects (benefit of the doubt), and the non-fraternity of architectural critics puzzled by this south-of-the-Thames phenomenon.
Terry Farrell: In its overall shape, the tower is to my mind a bit of a 1960s Dan Dare version but as with all Renzo’s buildings it has its own elegance.
Simon Allford: I am delighted to see it standing tall on the skyline in an unexpected place confidently breaking rules.
Patrik Schumacher: The form is insufficiently motivated. The project seems to sacrifice efficiency for the formal purity of the pyramid.
Jonathan Glancey: The Shard is in the wrong place. It would be better off in Shanghai or Dubai.
Aditya Chakrabortty: It’s expensive. It’s off-limits. It’s largely owned by people who don’t live here. And it is the perfect metaphor for what our capital is becoming.
Chris Leadbeater: Henry VIII would be furious. Apoplectic. Red-faced with rage. Heads would surely roll.

Underneath it all, London remains a city of spires: St Paul

My guess is reviewers can be placed in two camps: left-wing and right-wing. Aesthetic conservatives would be happy to see a traditional spire towering of London, as the spire of Old St Paul’s once did. Aesthetic lefties enjoy breaks with tradition and feel sick at the use of a traditional building forms in the twenty-first century. Both groups of critics are happy to sneer at Towers of Mamon and/or at foreign involvement in London. Symbols have a profound influence on aesthetic judgements. While the UK economy has languished for a century, London’s economy has rarely paused since the time of Henry VII. It remains one of the most financially productive places on earth and subsidises what remains of the British Empire (including the North of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.)

The worst view of The Shard is More London in the foreground. It is dissonant ('in the musical sense of 'a combination of notes that sound harsh or unpleasant '). Is the red arm removing a speck of dust from Lord Foster's eyeball?

Sunlight, tall buildings and the City of London's new urban landscape architecture

I had a short walk and ride around the City of London at the weekend. It is an unusual place and, though I have never had the experience, thought about being  in a crevasse. The City has a medieval street pattern overlaid on a Roman street pattern. It can’t be changed and land values are sky high. So they keep building higher and with steel and glass. You might think this would produce gloomy canyons but, in fact, there is a phenomenon akin to total internal reflection, as in a ‘sun tube’, which brings light down to street level. The odd aspect of this is that the light is normally less-bright than sunlight and has a ghostly quality (as when sun shines through ice). An exception results from the Walkie Talkie.

As it neared completion in 2013 Rafael Viñoly Architects design for 20 Fenchurch Street began to act as a solar mirror. It focused so much sun in the pavements that it became possible to fry eggs. Londoners therefore changed its name to Walkie Talkie Scorchie – though Fryscraper is a popular alternative. The above video begins where Lovat Lane runs south from Eastcheap – so the sunlight is coming from the north! It shows the once-dark alley blazing with solar glare. Viñoly should have known better: he had the same problem with the Vdara skyscraper in Las Vegas. The effect is known as a ‘death ray’ but, properly directed, the sunlight reflected from tall buildings can be a welcome addition to dark pedestrian spaces.

 Viñoly’s response to the problem has been to point his fingers and toes at other consultants. He whines that [in London] ‘the superabundance of consultants and sub consultants dilute the responsibility of the designers until you don’t know where you are’ so that ‘architects aren’t architects anymore’. In truth, he did not have the right consultants. What he needed was a physicist to calculate what would happen and a landscape architect to make best-possible use of the reflected light. Gillespies are working on the design of the Fenchurch Street Skygarden and I am sure they would have been pleased to help out with the street level design problem.

Architects (notably Richard Rogers) often argue that high buildings save the green belt, save on transport infrastructure and are good for sustainability. All true but this does not mean tall buildings are always best. Simon Jenkins tried to discuss them at the RIBA  and reached the conclusion that ‘Talking towers with London architects is like talking disarmament with the National Rifle Association. A skyscraper seems every builder’s dream. At a Royal Institute of British Architects seminar on the subject last April, I faced an audience almost entirely of architects who treated any criticism of tall buildings as nothing to do with aesthetics or urban culture but to do with denying them money.’  An expert House of Commons committee (2001-2) and the City’s Chief Planning Officer (Peter Rees) argue that high buildings are unnecessary and undesirable – because similar densities can be achieved by other means.

