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Good masterplanning knows where to draw the line

David Rudlin

Masterplanning is not big architecture, it is a means to give shape to the natural process of urban growth. David Rudlin summarises the argument in his new book Climax City, co-written with Shruti Hemani, that we need to rediscover this subtle and age-old art.

St Petersburg, Peter the Great’s Amsterdam, designed fast and not quite right.
St Petersburg, Peter the Great’s Amsterdam, designed fast and not quite right. Credit: Climax City

Two years ago I was invited to speak at a conference in St Petersburg. I spent a few happy days wandering its streets with a group of international urbanists and, while we loved it, we also realised that something wasn’t quite right. The difficulty of finding a bar on the first night should have been a clue (the result of many of the buildings not having active ground floors so that the bars are hidden in basements). Walking around you realise that other things are not quite right, the streets are just a bit too wide, the prospects too long and the buildings not quite tall enough (except the churches which are huge). It’s almost as if someone, having visited a great city, came home and tried to build one from memory. Which of course is what happened. 

The story of St Petersburg is one of many city stories told in our new book, Climax City. In this we explore the interaction between the way cities grow, and the way they are planned. There are lots of urban design books that assume masterplanning is like architecture – plans are drawn, a contract is let, and what is drawn is what is built. It may not always happen with buildings, but it hardly ever happens with masterplans. Most masterplans take decades to build, the initial design team and even the original developer having long gone by the time the plan is completed (if indeed it ever is). Masterplanning is an arm’s length process, creating a plan and then writing instructions for others to build over decades, or even centuries. Fail to understand this and your plan is doomed to fail (which is what happens to most masterplans). Try and built it all at once and you end up with St Petersburg. 

Tokyo, almost unplanned due to disinterested authorities. But it ranks high on liveability.
Tokyo, almost unplanned due to disinterested authorities. But it ranks high on liveability. Credit: Climax City

In 1697 Peter the Great travelled incognito to Amsterdam, living for a few months as a humble carpenter in a boatyard (his entourage of 250 retainers somehow being kept out of sight). His aim was to learn from what was, then, the wealthiest and most cosmopolitan city in Europe. On his return to Moscow he set about looking for a site to build his own Amsterdam in the belief that ‘a city, if properly designed, could transform even the roughest-hewn barbarians into civilised men and women’. It needed to be a port, so the first thing he did was invade Sweden to secure a site on the Gulf of Finland, even if it was a swamp, infested with midges in the summer and frozen solid in the winter. Using his new-found woodworking skills, he built himself a house from which he supervised the building of his new city. Books on architecture and design were ordered from across Europe and architects, artists and intellectuals were enticed to come to work for Peter. The city was built quickly and at huge cost, both financially and in human lives. Within 15 years St Petersburg was largely complete and while it may not have been quite right, the irony was that it was not the soulless stage-set that you might imagine. All the important foreign intellectuals made it a lively, freethinking place, so much so that conservatives in Moscow were advising should be 'amputated like a diseased limb', lest its liberal values infect the rest of Russia. It is no surprise that in 1917 it was the city that sparked the Russian Revolution. 

Brasilia, created by an architect, but not exactly a great space.
Brasilia, created by an architect, but not exactly a great space. Credit: Climax City

Compare this to the story of Tokyo that we also tell in the book. This is one of the largest cities in the world, centre of a great economy, a place where 80% of people travel by public transport and which ranks seventh on the Economist’s World Liveability Rankings. It is far from being a basket-case and yet it is almost entirely unplanned. Its lack of governance dates back to the historic separation between the governing Samurai class who were not allowed to trade land, and the merchant class who were not allowed to be part of government. The result was a government with little interest in the city that therefore grew as a sprawling unplanned place. The main drawback of this was that it would burn down every few decades. In an attempt to prevent these fires, a form of municipal government was eventually introduced in the late 19th century based on a labyrinthine system of guilds and wards, controlled by hereditary local leaders or Nanushi.

The system was just about capable of implementing rudimentary fire regulations, but was woefully ill-equipped to plan the city. It continued until the late 1960s and, while there is now local government, the only city-wide planning that has taken place is the widening of the main roads, often following destruction by fire, earthquake or the Second World War. Combine this with the Tokyo housing market, that treats homes not as permanent investments but as depreciating assets (like cars) to be replaced every thirty years or so, and you create the conditions in which the city is constantly shifting and reshaping itself with only minimal planning control. Most of its vast area is made up on two and three storey family homes on narrow lanes and the main contribution of the city authorities has been to build the underground metro system by which people move around. But it works, it is a city that has self-organised rather than been planned and it is remarkably efficient.      

Perhaps we don’t need planning? Why don’t we just allow cities to self-organise? Our book Climax City explores this idea. We review the field of complexity theory and the way that the action of a small number of variables, like the pheromone signals between ants or termites, can over time, and through a process of natural selection create beautifully ‘engineered’ complex structures that are perfectly suited to the needs of the colony. Writers such as Christopher Alexander, Paul Krugman and more recently Stephen Johnson have shown how the same forces are at work in the way economies operate, in the organisation of human society and, of course in the building of cities. Human settlements, so the argument goes, are emergent, self-organising structures, like termite mounds. The term Climax City that we use as our title takes inspiration from 'climax vegetation'. If you leave a piece of land undisturbed it will slowly be colonised with grasses, then shrubs and trees until it reaches a climax state (which in Europe is broadleaf woodland). Having got there it will remain in a steady state until conditions change. The idea of the Climax City is that human settlements similarly develop into climax state. Like Richard Dawkin’s 'blind watchmaker' this process has, in the past, created some of the most beautiful, exquisitely organised settlements that humans have ever built all without the help of planners.  

