Better approaches to masterplanning practice

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Creating Sustainable Communities: Better Approaches to Masterplanning Practice
The University of Dundee, Geddes Institute for Urban Research – 1 November 2013

In setting the context in his introduction ‘An Integrated Masterplanning Process: the 6 (Cs) Principles’ Dr Husam Al Waer spoke of a need to challenge an attitude that masterplanning and design don’t matter in a recession. We can’t afford to invest in poor places; in an age of uncertainty we need to be more explicit in our strategic thinking; a flexible framework is required to manage incremental change over wider areas across the longer term (20/30+ years) to deal with broader social, economic, environmental and community issues. We need a mechanism that impacts positively for the benefit of communities and takes account of inter-generational equity. Masterplanning has been outsourced and public agency has lost practical experience and expertise; we need to overcome scepticism about the added value that masterplans can bring.

Dr Husam Al Waer summarised the ‘C’s’ of masterplanning:

  1. Context: people and places matter
  2. Clarity: what is the strategic intent?
  3. Client & control: what is the role of the end user?
  4. Collaboration & communication: how are people involved?
  5. Change: is a constant; flexibility is required
  6. Cost & economy: localised economics matter
  7. Continuity: accountability, continuous delivery, monitor, review, measurable improvement

Several points were raised in relation to charrettes:

  • They provide a means of rapid engagement; but are they authentic or an act of theatre?
  • How do charrettes work with context: are they style or place driven?
  • What is their status; how do they fit with regulatory processes?
  • They offer high impact and initiate fast design; but require slow delivery.
  • How to deal with charrette hangover; who takes the process forward once the charrette is over?
  • There is a need to fit with longer processes that have no start or end, but which are continuous.

Key opening conclusions were:

  1. Make outcomes and delivery visible; people need to be motivated
  2. Review professional ethics and practice; work in the public interest
  3. Consolidated multi discipline knowledge should inform practice and policy making

In speaking about ‘public and private interests in masterplanning’ Professor Stuart Gulliver of University of Glasgow set out thoughts about how to achieve better masterplanning, and started by describing frustrations around:

  • Lack of clarity / honesty – i.e. can a masterplan really create jobs or deal with poverty, etc; or are these aspects more correctly tackled directly in other ways?
  • Lack of reality; a masterplan should be anchored in some notion of economic reality, otherwise it’s an exercise in physical determinism with wish-lists; is it pie-in-the-sky, or really viable?

In considering public/private interests in masterplanning, Professor Gulliver noted three different typologies of masterplanning:Macro: regional / sub-regional (‘language of blobs and triangles’)

  • Macro: regional / sub-regional (‘language of blobs and triangles’)
  • Meso: town, city, district (‘gateways, routes, parkways, corridors’)
  • Micro: site, neighbourhood (‘a diagram showing how it will be developed’)

Across the spatial scales, regions, cities, towns, districts, etc. are all public goods; therefore good masterplanning and placemaking require public sector leadership to lead and co-ordinate activity.

Masterplans are upholders of quality standards; however, there is a mismatch between goals, objectives and aspirations of public and private sectors. Developers do not retain a long term interest in the site and there is no incentive to produce a design better than the minimum; issues of public realm and long term maintenance can be side-lined without any impact on quality. We set quantity targets but not quality standards (e.g. 24k houses built… but 18k are rubbish!). We need to consider more than numbers; you get what you measure, and we need to measure quality!

Masterplans need to link a physical spatial framework with an economic strategy to integrate and bring together these two development components, to ensure reality and prioritisation. Economic masterplanning must ask two key questions: How will this place earn its living over next 10/20 years? What will/could that look like on the ground?

There is a need to map work styles and work places. 40% (i.e. almost half) of the working population work in organisations of less than 5 people – what does this look like? Where and what are the new work spaces? What are the new gathering places? How do we combat stress?