The planning and design of tall buildings should form part of an imaginative scenic conception of the future urban landscapes they will help create. Conservation is not enough. Innovation is not enough. Past and future concepts must be brought into harmony. This requires design imagination.

The visual impact of Renzo Piano's Shard on the landscape and skyline of the River Thames

Is the visual impact of Europe's tallest building on London's skyline good or bad?

Does The Shard have a positive or negative visual impact on this view of London’s river skyline ? The above photos are 180° panoramic views from Southwark Bridge and little spiky building in front of The Shard is Southwark Cathedral (unlike St Paul’s, it is not connected). Camillo Sitte said the ratio of  height:width of a city square should range between 1:1 and 1:2. Is this relevant to buildings near London’s river? The Shard is 306m high and the Thames at London Bridge 265 metres wide. This gives us a ratio of  1:1.5. The Shard is  150m from the river. Sitte wrote that “We find…that the height of its principal building, taken once, can be declared to be roughly the minimum dimension for a plaza, the absolute maximum that still gives a good effect being the double of that height – provided that the general shape of the building, its purpose, and its detailing do not permit exceptional dimensions.”

The landscape architecture of Taksim Gezi Meydani 'Park' or 'Square'

Taksim Gezi Park Istanbul is a rallying point for Turkish landscape architects

The Turkish government wants to build a shopping mall on Taksim Gezi ‘park’ or ‘square’. The local people are against it. One way or another, I believe the outcome of the Taksim Gezi events will be good for Turkish landscape architecture. To the barricades. If the shopping mall is built, it will become a cause célèbre. As Tertullian remarked ‘the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church’. And if the shopping mall is not built it will be a famous victory – in which landscape architects should aim to share.
Queen Anne asked one of her Ministers what it would cost to stop public access to London’s Hyde park and was told, “It would cost you but three crowns, ma’am: those of England, Scotland and Ireland.” . Public open space should be at the centre of public debate.
The Bosphorus is the traditional boundary between Europe and Asia and also the meeting point of the two cultures which govern modern Turkey: western and eastern. Many Ottoman intellectuals and leaders came from western (European) Turkey. Though born in Istanbul, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s political culture has Anatolian roots. Ataturk, who founded the Turkish republic, was born in Greece and sought to westernise Turkey. So the question, as ever, is: will Turkey look east or will Turkey look west? We can extrapolate the choice to landscape architecture. Looking east, to the Turks’ nomadic past, suggests a lack of significance for permanent open space. Looking west, to the settled lands of Europe, suggests a desire to protect open space.
Though rendered in English as Taksim ‘Square’, the Turkish name is Taksim Meydanı. ‘Meydani’ derives from the Persian word maidan which was used for a multi-purpose civic space. It was not a park (paradaeza in Persian) and it was not usually planted. The uses included markets, parades, festivals, games and camping. This made it a very important place – though the famous maidan in Isfahan has since been laid out as a western park and is not busy. So should Turkish landscape architects look west or east? Both. Topkapi Palace is a good symbol for this: the pattern of its open spaces is that of an encampment, but the encampment has become permanent (as Gülru Necipoğlu, explains in Architecture, ceremonial, and power: The Topkapı Palace in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Cambridge, Mass, 1991).
Well, Istanbul lost its chance to host the 2020 Olympics yesterday for, it is thought, two reasons (1) the brutal treatment of protesters over the proposed development of Taksim Gezi (2) Turkey’s poor record in controlling the use of drugs by its athletes. I give my sympathy to the landscape architects and others involved in Istanbul’s bid and have no hesitation in saying that the landscape architecture of Istanbul is of the very highest quality.
I am pleased to report that London’s park users (photo of the gates of Finsbury Park below) support Istanbul’s park users in calling for the conservation of Taksim Gezi Meydani. We might be able to send protesters if another occupation becomes necessary but we are not considering armed intervention of any kind.
London park users call for Taksim Gezi Meydani to be conserved

London park users call for Taksim Gezi Meydani to be conserved

Top image of Taksim Gezi courtesy Alan Hilditch. Lower image

Is Grannary Square London's finest new public open space?

