What is the relationship is between the Urban Design Group and the Academy of Urbanism (AoU)? The two bodies have similar objectives, in promoting urban design and the importance of place quality, but pursue them in different ways. One of the similarities is that they both give annual awards. The difference, and perhaps a constructive one, is that the UDG gives awards to people, and the AoU gives awards to places.
The Academy has been giving annual awards for ten years, in the five categories of Cities, Towns, Neighbourhoods, Streets and Places. The first two lots of winners have been published earlier. This bumper book gathers together the shortlisted places, 75 in total, considered in the next five years, 2009 to 2013. The fifteen cities are selected from European countries as well as the UK: entries in the other four categories are all British or Irish.
Each of the 75 entries is documented by a thoughtful text, dealing with historical development and analysis as well as description, photographs, a figure-ground plan, and attractive line drawings by David Harrison. In addition there are poems about each place by the Academy’s poet in residence Ian McMillan: sometimes with something distinctive to say, but mostly rather formulaic.
It is not a book that one is likely to read through from front to back. Nor is it really a reference book, although you might look for information on Antwerp or Bournville or Tobermory if you remembered that they were included here. It is a record of five years’ work by an institution and a lot of individuals, and it is a handsome book of a type sometimes unhelpfully and dismissively classified as coffee-table.
I have not done a contents analysis to identify what makes a great town, street, etc,, although with diligence one could. I suspect it might come out something like Jane Jacobs’ four conditions for Diversity in Death and Life. It is a disappointing fact, but predictable, that nearly all the great places in this book are old places. There are several reinvented old places, like Nottingham’s Lace Market and London’s Coin Street, but the only entirely new places are the Accordia development in Cambridge, and City Park in Bradford.
Even these cannot be understood in isolation from their older context. Build Accordia in Bradford or City Park in Cambridge, and they would be different places, and not as successful. To give awards it is necessary to crowbar things out of their context, and this act can misrepresent them. But it’s a wellconstructed book, which I gained pleasure from. One little grumble – great to have all those meticulously-drawn figure-grounds, but why no drawn scales?