Economic masterplans pull together the two big ideas of the past 20 years: a] place competitiveness / places compete, and b] urban form / urban renaissance – place function; vibrancy and attractive. Professor Gulliver described the transformational impact of an economic study in tandem with Cullen’s input to the masterplanning of 1983 Glasgow (against a context of significant change for Glasgow that included the ‘Smiles Better’ campaign, and the Garden Festival ’97), where creative, dynamic influence helped to captivate, inspire and help make an economic reality believable, through exciting imagery, stimulating ideas that people could believe in, and thrilling prose.

It was argued that whilst we have been good at developing strategy we need to get better at delivery; all masterplans must include: a] ‘Delivery / how do we get this to happen?’ and b] ‘Sequencing / what comes first?’ We also need to be better at engaging the public and others in a process where economic actors are missing: “most public officials see competition as a distraction from their real job and leave it either up to inexperienced staff or hire consultants to do it”.

A case study of 22@Barcelona illustrated how the former industrial area of Poblenou is being transfigured to become the city’s technological and innovation district incorporating leisure and residential space. The plan was approved in 2000 by the city council when the initiative, without either land ownership or money, set out to transform 200 ha and 115 city blocks by establishing a dedicated team (including lawyers) to focus on delivery; developing an initial Masterplan based on prose (not drawings) to define the aspiration, principles and process; prioritising certain sectors (e.g. ICT, media, energy, etc); putting in advanced infrastructure framework; and encouraging a higher density build ratio. Ultimately 4500 new organisations will employ 56000 additional people.

The subsequent presentation on ‘replacing Architectural Determinism: practitioner response’ by Professor Lawrence Barth of the School of the Architectural Association (AA) drew on examples to further develop the case to unite economic and political reasoning. Downtown San Jose is becoming more liveable through efforts to bring back economic interests (e.g. library, theatre, science centre, public transport); the Guggenheim / Bilbao has transformed an industrial area through redefining the city’s relationship with its river as being at the heart of the community, and bringing people back to the centre of the city commensurate with a knowledge environment. These and other examples have used masterplanning approaches as part of a variety of different tools and flexible responses.

The work environment is evolving and it’s not so much corporations that compete as entire value chains; companies (and places?) need to recognise this. Starbucks success as alternative office space of choice is indicative of the fact that effective work space doesn’t exist. Innovation is less about the invention and more about the absorption of new technologies. Activities need to collaborate and cross subsidise; e.g. a theatre operates in King’s Palace office building in London to mutual benefit. There are new trends in living and working patterns; team based work is changing and there is an increasingly blurred distinction between living and working environments (e.g. running tracks and karaoke provided in office environments). Google London brings people together in large space with small team spaces; office space is offered as time share, not as long term leases.

It is possible to think differently about a next generation of science parks that are not just research environments, but attractive urban areas to inhabit (“places where you meet your spouse”). The Zaha Hadid Singapore masterplan contests the idea of building towers or pavilions in a science park, and suggests a different approach that is porous and permeable allowing synergy through chance encounters normally found in mature urban areas. The S333 interpretation of the Hadid masterplan challenges the concept of a typical science park masterplan and rethinks the link between business development and wider communities; incorporating different uses (housing, office, children activities) and creating tremendous natural space that enables students, researchers, business and others to mix.

A further case study illustrated how building form creates the fabric without controlling the land use. The Hoffen City Masterplan, for 155 Ha on the edge of Hamburg, involves multiple developers to lower the risk; develops in sequence with simple buildable useable forms; ensures people are active in public space; places an emphasis on housing quality and not just numbers; and aims to deliver a high quality of environment where work and living environment are created through collaboration of stakeholders.

The final presentation from Petra Biberbach, Chief Executive of Planning Aid for Scotland was on ‘How to harness communities own ambitions and vision: community response’ and started by querying if masterplanning can really master change. Whilst masterplans tend to focus on new proposals, most places already exist; therefore we need efforts to sustain and improve existing places. Strategies for spatial change must deal with equitable access to opportunities; addressing ‘hard’ issues of physical urban form, and ‘softer’ aspects relating to inclusion. True placemaking must deal with issues of economy and health, safety, security, jobs, learning, personal esteem, wellbeing. What does a healthy neighbourhood look like? How do we build hope and confidence in communities?

