Those who love cities are lucky. Whether they are visiting them or living in them, city buffs can turn the most mundane trips into research projects, they can read the streets and buildings as others would a book and they learn the stories of social and physical change, of aspiration, of failed and successful projects.
It was Fei Tsen, the San Francisco Chair of SPUR, which is the closest thing to the NLA that they have in the Bay Area, who pointed out this benefit while she was showing me around the city recently. Fei was Director of Development for the Port Authority when it was converting its waterfront into a major public amenity and she is now President of the Treasure Island Development Authority which is overseeing the master planning of a 405 acre former naval yard situated in the heart of the Bay. We first met in Shanghai where we were on the same platform discussing waterfront development, so our conversations as we charged up and down San Francisco's vertiginous streets provided a fascinating three way comparison.
Common threads run through the future policies of each of the cities. Perhaps top of the agenda is the problem of congestion, of pollution and healthier streets. The chief planner of Shanghai had told of his ambitious plans to increase the coverage of the metro system by 2040 to allow 15 minute pedestrian access to stations right across the city. Both London and San Francisco have similar aspirations to encourage more active travel, but the chance of delivering it in the same timescale as Shanghai is nil as each city is equally committed to the democratic process. London edges out San Francisco in the infrastructure delivery stakes. Despite the fact that the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) was a world leader when it was delivered in the 70s, its expansion has stalled in spite of calls for more lines to serve this very polycentric area.
Each city has been regenerating its docks area for several decades, each now realises the importance of culture in the creation of new pieces of city. In Shanghai the banks of the Huangpu River and the West Bund have been landscaped, roads have been built and old warehouses converted into massive art galleries; in London artists' colonies in Fish Island are recognised as important parts of the economy, the Royal Docks are being planned for creative communities and Barking and Dagenham is developing film studios as part of its programme for economic growth. In San Francisco makers and crafts people are colonising areas of Mission Bay as development in the area accelerates.
We didn't see much evidence of homelessness in Shanghai, but London and San Francisco share a similar problem of street sleeping, although San Francisco's is more evident and distressing. Accurate figures are hard to come by, but London has around 8,000 rough sleepers out of a population of 8.7million, whereas SF has around 7,000 out of a population of just under 900,000 with a disturbing number clearly suffering from mental health problems.
Resilience is a big issue in SF, not only is it facing up to the problems of climate change but it needs to prepare for a future earthquake. As the SPUR website states "We know that another major earthquake will strike San Francisco — we just don't know when." That may not be a problem London will face anytime soon, but then we don't get the benefits either. In 1989 the Embarcadero Freeway was damaged in the earthquake that caused considerable havoc in the region. Instead of rebuilding the structure which cut the city off from the Bay, they demolished it and used the areas previously occupied by the approach roads to create parks and public space. The city was reconnected to the Bay, and the Ferry Building with its iconic clock tower converted to a retail centre and creating a world class waterfront.
This article first appeared in On Office magazine
In discussion with a member of the housing team at City Hall recently, we talked about ‘replicability’, something which is pretty important if we are going to also investigate modern methods of construction (MMC). How do you replicate 50,000 homes a year without creating new districts of unutterable tedium?
The idea of repeating a simple model isn’t new – the houses built in London after the Great Fire were all just about the same and available only in four sizes. Regency terraces played the same note time and time again, as did the terraces of the Edwardians and the suburban semi-detached of the thirties. The London Estates often exhibited high levels of repetition, from the Georgian layouts of the Dukes of Bedford to the white classicism of Grosvenor’s Belgravia. All of these turned out to be pretty popular, so why can’t we replicate the quality of replicates our predecessors produced?
These days we worry more about site and context. The modern movement told us we needed to think about orientation and topography; recent theory tells us we need to be more aware of location, character and sense of place; new developments are frequently designed to look as though they have been built over time so you get a zoo of architects or a gallimaufry of styles – as at Poundbury. At King's Cross the scale of development is controlled but each building is by a different designer using different materials and different colours. Everyone is afraid of places looking boring. The replication to be found in new Chinese cities is frequently used to illustrate the inhumanity of large scale identical development.
I live in Bedford Park in Chiswick built in the 1870s and 80s, dubbed the ‘first garden suburb’, where the developer Jonathan Carr bought a series of designs from his architects – mainly Norman Shaw, and mixed the various types in a random manner along tree-lined streets. All the houses, Queen Anne in style, are built in the same red brick from the Acton brick fields with distinctive white external joinery, the materials providing a coherence to the whole estate of nearly 400 houses. In the first years of the 20th century a couple of mansion blocks were added in similar brick providing an increase in density that sits comfortably in the context of the three storey homes. The whole area maintains a highly satisfactory order in diversity. Such mixing and matching has been followed by house builders in the ensuing years, yet rarely with the sophistication managed by Carr.
Today the London Housing Design Guide has helped to deliver a certain level of replicability in the New London Vernacular style using simple facades, variegated brick finishes, punched windows with inset balconies. These can be found across London, from Hounslow to Horton, illustrating a remarkable level of similarity for this day and age.
Although clad in brick these blocks are built in a variety of methods, from concrete, laminated timber, steel or stacked volumetric units. The facade and the structure are separate, allowing enormous freedom, potentially, to external designers. This separation – which has been evident in office building for a number of years – when seen in conjunction with the economic variations permitted by digital design and manufacturing technology means that traditional concepts of style and permanence are all but dead. While we might all occupy an identical box produced by modern methods of construction we can download printed facades of any look we like – vernacular, classical, Modern or decorated.
We need to investigate new thinking in housing if we are to create desirable, higher density cities. We need to find ways of delivering new housing more efficiently and in a way that is acceptable to local communities. Digital technologies could provide the ability to deliver customisation, variety and replication, but how will the planners react? How do you maintain quality? How do you create a structure in which individual expression coexists with a coherent urban fabric?
This article first appeared in On Office magazine