We need investment in small projects, not grand strategies, to revitalise the economy
The great divide in urbanism has always been between those who espouse the grand project — like Ebenezer Howard, Daniel “make no small plans” Burnham, Baron Haussmann and Le Corbusier — and those who celebrate the messy organic approach, exemplified by Jane Jacobs, Christopher Alexander and the community architecture movement. The scale of our economic challenge and our housing shortfall are leading many today to call for big plans. The Town and Country Planning Association has called for a new generation of garden cities, just as during the last government they called for eco-towns.
Certainly, doing some things fast and big is essential. But though the urban designer in me loves a clean slate, the grand projects seem to be easier to draw than to get built. What’s more, the gradual approach and sensitive knitting-together may be all we can afford at the present time — and it often seems to be what people want.
Everywhere I go, small, funky workspaces are fully occupied, yet we are not making more of them. Except for entrepreneurs like Bennie Gray, Eric Reynolds and George Ferguson, the usual approach to an under-utilised asset has been to put a new icon beside it, instead of figuring out how to clean it up, provide some social, tech and business infrastructure and get it into occupation.
Trinity Buoy Wharf and the Tea Building in London, Birmingham’s Custard Factory and Jewellery Quarter, and Bristol’s Tobacco Factory are all good examples. Folkestone got it right by putting the icon in last, after the community building part. In each case it took an entrepreneur with drive, patience, some undervalued space and the will to pursue the projects incrementally. All of these projects are job-creators, and all are founded on a yeasty mix of small and medium enterprise and creative and cultural assets. There is a lot to learn from them, and perhaps a learning network needs to capture information from community entrepreneurs.
In contrast, most local authority growth-planning seems to go into attracting inward investment, big sheds on big sites, business or industrial parks, and thinking in a zoned way rather than seeing jobs as part of the urban ecosystem. Small business space is seldom retrofitted or built, as that must be done speculatively, and while it can pay for itself, does not produce large margins. Some of this is down to planning and building regulations, and one hopes that barriers to the conversion of old buildings and to the building of low-spec space will be tackled in the government’s ongoing review.
Colleagues in America call this approach tactical urbanism — to reflect the shift from strategic projects conceived in boom time to placemaking that is low-cost and participatory. Projects to transform a street, a square or a building for the short term often become the catalyst for longer-term revitalisation, and I see encouraging signs of tactical architecture and urbanism in efforts as diverse as Mary Portas’s High Street Pilots, We Made That’s work with the Architecture Foundation, and some emerging neighbourhood plans. Perhaps in times of austerity, it is best to make small plans.