Petra described that Scotland has potential to become a leader in promoting a place based approach; noting that the Community Empowerment and Renewal Bill is transforming how people connect to place, and the Land Reform Act (e.g. Assynt) supports community aspirations which build local capacity and resilience.

The CharrettePlus method has been used by PAS to link community engagement, community planning and spatial land-use planning. The intention is to unlock social capital and generate a sense of well-being and community spirit that links to trust, knowledge, skills and capacity. This builds on the idea that we need to engage civil society in civic structures and processes: “it’s our place!”
A subsequent Questions and Answer session raised several key points:

  • There is a need to build community spirit and social integration; e.g. through being able to walk to school or shop at a local retailer. Integrated neighbourhoods enable collaborative communities.
  • Is it possible to reorganise without strong growth? Effective urban areas are not development parcels; goals and objectives emerge from existing (and proposed) stakeholder base.
  • Plans need to propose and support ideas for jobs and employment – how is this done?
  • Masterplans need to flex and adapt to changing environment; there is a role for a third sector economy and an emerging social enterprise; the community should be able to develop and take forward action in its own hands.

Through a facilitated discussion led by Kevin Murray, Chair of the Academy of Urbanism, delegates considered a series of questions:

  1. Given foreseeable macro-conditions, what strategies are required for managing spatial change?
  2. What would active collaboration look like?
  3. What would more effective master-planning processes look like?

The feedback provided a range of interesting comment and observation which included:

  • We live in an age where the greatest certainty is ‘uncertainty’! Typically, masterplans are predicated on ‘known/expected’ conditions, and work towards an ‘end-state-condition’; but we need to allow for ‘happy accidents’ to occur!
  • Managing spatial change requires continual review and flexibility. It is not prescriptive about spatial outcomes, but indicates how design might take place across the longer term.
  • Masterplans tend to be geared towards ‘new’; but, they have implications for wider policy agendas, new and existing communities, and have influence beyond spatial boundaries.
  • There is a wide variety of players and interests – this suggests ‘masterplanning’ requires multiple co-ownerships, responsibilities and strategies. This demands ‘leadership’, understanding and collective buy-in. Ownership and responsibility should not belong to a ‘single hand’; ‘slow urbanism’ encourages a networking of micro-ideas and actions on the part of the many.
  • There is a danger masterplanning has become formulaic, privatised, institutionalised and developer-led. It has tended to satisfy a minimum obligation to meet statutory responsibilities; instead, it needs to work towards delivering ‘public good’.
  • There is no one-size-fits-all; masterplanning engages a mix of methods that recognise differing needs, purposes and requirements. There is a need to address differing issues: ‘Hard’: physical, spatial, development, buildings; and ‘Soft’: behavioural, attitudinal, mind-sets, ambitions, beliefs. Collective strategies need to emphasise place-making; this need not be physical change; place-making can also be a state of mind.
  • Different groups have limited capacity to engage in the process: who is ‘the community’ (new; existing; [un] expected; wider interest/s)? There is a need to make greater use of social media and technology to ensure wider buy-in, and access wider ‘communities’ of interest. Collective strategies involve a range of models to spread value and ensure community involvement.
  • Instead of combative, confrontational and contested (or due to!), masterplanning should be an expression of common democratic belief and not developer or municipal but value driven. A ‘masterplan’ can become a wider, democratic communication tool that speaks of ‘placemaking’.
  • The masterplan can attract, prime and invite investment – i.e. a collective business plan for place that sets out basic principles, shaped by a process that engages, guides, directs. Masterplanning processes need to demonstrate belief and be believable to secure investment.

A client response was provided by Steven Tolson, Head of RICS, who stressed an important distinction between (long-term) investment as opposed to (short-term) development; placemaking represents investing for the long term investment. Steven spoke about a need to deliver better places in Scotland and drew on examples to demonstrate how this is being achieved in northern Europe. A primary factor is that the state has a principal role as enabler to lead in land assembly and infrastructure investment to encourage and enable a range of smaller scaled developments (down to the level of community co-operatives) that spread risk and help to establish strong communities through the act of building and making a place. This fosters a sense of ownership and maintenance.

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