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sustainable placemaking

A keynote speech by Bernard Hunt, Managing Director of HTA Architects Ltd, 22 February 2001.

What better occasion could there be to talk about placemaking than at a Placemakers' lunch? And what better time to talk about it than on this, the 53rd day of the real new millennium. I just don't seem to be able to shake off the millennium bug! ...


Because surely the whole point of a millennium is to look back in order to look forward. And I cannot think of a better way to try to get a handle on 'placemaking' than to do just that. So I'll start by looking back. What strikes me most from my housing architect perspective when I think about placemaking in the past?

Well, when I think about the the 20th century, the first thing that strikes me is how successful it was in producing a wealth of great architecture - for me some of the most thrilling and enjoyable buildings of all time.

But PLACES? I struggle to find a single place built in the 20th century which is as enjoyable and as successful as the humblest street or square, village or urban neighbourhood built in earlier centuries. Is this just nostalgia? Is there a law of nature which says a place must be old to be enjoyed? Surely not.

Pondering over this I came across an article in last Saturday's Telegraph. There were two photographs, one of the idyllic village of Castle Combe in Wiltshire, the other of Cambourne, the new Bovis / Bryant / McAlpine development in Cambridgeshire, where according to the author "village imagery permeates every column inch of marketing..." and where "if you want to buy a house that hasn't got neo-vernacular windows, Tudor-style chimneys or little brick designs in the gable ends, you can forget it".

The author's message was clear. At Castle Combe in the sixteenth century a beautiful village came effortlessly into being. Today despite years of work aimed at achieving the same effect, Cambourne is just another bog standard housing estate.

We have theories, specialisms, regulations, exhortations, demonstration projects. We have planners. We have highway engineers. We have mixed use, mixed tenure, architecture, community architecture, urban design, neighbourhood strategy.

But what seems to have happened is that we have simply lost the art of placemaking; or, put another way, we have lost the simple art of placemaking. We are good at putting up buildings but we are bad at making places.

I am not just talking about what places look like, because there are two sides to the place coin. The physical form of a place is only one side. The way life is lived in it, and the common purpose around which that life revolves, is the other. And from cave dwellers to loft livers human beings have always used places to achieve their common purpose.

Somehow things were easier when that purpose was protection against the elements, defence from attack and control of disease. Successful placemaking seemed to happen when what was built was in direct response to imperatives like defence and topography and also when it was done unselfconsciously by different people at different times. We seem to get pleasure from the variety and diversity which resulted. But the charming differences between each of the houses in Castle Combe were not sought consciously - it was just that they were built by and for people who were not identical.

So is the popularity of places like Castle Combe just a matter of happy accident? I think not. When we look back at the past I think there are in fact two common elements of successful placemaking from which we can learn. The first I am calling 'vernacular', and the second 'community'.

First, then, there is the concept of a vernacular - a way of building which people living in a particular place at a particular time would use without even having to think about it. It is part style, part design; not real architecture, but an easier and cheaper version - perhaps an unconscious imitation of the fine architecture of grander buildings. And it is part construction system - a kit of parts which is not at the leading edge, but which is constantly evolving to bring the benefits of advances in technology to everyday buildings. The vernacular is an effortless way of building which the industry can do with its eyes shut. A way of building which is basically uniform, but which adapts effortlessly to deliver the slightly different tastes and requirements of each building owner and the different constraints of each site.

The second element of successful placemaking, which I am calling community for short, is much more complicated. It's all about the people who live in a place and about their individual and collective needs and wants. You might say that the fuel that energises placemaking is each individual's selfish wish to have the best possible life for himself and his family. But pursuit of one person's self interest leads to conflict with someone else's - so community is about reconciling clashes whether by informal negotiation or by regulation and imposed authority.

But there is much more to community than this. Many of the things individuals want can only be provided collectively. So community is also about these communal facilities, the local shops, the church, postman, the local bobby; and it about the way people organise themselves whether formally or informally to agree on their common requirements and on how to procure them.

Vernacular and community. It seems to me that either on their own or in combination these two elements help to explain why so many people find pre-20th century places more enjoyable to live in and more attractive to look at than those of the 20th century.

Because a vernacular tends to have good generic design, construction and delivery solutions embedded in it, clients' individual wishes could easily be translated into good quality buildings with speed and efficiency.

And community processes allowed greater freedom to realise these wishes. They encouraged the collective solving of potential conflicts; and they imposed less by way of standards and regulations on the outcome. Places were on the one hand more cohesive, and on the other more expressive of human diversity and individual choice. People's involvement in the process was much more direct, and the end result was more humane.