An Architect’s Journal comment welcomes Grannary Square as ‘London’s finest new public space’. So, many congratulations to the designers: Townshend Landscape Architects. It opened as a public open space in 2012 and had a great season in 2013 because of the fine summer weather.  Rory Olcayto rates it a better contribution to King’s Cross than the work of its panoply of big name architects (John McAslan + Partners, PRP,  MaccreanorLavington,  Glenn Howells,   Carmody Groarke,   Stanton Williams,  David Chipperfield,  Allies & Morrison,   AHMM,  Feix & Merlin, etc). Olcayto could have added that Grannary Square is likely to outlive ALL the buildings – just as St James’s Park has, so far, outlived Whitehall Palace by 300 years.

I see the design as a great start on what may become a great public open space. The design is strong and simple. The water feature is big and bold. The grove of trees with unfixed chairs and tables is a welcome homage to W H Whyte. The artificial grass steps, facing the sun and the canal, are a great success.  All good. Grannary Square is a little blank and empty – but can be expected to fill up with people and uses as Argent’s King’s Cross Development gathers steam.

As I was pressing the button to take the photograph, below, a distraught mother ran to me and cried ‘Excuse me – why are you photographing my children?’. She accepted my explanation and said that her husband was a photographer and often had similar complaints. I asked why she was troubled. ‘I don’t know’ she said ‘I just feel that it is my job to protect my children’. It reminds one of primitive peoples’ idea that something belonging to them them has been ‘taken’ when the camera clicks – and of girls who both want to be looked at and do not want to be looked at.  Lin Yutang commented that ‘All women’s dresses, in every age and country, are merely variations on the eternal struggle between the admitted desire to dress and the unadmitted desire to undress’. Do mother’s want their children to be admired?
The zany zig-zag is an installation by the Swiss artist Felice Varini and is entitled Across the Buildings. I believe it will only there in 2013 and will be sorry when it goes. See

Beijing urban landscape: architecture, planning, design and conservation

Should the old urban landscape of Central Beijing have been conserved?

The montage, which is rough, shows a 1914 plan of Beijing superimposed on a recent Landsat image of the Beijing metropolitan area. When the reconstruction of the old city began, after 1949, Chen Zhanxiang recommended that a new city should be built outside the old walled city – so that the central area could be conserved. He had worked with Sir Patrick Abercrombie in London and understood the need for a city to engage in both conservation and development. Professor Liang Si-cheng commented that ‘demolishing the old wall is like peeling off my skin’ (Turner, T., Asian gardens: history, beliefs and design 2010, pp307-8). Beijing’s old walls, which became the 2nd Ring Road, are shown in the below photograph.

Osvald Siren's photograph of the old walls of Beijing, before they were demolished to make a ring road

Were the academics right or were the municipal authorities right? My vote goes to the academics. Central Beijing should have been as well protected from the twentieth century as Haussmann’s Paris.  The two capitals have comparable design histories. But, for Chinese urban designers and landscape planners, there were other problems. The old map makes a distinction between the ‘Tartar or Manchu’ Inner City (which contains the Forbidden City and the three Seas) and the ‘Chinese’ Outer City. The Manchus were invaders who spoke a different language. Their walls were a symbol of exclusion and repression, like the Berlin Wall, and were demolished by Chairman Mao’s government. Had the French and British not demolished the Yuan Ming Yuan, Mao Zedong might have done it for political reasons, much as he destroyed Buddhist monasteries. Mao’s position in Chinese history is peculiar. He will always have credit for modernising the country and educating women but, one day, he is likely to receive even more blame for the Cultural Revolution. He will also be blamed for destroying too much of China’s architectural and landscape heritage. So here is my advice to municipal authorities everywhere: find the best parts of your heritage FROM EVERY ERA and apply the most stringent conservation measures possible. This will require landscape assessement technqiues. The ‘blocky landscape’ of early 21st century Beijing will be disliked, sooner or later, but a good-sized zone should be subject to strict conservation measures – including those ridiculuous ‘flower beds’ which line any roads wide enough to have them.

