For sometime I’ve wondered about the subject of Urbanism within the confides of the British borders. For a nation that pioneered urban movements in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, we seem to have lost any significant momentum, and are haplessly continuing along a pleasant path of normality. Why is it that Urbanism has become just another label to a company’s ethos, “Architect, Interior Designer, Urbanist, Masterplanner….”? Why is it that Urbanism can only be found in the depths architectural education, hidden away in the minds of a few tutors still willing to pursue their passion?
Is urbanism dying?
The question’s purpose is to challenge the position of urbanism in contemporary Britain. Of course urbanism isn’t dead, our cities still function, and the nature of an urban habitat is ever growing, but urbanism as a device to understand and improve our cities is diminishing, and has been for sometime. Specifically urbanism as a recognised practice has been replaced by a belief that to practice urbanism merely means being involved in its context.
I understand that there are plenty of practices in the UK that use the title of an Urbanists, but are they challenging the modern situation of our cities, or are they repeating dated ideologies? Urbanism, in it’s nature, roots it’s ideologies within the present and future of cities, with reference to the past. It is not the practice of past theories conveyed in the present. So again I ask, is Urbanism dying?
Image copyright Sam Jacob/FAT Architecture
This week two related, but fundamentally coincidental events happened. First in Venice FAT and Crimson Architectural Historians revealed their British Pavilion. Titled A Clockwork Jerusalem, the piece explores the historical freshness of British planning, how it’s then modern approach transformed the urban environment of the country, and how we may need to learn lesson from their ambition and courage.
Second was the shortlist announced for this years Wolfson Economics Prize, where entrants were asked “How would you deliver a new Garden City which is visionary, economically viable, and popular?”. Of the 5 shortlisted, 3 are from an architectural/town planning background, 1 is a charity, and the other a housing provider.
The two events highlight a dependence that our country has on old ideologies. The Wolfson Economics Prize is one of the largest individual monetary prizes in the world, it’s purpose is to challenge present to work towards a new future. It is under these principles that I find it’s most recent competition behind the times. By referencing the use of a Garden City it is pursuing a traditional approach to urban planning. Instead it should be asking a larger, more open ended question about distribution of population in the country, rather than focusing on an outdated model for urbanism.
The exact issue of outdated urban principles can also be found in the current government’s announcement that as part of the March Budget, £1billion in funding will be provided for the realisation of a new Garden City to the east of London. Totalling in 15,000 new homes, the announcement highlights a missed opportunity for a reinvigoration in UK based urban planning, and a turn to old methods as a quick solution for a problem that will persist. The longer they choose to rush solutions, instead of challenging the current thought process, the deeper the future urban issues will no doubt be.
Perhaps within the confines of a prestigious architectural biennale can a critical reflection take place on the current state of UK urbanism, but the impact it will have on the country 1000 miles away is still to be quantified. Instead an opportunity needs to be taken to show that urbanism isn’t quite dead yet in the UK.
The 3 individual events all highlight a problem with the United Kingdom, and it’s approach to the way our urban context is developed, tradition. As A Clockwork Jerusalem highlights, we were once great pioneers in urbanism and planning, but that has now gone. 125 years after the Garden City movement was started by Sir Ebenezer Howard, we are still using it as the answer to our problems. Urbanism needs to be prevented from death, it needs to be seen as an opportunity for the development of successful cities, it needs to regain influence on the society it seeks to provide for, and fundamentally it needs to be seen as a standalone practice, not another tag line on a website.