By contrast in the twentieth century things started to go wrong. The concept of vernacular building was lost because the construction industry became increasingly fragmented and because construction materials and processes proliferated.

At the same time the increasing pace and scale of development meant informal community processes were superseded by formal more-or-less-democratic structures. Bureaucratic regulations and standards led to worthy but dull one-size-fits-all solutions. People's involvement in the process became remote, and the end result less humane.

So what of the present, and how does all this relate to our experience at HTA?

We have come increasingly to use the word 'placemaking' when we talk about what we are trying to do. Words like housing, architecture, urban design, regeneration all seem to focus on only one part of the picture - they fail to convey a process which needs to encompass them all.

With hindsight I suppose we have been on this path since we started to work on an estate in Hackney called Lea View House in 1980 and ever since we have tried to find ways to actively engage communities in reshaping the places they live in.

Fast forward to 1997 when, in the bright dawn of New Labour's election victory, John Prescott's Greenwich Millennium Village competition gave us a golden opportunity to formulate our thinking about the future of placemaking. But if John Prescott's aim was to bring about significant change in this area the competition process was all wrong. It is clear that to do that will take a long time and will require a cast of thousands who are genuinely committed to the cause - more like a marathon than what happened at Greenwich. By contrast Greenwich was a three-legged sprint across trenches and craters behind enemy lines.

But what is now becoming clear is that placemaking is in the air. At HTA over the past year or so we have been hosting a placemaking forum and if the 150 or so contributors from a wide spectrum of the industry are anything to go by, there is a new buzz and a new readiness to contemplate radical innovation of both product and process.

Is it millennium fever, or why after all these years of 'if it ain't bust why fix it' are there suddenly stirrings of this unexpected kind? You probably know better than me, but no doubt rising affluence and hence rising consumer expectations, skills shortages and prods from government and the city have all played their part.

Whatever the reason a picture is beginning to emerge which offers major improvements in terms of process, physical form and quality of life. It is a picture of future placemaking which is significantly different from what we do now.

Why so different? Well, in my view there are at least two new factors which make radical change a racing certainty. Two factors which emerged only during the last decade or so of the last century, but which look set to influence everything we do. The first of these is sustainability. The second is the Internet.

So what about sustainability? Earlier this week the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change delivered its second report predicting potential world disaster this century. Sustainability has moved on from being what it so recently was - a fringe issue proclaimed by a few zealots who were easily labelled as crackpots. There is now little doubt that environmental sustainability will become an increasingly dominant issue for our industry - on the one hand a potentially devastating threat to individual businesses, on the other an unparalleled opportunity.

But I believe it is the need for sustainability in a much wider sense than purely environmental that will transform placemaking. At HTA we have adopted a flip definition of sustainability given to us by Ken Bartlett, one of the doyens of social housing. After a long and earnest discussion about the true meaning of sustainability he said, ''I see, you mean AFFORDABLE, EVERLASTING AND SYBARITIC." They are three good words to help unpack a concept that is devilishly hard to pin down in a way that is practical and realistic.

The first word EVERLASTING is all about the principles of environmental sustainability spelt out by, amongst others, the UN's panel of 700 scientists. Issues of global warming, pollution and depletion of the earth's non-renewable resources and ecology are beginning to be more widely understood, and solutions are beginning to emerge.

But realistically these environmentally friendly principles will never fly unless the solutions are AFFORDABLE. The solutions need to cost less, not more, than current norms.

But the last of Ken Bartlett's three words, SYBARITIC, is also vital because we cannot realistically expect people to embrace environmental sustainability if what it offers them is a large dose of puritanical self sacrifice. Human nature being what it is I don't think we can expect that our generation will chose to forgo comfort today, however stark the scientists' predictions of disaster tomorrow. Sod'em, for Gomorrow we die.

We seem to live in a golden age of inexorably rising wealth per head - according to the Economist a twentifold increase since 1820 - and we need to recognise that placemaking is going to move on from the 20th century agenda of meeting need.

What future placemaking will have to offer is what the inhabitants of the Ancient Greek city of Sybaris in southern Italy famously enjoyed - a Sybaritic lifestyle of pleasure and luxury. If it fails to do so, if we assume that a basic standards and a decent home are good enough, it will not be attractive to people, it will wither and it will die. It will not be sustainable.

But whether or not you accept 'affordable, everlasting and sybaritic', whatever your own definition, I hope you will agree that the sustainability agenda in one form or another is set to transform our approach to placemaking. If it doesn't I will eat my hat.

The same is true about the revolution in electronic information. The internet will inevitably transform our key business processes and bring about another equally radical change in placemaking. How this will happen is crystal ball territory. But to get the debate going I believe we need to start by thinking about the impact of the Internet on the two elements of past placemaking that I referred to earlier - vernacular and community. What might e-vernacular and e-community look like?