The 2nd Ring Road in Beijing follows the walls of the old city - on which it stands

Images of Beijing’s 2nd Ring Road courtesy of ernop and poeloq

UK Cycling Policy and Landscape Architecture Grade Cycle Paths

London's famous Yellow Cycle Lanes are perilous for cyclists but great for the medical profession

Isn’t it amazing that a mere 2% trips in the UK are made by bike, compared with 14% in Germany and 30% in Holland? As everyone knows, Britain’s cycle paths, like its NHS and Black Cabs, are ‘the envy of the world’. Our famous Yellow Cycle Paths are designed to protect the jobs of highwaymen and create jobs for doctors. And what a great contribution they make. We hardly have to allocate any land or money to cycling and it makes a massive contribution to the workload of Accident and Emergency Departments throughout the land.
London is raising the percentage of its transport budget spent on cycling to 2%. This is great news for doctors and nurses. If it had been increased to 30%, heading for Dutch and Danish levels, there is a real danger that cycling would become safer and more popular. This would lead directly to fewer accidents, fewer strokes and fewer heart attacks. There is also a terrible risk that the salaries of landscape architects would exceed those of doctors, because of the great contribution to health and wellbeing made by Landscape Architecture Grade Cycle Paths. This could threaten the very liveliehood of thousands of health professionals. They would give up being highwaymen and sawbones to become landscape architects. What good would that do for the British Medical Association or the Institute of Civil Engineers? None! ‘Say No to Greening London’. Keep the two-wheeled blighters in their Narrow Yellow Lanes. Let them drip sweat, break bones and ooze blood for a thousand years.

London cycling image courtesy Tejvan

Triumph of the City – destruction of the Green Belt

Chandni Chowk: a low-carbon sustainable street in Old Delhi

Etymologically, economics is the study of the laws (nomos) which govern homes (oikos). But economists work with a rarely-spoken assumption that what matters is how to get wealthier. I have been reading a book by the Harvard economist, Edward Glaeser: Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier. Despite the long title, what he really wants is to make America ‘richer’ and less dependent on carbon fuels. He praises Chinese cities for the low carbon consumption of their residential areas and criticises people who live around San Francisco (eg Marin County) for opposing as much new building as they can. The city of Houston is praised for encouraging as much development as possible but criticised for letting it take place a low densities. The city of Paris is praised for conserving its central area (within Périphérique) while allowing high buildings at La Défense.
Glaeser does not say much about London but his views can be assumed: (1) London has a less-sensible high buildings policy than Paris (2) London should retreat from its policy of restricting high buildings (as Boris Johnson is doing on London’s South Bank) (3) London should convert its Green Belt to a Development Zone for a Chinese-style high-density city.
China does not, in fact, have a city on the Wiki list of the world’s 50 most densely populated cities. Eighteen of them are in India and I guess Glaeser knows that this is not how Americans, or Europeans, want to live – however good this urban style may be for reducing carbon emissions. The Wiki list is topped by Manila (at 43,07/km2 ). The densist city in America is New York (at 10,640/km2). Delhi has 29,495/km2. Paris has 21,289/km2. London has 5,285/km2. Sydney has 2,058/km2.
Image courtesy Deivis. I once took my bicycle through Chandni Chowk (‘rode’ would be an inappropriate word) and, having marvelled at its low carbon usage, urge western advocates of sustainability to follow my example.

Detroit urban landscape architecture, planning and design

Detroit urban landscape architecture and design

Detroit is bankrupt, derelict, ruined and dangerous to know. So anyone with an interest in urban landscape design and planning should ask two questions

  • Why did it happen?
  • What can be done about it?

Many people are in fact asking these questions and they could put be on school curricula – in Europe, in America and, most of all, in China. Similar catastrophes happened in Europe yesterday and may be expected in China tomorrow. In Britain, as the Guardian explains, the school history curriculum is too focussed in Hitler. It is a preposterous state of affaris: the man is dead. His ideas are dead. Everyone hates him. Really, one would think school history teachers had heard about this.
So why is Detroit going down the drain?

  • Is the CIA behind it? (Probably not)
  • Is it because American engineers don’t know how to design cars? (Probably not)
  • Is it because Detroit is, largely, an African American city? (Probably not)
  • Is it because American managers are obese? (Probably not)
  • Is it because American trade unions are so strong? (Probably not)
  • Is it because Asian workers work much harder for lower rates? (Probably not)
  • Is it because the US has dumb policies on gun control and drugs (Probably not)

