Ian Boyd



Tools for better urban design

We have become starved of identity, meaning and foundation in the places where we live and work. Our neighbourhoods, the human habitats of our built environment, the parks and streets through which we walk, are becoming routine, bland, and generic, symbols of ‘just anywhere’ and drearily indifferent to the physical and psychological wellbeing of people. Development of every sort, from housing schemes and employment parks to student accommodation and hospital estate, perpetuate this decaying sense of the particular, and instead spread a dull generality that answers first to the gods of lazy procurement and easy maintenance.

The concept of local distinctiveness has never been more important to our individual and collective will to change this bland urbanism into biological design and curated space. Local distinctiveness, as a description of meaningful, authentic place content, was perfectly described and developed by the UK non-profit Common Ground in its pioneering work through the 1990s. Here, in their own words:

“Local Distinctiveness was an idea that emerged from Common Ground in 1985 and came to the fore in projects like New Milestones and Parish Maps. Local implies neighbourhood or parish; Distinctiveness is about particularity in the buildings and land shapes, the brooks and birds, trees and cheeses, places of worship and pieces of literature. It is about history and nature jostling with each other, layers and fragments, old and new. The ephemeral and invisible are important too: customs, dialects, celebrations, names, recipes, spoken history, myths, legends and symbols.”

We can move seamlessly from these qualities as the content of locality to their being the core of community wellbeing, underpinning both the social and ecological determinants of health; in the end it is all a matter of health. There are healthy places and there are unhealthy places, and the difference between them is precisely the quality of the lived and everyday experience they offer, to human and non-human communities alike. The best are protective, regenerative and heterogeneous, and the worst, the ‘non-places,’ are hazardous, disabling and insipid.

Good place-making will release local content such that it becomes more abundantly and more easily available, creating opportunities for people and wildlife to respond, interact and engage. Good place-making will add new content of its own, made compatible by drawing on what already exists, adding to the store of foundation capital. Good place-making is inevitably transactional, some site content will be depleted, but ultimately more must be given than is consumed.

We might then call this the first challenge to effective place-based action: does this project generate more content than it consumes?

The second is: does it make user experience significant or render it symbolic? In other words, does it make a place that broadens horizons, builds affordancy, focuses attention, adds to memory or motivation; does it affirm or actuate something? Or is it a non-place that engages people’s attention only superficially, is soon forgotten amongst identical experiences from other non-places?

The third question is: does it prioritise common space, or private property? Is it a place that emphasises an opening-out into shared and public realm, or one which stresses partition into personal, institutional and corporate enclosures?

And the fourth asks: is it a place in some sense usefully ‘incomplete,’ or is it already fully determined with respect to all of its properties?

Different people respond to the content of a place in different ways and the more opportunity to explore that difference, the better. Settings that are fully prescribed for use eventually starve a place of new content (see question 1).

So, we can use these four ‘questions of place’ to help us navigate away from bad design and avoid the customary lurch from the newly built to the cheaply maintained with no sense of utility, let alone joy, in between.

A second tool, complementary to the first. focusses attention on the quality of place by exploring the detail of the local content referenced in the four questions; it is a nine-point prompt list called ‘Shaping Better Places’. This was devised by our own practice as a way to build a persistent directional pressure in construction, regeneration and masterplanning projects, away from the siloed approach to development that rolls out generic sprawl, and towards a layered, stacked and integrated process of design and delivery. In other words, a move away from horizontal development and towards the vertical.

Shaping Better Places brings together foundation capitals, natural, social and cultural (as defined by David Fleming), the essential components of ecological health and community wellbeing. By intentionally and with a purpose intertwining the outside places and spaces that are the pattern of people’s everyday movement with those that are already supporting biodiversity in some more-than-meagre way, and then amplifying both functions, we can begin to curate a network of destinations, junctions, stepping-stones and rendezvous for people and wildlife, in concert.

Thirdly, and derived from both the four questions and Shaping Better Places, is a simple taxonomy, a hierarchy of locality: traces, spaces and places.

Traces, in the sense of ‘indications of existence,’ the signs of life, comprise the fine-grained interlacing of natural, social and cultural content; the species list, the seat, the sign, the bus stop, the regulars, the visitors, the built and planted form, the story so far and the feel of the future. Together these are the ingredients that constitute lived and living experience and define local distinctiveness.

Spaces are the aggregations of traces, and they might stand out to us because of their concentration of identity, creating discernible idiosyncrasy, or because of the notable absence of these things. Spaces form as nodes, either void or filled, embedded in the general matrix of built and natural environment that surrounds and connects them, and which shares gradations of their properties.

Finally, Places. These determine the geography at which to bound the networks of spaces we are most interested in and of course this is entirely fractal being a complex pattern that is self-similar across any scale. We might choose to analyse place at the level of nation, region, district, county, parish, neighbourhood or street; or perhaps use some other boundary definition such as land ownership or policy designation.

By thinking of local distinctiveness in this way, as clusters of nested hierarchy drawn from reserves of foundation capital, we can begin to properly and usefully target actions to improve urban life, for societies of humans and communities of nature alike. The lesson is, we don’t have to do everything everywhere to effect change; we can focus on enriching content in a network of hotspots and then scale by replication, keeping the detail, the heterogeneity and the essential ‘messiness’ of place intact instead of losing it to deadening sustainability metrics, or abstract principles that perpetuate bland generalities and strip life-giving patina from our existence.

As the global population rises to 9.5 billion in 2050 before plateauing, urbanization, most especially on the coast, will continue to grow and spread even as we retreat before rising sea levels. Sustainable and resilient living in our towns and cities is a requirement of our survival and yet we have allowed this imperative to be deflected, first by the corporations and their lobbyists who have grown fat on unsustainability, and latterly by the rise of the ESG industry, more interested in traded offsets and share buybacks than the messy, qualitative world of grassroots action for change. Part of the problem is that we tend to fight back with alternative metrics and technics when what is really needed is alternative language, new and better metaphors. Sustainability is as much a literacy project as it is a policy framework and, in the tools outlined here, we may grow some of that new vocabulary, words that will heal our environment by changing our minds.