BerlinerBlogImageScotland’s rich urban tradition is still abundantly evident in our towns and cities. Unfortunately, most of our best places are now the jam inside a sprawling suburban doughnut. This is confirmed by two new studies published jointly by Strathclyde University and Architecture + Design Scotland (‘A+DS – Scotland’s national champion for good architecture, design and planning’).

‘An Comann’ compares 50 towns over a 150 year period, judging success against debatable socio-economic criteria. Are high house prices a true guide to successful townscape and function? Is high employment amongst residents of commuter towns a plus? Don’t they all jump in private cars, taking the prospect of fully developed local services with them, as they funnel into our cities?

‘Under the Microscope‘ zooms in on 20 of these towns, assessing block and plot size over the same period. Again, there’s some suspect analysis. Is it any surprise small towns have fewer flats than our tenemented cities? Does low public transport use really point to poor services, or is it inevitable given higher car ownership and pedestrian trips in small towns?

These studies provide useful base information and a starting point for more rigorous research but their conclusions are not unexpected :

– Our towns have expanded rapidly since the mid 20th Century;
– The suburban housing cul-de-sac has become the dominant typology;
– Much new development lacks a sense of place and is poorly related to the settlement core.

How did this happen? Who’s to blame? Inevitably it’s a complex story. Ironically, it coincided with the emergence of the modern planning system, post WWII – zoning policy, roads standards, open space ratios, low density development, car dominated approaches, out of town retail, standard house types, design and build……

So, if our planning and development system helped create this mess, can it now clean it up? These two reports are another small step forward but we need to turn up the heat. The Scottish Government issued guidance on Design Statements as far back as 2003 and from August last year they have been mandatory for major applications. That doesn’t stop developers submitting inept box-ticking documents. A current example on the eastern edge of Forres springs to mind.

A sound design policy is worthless unless it’s fully implemented. Let’s see Council Planning Departments raise the bar and force design averse developers to jump higher – it’s no longer an optional add on but a basic requirement. Let’s see the Scottish Government calling Councils to task where policy is inadequately applied (word has it this is beginning to happen). And let’s see more developers promoting good design as a selling point.

The urban heritage in our towns is now well protected by Listed Buildings and Conservation Area controls and planning policies. Why shouldn’t we apply the same degree of care to new development? I‘d vote tactically to keep out pastiche and I support the use of ‘historicism‘ as an insult. However, is it really beyond our capability to embrace local context and past success, yet design something functional, attractive and contemporary? I’m off to check……

According to an urban legend, John F Kennedy made an embarrassing grammatical error in his famous 1963 speech by saying “Ich bin ein Berliner,” referring to himself not as a citizen of Berlin, but as a popular local jammy doughnut, the Berliner. Although incorrect, the legend has been repeated by reputable media including the BBC, The Guardian, MSNBC, CNN, Time magazine and The New York Times.
Richard Heggie