Firstly e-vernacular.

It does seem hard to believe that construction - or at any rate the housing side of it - can fail eventually to follow the path of the automobile and electronics industries. The Egan report lectured the industry on the need to move away from wasteful proliferation of components, and to follow the example of industries which continuously deliver ever improved performance at ever lower cost; and which do it through developing global markets, standardised and modularised components and economies of scale. The Internet is fundamental to the way that these industries manage their supply chains and will be equally fundamental to the e-vernacular of the future.

But bearing in mind Ford invests around £1billion upfront for a single model, who would fund the development of such e-vernaculars? It is difficult to imagine construction, development or housebuilding companies filling the bill. But how about collaboration between component manufacturers? They already include global operators with substantial R&D programmes and they would be major beneficiaries of the increased market share such vernaculars would offer. Such consortia would be well placed to undertake the long term research and development required. The open systems of construction which could emerge would offer the same benefits as the vernacular building methods of the past:- ease of construction; reliable performance standards for each component, for assemblies and for whole buildings; high design quality; and the flexibility to reflect individual choice.

Consortia developing such an e-vernacular would simultaneously address both the 'affordable' and the 'everlasting' agendas. Research and development of new technologies in the car industry again offers an interesting model for the construction industry to follow by setting what is known as 'Factor Ten' as a goal - a tenfold increase in the efficiency with which energy and other natural resources are used - which means significant reductions in cost at the same time as dramatic improvements in environmental performance.

But in an increasingly affluent world a low cost and environmentally friendly building system will not be sustainable if it is not also 'sybaritic'. To sell even the cheapest car manufacturers now have to offer a dream of luxury and empowerment. As with cars, even more so with homes. People want their home to be their dream, and thanks to the supply chain revolution made possible by the internet the e-vernacular of the future will offer the flexibility to enable them to shape and, over time, reshape that dream with ease. The e-vernacular will be a kit dreams are made of!

But there are two sides, as I said earlier, to the place coin. And in future placemaking if one side is e-vernacular, the other is e-community, and it will be the way electronic information flows between customers, suppliers and the other key players which is set to revolutionise placemaking.

One aspect of this revolution will be the application of object-based IT within an e-vernacular. Using the same data flowing through the supply chain it will be possible to produce and refine designs to meet the individual client's needs - and dreams; to test drive these designs using virtual reality visualisations; to obtain instant cost and performance data; and then, at the click of a mouse, to procure the manufacture and assembly of finished buildings which, as at Castle Combe, reflect the fact that they were built for individual clients who are all different. Is this a fantasy? In fact it's not much different from what I saw in Japan five years ago - fully customised houses manufactured on a production line in a single day by a company that sells 150,000 homes a year.

Take the process one step further, and the possibilities become even more interesting. Add together the virtual models of individual buildings, and you get a virtual model of a place. Virtual placemaking will enable clients to interact with each other, each building responding to its neighbours, in much the same way as no doubt happened over centuries at Castle Combe.

In the e-community these interactions will be as applicable to ongoing alterations and development as to the initial building process. Nor will they be confined to building; they are likely to bring changes in the current structure of tenure, finance, management and local democracy. At Greenwich Millennium Village we proposed a community website and a Village Trust which would bundle together the roles of a parish council, a managing agent and a facilities manager providing services from maintenance and security to hassle free building alteration based, of course, on the e-vernacular. As e-communities of this kind develop they will begin to take over some of the regulatory functions currently imposed from above. As the e-community begins to function more like communities in the past the places that result will once again begin to develop their own character and identity. Not as at Cambourne by an attempt to copy, but by coming back to life.

I will be disappointed if you all agree with these speculations about what I think we should call sustainable placemaking. But if nothing else I hope you will agree that change is in the air. It is a topic which needs input from every section of the placemaking team and every spectrum of opinion. To try and get a debate going we are hosting a website - if you are interested you will find it at

I cannot finish without looking back a hundred years and reflecting how strangely different things seem now. At the beginning of the last century there was a sense that mankind had reached a historic moment. There was acute consciousness of the misery that had been inflicted on the masses and belief that a fairer world and a better quality of life for all was within reach. Such people as Ebenezer Howard with his book Garden Cities of Tomorrow, Le Corbusier with his Ville Radieuse, and Frank Lloyd Wright with Broadacre City set out utopian visions of a better world made possible by man's progress in placemaking - and, for better or worse their thinking inspired their times and profoundly influenced the shape of development in the 20th century.

At the start of this new millennium surely we placemakers should take the lead and start to build our own vision for the sustainable placemaking of the future?


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