Walled City, Kowloon. A cautionary tale of excess as a 14 storey slum.
Walled City, Kowloon. A cautionary tale of excess as a 14 storey slum. Credit: Climax City

Before we get carried away with this idea, we should return to the cautionary tale of the Walled City in Kowloon with which we start the book. This was a former barracks that was excluded from the lease given by the Chinese to Britain in 1898. It thus became a stateless piece of land without law, taxation, regulation or planning control. It grew into the most extraordinary 14 storey slum, a warren of cramped streets and a den of vice. The journalist Peter Popham shortly before its demolition in 1993 wrote that it was ‘as richly varied and sensual as the heart of the tropical rainforest’ the only problem being that it was ‘so obviously toxic’. Take away planning in many parts of the world and the Climax state will not be Tokyo or a Tuscan Hill town but the slum, barrio or shanti town. Elsewhere the removal of planning will result in the excesses of global capitalism: the urbanism of the tower, the mall, the sprawling suburb and the gated community that can be found from Lagos to Shanghai via Dubai and London’s docklands. We need planning! 

The modern history of planning is however not entirely auspicious when it comes to creating great places. In the book we tell the stories of places as varied as Auroville and Chandigarh in India, Coventry and Milton Keynes in the UK and of course, Brasilia. All have been (and some still are) revered by architects but do they create good places? We can argue about this, but urban designers would probably say not. However, the more important question is whether they can evolve and self-organise to meet society's changing needs. They are blue sky, utopian futures that have been drawn on paper and wished into existence through force of will and regulation. Such is the way that planners think, their focus is on the end-state plan – not the messy business of getting from where we are to where we want to be. Most plans are never built. Too much can go wrong in the decades required to realise their vision so that many are forgotten and disregarded, often even before the first brick is laid. And then there are the occasional plans that are ‘fortunate’ enough to get built and the results are somehow disappointing. They often feel a little soulless and dead, lacking the rich diversity of a self-organised city. Our argument is that the planned city is no more tenable that the entirely unplanned city – neither works.      

The grids of Jaipur, a plot-based masterplan with organic growth within it.
The grids of Jaipur, a plot-based masterplan with organic growth within it. Credit: Climax City

A few decades after St Petersburg’s foundation the Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II was surveying his cramped capital city huddled around the gates of his great hill fort at Amber in Rajasthan. He too decided that he needed a new capital. He was a collector of maps and was aware of what was happening in Europe. In a time of peace following the decline of the Mughal empire, he was able to build his new city on the flat plain below his fort. The city, that he called Jaipur, has just been designated as a World Heritage site. The plan is based on a 3X3 grid, although the north west square was cropped off by hills and relocated to the south east. The central square became the royal palace while each of the others became wards that were in-turn divided into 3X3 grids, with rules concerning the width of each street and the size of the squares where they joined. Like St Petersburg, the city was built quickly and within seven years its walls were built and pink buildings lined the main bazaars – so that the city appeared to be complete even though the centre of each ward remained unbuilt. Jai Singh’s master builder Vidhyadhar was responsible for overseeing construction. The masterplan created the structure and defined streets, wards, blocks, lots and building plots, each of which was subject to rules about what could built in terms of use, height, orientation and relationship to the street and neighbouring plots. The city was thus constructed over decades by hundreds of merchants mostly building for their own needs. Construction took place from west to east and the plan of the city betrays the way that the rules were less rigorously enforced over time. 

This is the process of plot based masterplanning – the way that cities have been built, across the world and down the ages since the first cities 5,000 years ago. It is a system that uses the masterplan as a fixed frame into which the organic city can evolve. In the book we tell the stories of Glasgow, Manhattan, London, Stockholm, Washington, Barcelona and Paris. All are very different but all were built by a plot based masterplanning process that would have been understood by Jai Singh. A few years ago I was on an Academy of Urbanism trip to Helsinki and we were talking to the city architect about the replanning of the city’s docklands. It was a confusing conversation because he couldn’t understand why we were asking such stupid questions such as how do you maintain quality and ensure that developers respect the plan? The city of Helsinki owned the land, drew-up the masterplan, coded each of the sites and then leased them as plots to individual developers, controlling what was built through leasehold powers. Wasn’t this what everyone did? 

Well, not in the UK I’m afraid. We desperately need planning, but have forgotten how to do it, both when working for landowners on large sites and when planning the entire city. The former is something that we are seeking to rediscover through our masterplanning practice at URBED. However, at the scale of the city the task is much greater and suggests the wholesale rethinking of our planning system. We are not alone, the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, The Raynsford Review and The Letwin review came to similar conclusions. Until we can rediscover the subtle art of planning/masterplanning that works with, and shapes, the natural process of urban growth, our cities will continue to disappoint.    

David Rudlin is a director of URBED and chair of the Academy of Urbanism

His new book Climax City: Masterplanning and the Complexity of Urban Growth is written with Shruti Hemani and published by RIBA Publishing



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