Monday, 7 March 2016

Creating successful places in the East Midlands: Challenges Catalysts and Opportunities

Last night I attended an extremely stimulating evening event organized by the RTPI Urban Design Network in Leicester’s fast becoming iconic City Hall and specifically its wonderfully restored lecture theatre.

Five speakers (from the different professional disciplines of Valuer, Architecture, Landscape and Transport), chaired by Leicester’s Head of Planning each gave first rate presentations from their perspective.

Friars Mill. Another emerging successful place in Leicester.

Rather than set out what each speaker said I prefer to observe the particular thoughts and messages I got out of an excellent evening’s entertainment, followed up by discussions in the pub (It was so good I was glad I gave up my weekly indoor tennis slot to attend).

The modernist mantra of ‘Form follows Function’ was ditched for ‘Form follows Fiction’ (attributed to Bernard Tschumi apparently). In other words to have or create special places you need to form a story that resonates. There has to be a purpose or a shared experience from the users that transcends their individual experience and this creates people’s critical associations and memories.

We all know there is a multiplicity of ingredients that go into creating successful spaces. I well remember the noughties, when DETR’s seven objectives of character; continuity and enclosure; quality of the public realm; ease of movement; legibility; adaptability; and diversity became for a while a sort of mantra. What the Leicester event so strongly demonstrated was that however hard one tries to define and classify, there is such a broad range of possible responses and solutions that it is impossible to be prescriptive.

Going forward on how we either create those special places or repair existing ones what did I get out of it?

We have to find better ways of introducing greater individuality and distinctiveness. Places should not be dominated by one land ownership or one developer or one funder with one solution that, with the best will in the world, stifles individual creativity. (And I accept that there are always exceptions for geniuses like Nash and his Regent Street London, but even here only one of the buildings is now an original).

Connectivity with a purpose and ease (at a human scale) to move through places and spaces is another fundamental. The sequence of movement and spaces on New Walk Leicester is a particularly special place for me. Surprisingly none of the speakers mentioned that as one of their special East Midlands places on their ‘bucket’ list. Generally they bemoaned the paucity in our region, although I think they were being too critical.

I was really impressed by the quality of the landscaping and drainage, seemingly combined with excellent management, of the former docks area of Stockholm, described by David Singleton.

And finally (on something I know well, but still learnt from) Barry Pritchard’s review of the wide variety of highway and pedestrianisation solutions adopted by the Leicester Council over the years in the City Centre. And how the jury is still out on some of the current solutions like ‘shared spaces.’

Thanks to everyone involved (in alphabetical order and in addition to the above): Grant Butterworth, Nils Feldmann, Tim Garratt, Neil Stacey and Justin Webber.

Peter Wilkinson