Did masterplanning survive the recession?

Reflections on the UDG & Urbanista's joint event Rebooting the Masterplan (12 May 2014) from urbanist, trainer and author of the Dictionary of Urbanism Rob Cowan

Did masterplanning survive the recession? At the best of times 94 per cent of masterplans in the UK are never implemented, so it is surprising to see that the things still get commissioned. This, the second of two events on masterplanning hosted by the Urban Design Group, was sold out, so urban designers clearly still think it is worth keeping up with current practice.

A member of the audience noted at question time that the previous event had focused more on international experience, and had presented a more conventional approach to masterplanning. That was not surprising to hear. The big urban design practices – or, rather, multidisciplinary practices with urban designers – are busy working on masterplans in places like China, the Middle East and Brazil. Their clients are in a position to deliver what has been planned. Urban designers working in China note in amazement: ‘We did the masterplan and a month later the city was being built.’

In the UK it does not work like that. It is rare than the organisation that commissioned the masterplan is in a position to implement it. Ownership of the site changes, the economy slumps, local people revolt, the political context changes, the developer decides to wait awhile or goes bust, or the proposals turn out to be unrelated to the real world. Too many masterplans are absurdly prescriptive and inflexible. The three speakers at the second UDG event represented something of a new approach, where the urban designer focuses on finding out what the site and its wider area have to offer: not just what development will be appropriate, but what will be possible and how it can be made to happen.

Liza Fior of Muf, who concentrate on public art and the public realm, summed up the practice’s approach under three headings. 1. Value what is there. 2. Nurture the possible. 3. Define what is missing. Someone said to me afterwards: ‘Isn’t it common sense?’ Sense, certainly, but in the past it has not been so common. Hence those 94 per cent of unsuccessful masterplans, where no one cared what was there; the market was expected to make things happen by magic; and a standard solution was all anyone wanted.

Last time I heard David West of Studio Egret West speaking at the UDG, he was debating with Roger Evans, and enjoying baiting his audience of urban designers by advocating Big Architecture against Evans’ considered contextualism. Five years later West is still proud of his association with Will Alsop and Big Architecture, but his current approach is more likely to appeal to members of the UDG. He presented eight themes. 1. Look beyond the site boundaries. 2. Collective authorship. 3. Narrative unlocks place. 4. Clear diagrams and flexible frameworks. 5. Founding events. 6. Forging connections. 7. Installing software (that is, activities complementing the hardware of buildings). 8. Public realm as DNA.

Again, it is common sense. Whether such masterplanning will work will depend on, among other things, the imagination, creativity and resources of the masterplanners. Egret presented a case study in which a previous masterplan had conceived the place as London Gateway (on the strength of having a Crossrail station nearby). Studio Egret West had shifted the focus to celebrating the site’s heritage as a centre of the vinyl record industry. It was not that the previous masterplan did not have a narrative, but it may well have been a less interesting one. Ultimately the test of a masterplanning process (and it is always more useless to speak of it as a process rather than a document) is not just whether it manages to get something built and to create value for the developers. The test is who will benefit from what happens on and around the site in years to come, long after the developers and urban designers have moved on.

The process starts with... cakes, said Paul Karakusevic of Karakusevic Carson Architects. The redevelopment of a housing estate in Hackney had been stalled for years, to the frustration of the residents and the council. Karakusevic Carson, brought in by the council as the latest practice, started by offering the residents, not a design, but cakes and sandwiches to eat while both sides got to know each other. It seemed to work. Common sense, really.

Or follow him on Twitter @cowanrob

Read Rob's blog at www.urbandesignskills.com/blog