‘Over 80% of the public realm of our cities and towns are streets’ asserted Christopher Wren in his presentation titled, ‘Sustainable Placemaking an Australian Perspective’ held on the Scottish Storytelling Centre on the 6th July 2010. When you stop and think about that statistic, it is necessary to consider what kind of spaces these streets should be and create places that are sustainable because people want to be there.
Reflecting on over 30 years’ experience in placemaking and architecture across Australia, Asia and Europe, Wren argued that the most difficult aspect of sustainability is designing for people. Too often, we either misunderstand the social glue that pulls places together in a meaningful way. Streets become roads, efficiencies drive delivery and the results are too often disappointing. The challenge is to champion a vision which is holistic, sufficiently robust in its key principles and structures but not overly prescriptive in its guidance. The need to allow for innovation and adaptation in the development of places over time is a crucial part of enabling people places.
Discussing both his career and placemaking observations, Wren concluded that basic spatial structure is the ingredient that we need most to focus on. It is great to have iconic architecture; however, it is much more important to have a system of streets and spaces that that enable people to carry out their lives.
Much learning already exists about how to do better spatial frameworks. Wren argued that ‘old urbanism’, the legacy of traditional settlements shows us how resilient a clear spatial framework can be. However, he also suggested that there should be clarity between old and new both architecturally and spatially. Authenticity does not mean old looking. New places should reflect the context and time we work in, yet be sensitive to the historic setting.
A key element of Wren’s argument related to movement. He contends that new places need a wide variety of movements both within the urban area, and in relation to others. To sustain the level of intensity that characterises large scale mixed use places, he argued that vehicle movements may need to be of the order of 10-20,000 per day. He argued that lower vehicle movements, handled in a way that allows the vehicles to pass quickly through the urban system can create significantly more harm to the structure and amenity of a place. The issue for him was both the number needed to sustain commercial and social enterprise, and more crucially, how these numbers are handled.
Starting with the street is essential. We need to think about all the relationships that make it work: how to manage traffic speeds, how to create an environment that is comfortable and how to create an environment so that any section of street has sufficient variety of uses, buildings and connections that make it interesting. He argued that making it work at ground level, where streets and buildings connect, does not always require retail. This form of mandate on a spatial structure is over prescriptive and difficult to deliver. The key is to establish positive relationships between the streets and entrances and to design in sufficient flexibility in the ground floor to ceiling heights and in local zoning policies that enable a variety of possible uses to emerge over time.
Wren showed a reflective honesty in this overview of his diverse career. Not all design decisions worked. However, he emphasised the need to continuously learn and reflect and most crucially to experience places. His experience of going to, looking at, and experiencing life in different locations helped him enormously across his career. Even very modest places have a lot to teach.
Old urbanism is a good master in our path to deliver better places. Confidence working with our contemporary contexts also matters. The challenge is to blend these contexts, be ambitious, rigorous and most of all, be sensitive to a key lesson: sustainable places are places where people want to be.
The event in the Storytelling Centre is part of a tour across Europe, engaging with design and placemaking communities and universities. The key principles of Christopher Wren’s reflections are captured in this paper on sustainable placemaking.