So I cannot answer the question – but other cities have found ways of dealing with the declines of their auto industries and, in due course, it will be interesting to see what policy China adopts for its soon-to-be rustbelt industries. Karl Marx explained that creative destruction is integral to capitalism – and China has become a capitalist country.
So what can be done about Detroit? Edward Glaeser, in Triumph of the city (2011 pp 64-7) recommends a policy of ‘shrinking to greatness’. Following the examples of Leipzig in Germany, and Youngstown in Ohio, he recommends demolishing empty buildings. He writes that Mayor Bing, ‘knows that Detroit can be a great city if it cares for its people well even if it has far fewer structures’. Instead of ‘demolition’ I recommend a plan for regenerating the city’s ecosystem. It needs a habitat plan: for humans, fauna and flora. Humans need safety. Perhaps the 25% of the city which is now un-inhabited should be demolished, or perhaps the empty buildings should be fenced off. I don’t know – but high schools would surely learn more from studying Detroit than from studying Hitler. A class could begin with an old Detroit-made car. Kids could learn to take it apart, clean it up,  put it back together and drive round the playground. While doing this they would learn about physics,  architecture, chemistry, industrial design, labour relations, politics, economics, trade unions, finance, pensions, international trade, entrepreneurship, urban design, database management, landscape architecture, ecology – and, of course, an approach to art and music which draws upon the Nature of Detroit. ‘Ah’, you may say, ‘good idea –  but school teachers know nothing of these subjects’. Well then: they should not be teaching kids who need to know about these subjects.

(Images courtesy nic-r and LHOON)

Sustainable green roofs and solar walls in urban landscape design

Amazing but true: the price of solar panels after dropping at about 6% per year for a decade, the price of solar panels is now dropping at 20% per year. If this continues for 5 years solar power is going to be cheaper than coal power. But the cost of electricity transmission is not falling so it will be advantageous to have solar panels as close as possible to the buildings in which the electricity is used. So the likely future of urban design is: solar panels on the walls and vegetation of the roofs. No more dead walls and, since pv panels are reflective, we can look forward to sunlight being reflected into the previously dark corners of cities. Retaining the ‘matchbox’ form of recent cities would not be sensible. We can look forward to some entirely different urban forms and to a much fuller integration of landscape design with architectural design.
Images courtesy afagen and mgifford,

Orvieto, Italy, landscape and architecture then and now

Orvieto, in Umbria, Italy, shown about 80 years apart. The views are not quite the same, though the campanile provides a reference point. The 1930s photograph has a Claudian air. The 2006 photo has less of a town:country contrast and the landscape is being suburanised. When walled cities had to defend themselves the presence of trees in the immediate vicinity was undesirable – and I think I would get rid of them now (for about 250m from the cliff. Thomas Aquinas once taught her and Orvieto used to control the road from Florence to Rome. There is a labyrinth of tunnels in the rock below the town. In 1840, a travel guide noted that ‘For the traveller not having his own carriage the best mode of proceeding will be by the diligence, which leaves Rome on the mornings of Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, and arrives at Viterbo early in the afternoon. At daybreak on the following morning, a carriage that conveys the mail, not the cleanest or most comfortable of vehicles, starts for Orvieto, and arrives there about 11 o’clock, giving him sufficient time to vist that interesting city on the same day.’
(2006 photo courtesy pshanson)

Assisi fountain then and now

These photographs of Assisi’s urban landscape and architecture were taken about 80 years apart. It’s great to see how little has changed (probably ‘thanks to St Francis’ for attracting tourists) but the changes seem to be for the worse: cars, masts for  TVs and phones, ugly street signs, heritage lighting, extra downpipes, less picturesque clothing, some odd castellations (top right).  Readers are invited to contribute ‘then and now’ pairs of illustrations so that we can keep an eye on how gardens, parks, urban landscapes and rural landscapes are changing.  Let’s hope we can find some examples of things getting better.

(2012 photo of Assisi courtesy of  preston rhea)

Placemaking for 34 great waterfront urban landscapes

I admire the Public for Public Space and I like this video, even if it is too long. Also, I mostly agree with the criticisms of landscape architects and the other design professions. What I regret about the film is the detachment from design theory.
Fred Kent’s answer to the question ‘What Makes a Great Place?’ is (1) sociability (2) uses and activities (3) comfort and image (4) access & linkage. It is not wrong but it is muddled. Fred Kent should have begun with Vitruvius and had he done this the list might have been re-organized as follows (1) commodity: uses, activities, sociability and comfort (2) FIRMNESS: construction and planting supporting a healthy ecosystem, with access and linkage for humans and other species (3) DELIGHT, or, as Vitruvius put it VENUSTAS – his word extends to all the aesthetic qualities associated with Venus, rather than the marketing-mens’ word ‘image’.
Some acquaintance with design history might also have yielded the fact that Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown described himself as a Place Maker.

