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Towards a rural urbanism

Towards a rural urbanism

I recently had the great honour to be invited to become an academician of the Academy of Urbanism. The invitation followed an excellent workshop that my colleague Trinley Walker organised to inform his forthcoming Housing Foresight Paper on understanding the differences between housing need and housing demand (but that’s another story), so I see the honour as at least as much a reflection of CPRE’s innovative thinking on placemaking as it is of my personal contribution to the field.

Last week, I was able to put my new status as an academician into practice for the first time by attending the Academy’s mid-year review and reception. The review was an opportunity to network with colleagues, hear about progress with projects and future events, and also to participate in a workshop to inform thinking about the future direction of the Academy, including the vexed question of what, exactly, we mean by “urbanism”. All of which was very interesting to me, but probably not to you, dear reader.

What was much more interesting was the reception that followed, and not just because of the sudden appearance of drinks. The main event was a talk by Rob Cowan, described on the programme as “an urbanist, writer and trainer, and director of the consultancy Urban Design Skills”, but more popularly known as cartoonist by royal appointment to the built environment trade press, the most prolific satirist of architecture, planning and urban design, and the author of The Dictionary of Urbanism as well as its Alternative, which is mostly articulated through Rob’s unmissable tweets (@cowanrob).

Get to the point, I hear you cry.

So, anyway, Rob’s talk was focused on how the language of planning aka placemaking, urbanism, place-shaping, town planning, town and country planning, urban planning, city planning, city and regional planning, spatial planning… whatever it’s being called this week, and how it changes over time. He poked fun at us urbanists for all the different forms of our own epithet, noting that there were very few words that had not been used in combination with the word “urbanism”. A quick look at Wikipedia, the standard repository of all knowledge and wisdom, reveals ecological urbanism, green urbanism (presumably different somehow to ecological urbanism), landscape urbanism, new urbanism, unitary urbanism, sustainable urbanism (different again to ecological and green urbanism) and even intelligent urbanism (because all the others are clearly stupid). Rob said there were only two words in the English language that have never been used to describe some new esoteric form of urbanism.  One of those words was so obscure I can’t remember it now, but the other word was this:

“Rural”.

I don’t think Rob knew that CPRE’s head of planning was in the audience, but perhaps the volume of my guffaw could have alerted him to the fact.

Never one to shy away from a challenge, I’ve decided to start work (in my limited spare time) on a Manifesto for rural urbanism, partly to annoy Rob Cowan, but also because I believe this is what CPRE is all about, as encapsulated by Emma Bridgewater’s words on being appointed to be our president last year:

“I have a clear mission for my tenure as president of the CPRE: to encourage continuing development on suitable brownfield sites and so help drive the dynamism that development will bring to our towns and cities – and in doing so protect our countryside.

“This will enable our inner cities not just to benefit from redevelopment but help them give rise to the creativity that flourishes when we invest in making our urban centres work for people. And by concentrating on that regeneration we will safeguard the countryside, that vital escape and sustaining hinterland that our urban centres especially need so much.”

My thinking is this. Urbanism is a belief system – it must be: it ends with”‘-ism”. It has a set of values and principles, which are all about something to do with the interaction between human beings and the environments they choose to live in. The first tenet of the Academy of Urbanism’s own manifesto says: “Successful urbanism is the result of a collective vision realised through creative and enduring relationships blah blah blah”, so the fundamental principle is one of taking collective responsibility for deliberatively shaping the future development of a place, rather than leaving it to chance, or, worse still, the market. When you get down towards the bottom of the manifesto – after all the bits about legibility, permeability, accessibility and other stuff that urban designers like to talk about (with good reason, to be honest), tenet 14 confirms that urbanism applies to villages as well as towns and cities (and, presumably, hamlets, which Rob Cowan’s alternative dictionary defines as a baby pig). Tenet 16 talks of the importance of “other landscaped areas” for recreation, biodiversity and their contribution to a balanced environment. But tenet 15 is the key one:

“New and existing places must respect, enhance and respond to their local topography, geology and climate and connect to the natural environment within and around them.”

This is where I think the new rural urbanism would need to distinguish itself.  We would like new and existing places to consider not just respecting and responding, but also conserving their local topography, geology and climate, as well as the natural (and otherwise unbuilt) environment around them. The “within” bit troubles me as well: are we really somehow doing good things for the natural environment by wrapping it up in an urban area? Yes, we should have greenery, parks and other landscaped areas in cities, which is good – even essential – for the well-being of citizens, but don’t pretend these are “natural” or contributing positively to the natural environment in a way that, say, not wrapping them up in a city would be.

That kind of talk is the perversion of Ebenezer Howard’s “marriage of town and country” concept that has led to the vast areas of unnatural planting that proliferate alongside the urban motorways of Milton Keynes, and the insistence that sprawling estates of low density executive homes with gardens full of decking and office sheds can be described as “garden villages” – the very antithesis of successful urbanism. In my opinion.

Rural urbanism should, I think, take a different view of the Garden City (everything in planning comes back to that at some point), drawing on Howard’s idea which gave the concept its name: that of the city being like a fine house standing within its equally fine garden. Urban areas should be vibrant, liveable, walkable places – green, yes – but clearly and definitively urban – like an Italian hilltown or the Eixample district of Barcelona. And they should be surrounded by open, productive and accessible areas of countryside that are not constantly under threat of speculative development, because they are valued by citizens for the benefits that countryside brings to their quality of life.

Well, enough of poking Rob Cowan with a pointy stick. I suppose I’d better get back to my day job of nervously watching the DCLG website for news of the OAN methodology consultation…

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31 July 2017

The fundamental principle is one of taking collective responsibility for deliberatively shaping the future development of a place




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