Should urban design start with architecture, landscape, infrastructure – or music?

The highwaymen seem to have won so that modern (or should it be Modernist?) urban design begins with the layout of roads. The gaps are then filled with blocks and the SLOAP is slurped with slabs and shrubs (SLOAP = Space Left Over After Planning). This is how Concrete Jungles are made. ‘Ugh’. So let’s demote the highwaymen and then think about how to design cities which will be more than assembles of Big Boxes and Little Boxes beside roads (see video below).
Should we launch our urban designs with music, architecture, landscape, planning or infrastructure? Music can set the mood for a design. We can remember the example of the Greenwich landscape architecture urban design project 2011. And we can  look back to the example of St Clement Danes (see video above). The original church, built by Danish imigrants, stood between the cities of London and Westminster – possibly near trees, as today. James Gibbs designed the tower – and the music it was to produce was surely the starting point for his design, reminding us that form can follow function without being its slave.
Yet what is the function of a city? Is it to help its citizens lead good lives: healthy, comfortable, safe, sustainable and beautifully inspiring. If so, we cannot expect good cities to result from starting with the design of roads. But where should the urban design process begin: planning, architecture, landscape architecture, green infrastructure, grey infrastructure? You might say ‘start with urban design’ but it has proved too broad a discipline for the training of professionals at first degree level – and also problematic at masters level.

Cycle planning in London – landscape architects should help

Cyclists love AmsterdamGreat to see cycling as an issue in the election for a London Mayor and, since it is safer to judge politicians by what they do than by what they say, I will vote for the re-election of Boris Johnson. I have SEEN him cycling to work in London. Ken Livingstone  says a bit about cycling but, during his years as Mayor, I SAW no significant improvements – and nor did I hear of him riding a bike.

To ride with the election, the London Cycling Campaign is running  a ‘Love London, Go Dutch’ campaign. The LCC points out that in the 1970s, cycling was not much more popular in Amsterdam than in London. Today, 3% of London journeys are made by bike (this includes 90% of my journeys!) and 47% of Amsterdam journeys are made by bike (figures from Evening Standard 26.4.2012). The cycle park at Zuid Station holds 2500 bikes and parking is free for the first 24 hours. TfL has a cycle park at London Bridge Station which holds 400 bikes and costs £1.50/day.  I would like to see landscape architects taking an active role in London Cycle Planning and Design. Those ugly Barclays cycle ‘superhighways’ should be replaced by beautifully designed  leafy and flowery routes. This will cost money – and the Landscape Institute should be a very-active campaigner for safe, convenient and enjoyable cycle lanes. It would not surprise me if 50% of landscape architects cycle to work in London – so they can be trusted to produce good designs.

Image courtesy MaWá

What are the conditions for good urban landscape design?

Edmund Bacon, in his 1974 book on Design of Cities, interpreted Rome's spatial plan in essentially geometrical terms (an axial movement system). Historically, it was created WITH temporal and spiritual power to symbolise these qualities. Are they still the necessary conditions for good urban design? No living planner or designer has the 'powers' of Sixtus V and Urban VIII. Is this why we are making such disappointing cities?

What are the social, political and economic conditions in which urban landscape design is most likely to flourish? I very much hope my answer to this question is wrong, but here goes: “in cities where an enlightened king was guided by spiritual beliefs”. Why should this be so? (1) Without temporal power, urban design is scarcely possible. (2) without spiritual power, objectives are likely to be short term and non-idealistic (3) short-term commercial and military objectives benefit rulers and disadvantage peoples. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn observed “Is it not true that professional politicians are boils on the neck of society that prevent it from turning its head and moving its arms?”. “It is not victory that is precious but defeat. Victories are good for governments, whereas defeats are good for the people. After a victory, new victories are sought, while after a defeat one longs for freedom, and usually attains it. Nations need defeats just as individuals need suffering and misfortunes, which deepen the inner life and elevate the spirit.”  The great urban designs were made in periods of faith and monarchy Beijing from 1293-1912, in Isfahan under Shah Jehan, in Rome under the Popes and in Paris under the kings and emperors. What comparable successes can be claimed by the faithless democracies and autocracies of the twentieth century? The great powers of the modern world suffer from not having been defeated in great wars.

Image courtesy RTSS