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The urban challenge faced by edinburgh by Riccardo Marini

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5 Jun 2008

<strong>Let's stop putting lipstick on the monkey!</strong>

Let's stop putting lipstick on the monkey!

“Good evening, my name is Riccardo Marini, I am an alcoholic” – If I was, and wanted to get better, the first step to recovery would be admitting to the fact, hence the introduction to all AA meetings. Admitting that there is a problem is sometimes the toughest and a brave thing to do. Why did Edinburgh in 2002 embark on their design adventure?

There was recognition that all was not well out there, this I believe is understandable in such an obviously beautiful place. As you move out of the city’s core, the quality of the built environment is, like in most other UK cities, rather mediocre at best. I can’t see people swarming to visit our suburbs and wanting to share the moment by capturing it on camera or going to the effort of sending a postcard, wishing the recipient was with them.

We all choose our holiday destinations for very similar reasons and millions of us then want to share that experience. On the whole these destinations are real places which are lived in and loved. Why do we not get the places we like? I feel, and hope, that we are at a tipping point and, in a rather ironic way, for economic reasons which in the first place I believe lead to our inability to Place Make. The need to be competitive on the global stage is what is making people take notice of what ‘place geeks’ like me have been bashing on for to many years.

Place attractiveness, liveability are what will give us, in the first world, a viable economic future. We are not going to go back to being the powerhouse of the world; we have actually de-skilled in those types of sectors and will not be able to compete with the raw muscle of India and China. What we have to major on are the so called creative industries, the new technologies and how we can attract their ever mobile capital which is looking for the right ‘Place’ to invest in.

We need to understand that all decisions which a local authority makes, whether they are related to education, social issues, or physical issues, have a profound impact on people and place.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               The end of the 19th century in America saw the birth of the ‘Efficiency Movement’. This was a reflection of the fascination with time and motion and efficient means of production. Henry Ford, to me, captured the spirit of the time and in the early 20th century developed a methodology to deliver a reliable, affordable product. His technique was simple and effective. An automobile is made of a series of components, therefore break down the way it is manufactured from the artisan’s holistic approach to one where individual elements are mass produced in controlled environments to specific standards, and then assembled into the final product.

This way of doing things was copied and has become one of the principal models of efficient production. The really scary thing is that we, in the pursuit of efficiency, have adopted this as our governance system. What we have evolved over the past 100 years is the silo approach to governance, where we do good roads, good schools, good cleansing, good planning but unfortunately when we put it back together again it does not add up to a place we like or want.

This methodology is so entrenched it has become self perpetuating. We all sit in our silos with our narrow objectives doing our best to carry out what we are charged to do. I have to state that I have never met a malicious roads engineer, pedagogue, estate surveyor or planner. The problem is the system. This is why we are unable to place make. What I call ‘false efficiencies’ are what drive what we do. The only way we know if we are successful is if what we are doing is on time and on budget: we have reduced everything to monetary, accounting terms.

This way of dealing with the world is good at solving single issues to the exclusion of everything else. I see little value in creating solutions to problems which, although accomplished, create many longer term difficulties. There was a perceived problem with the way we were developing our Places, or was it simply a matter of creating a more efficient way of dealing with the issues? In the mid 1940s we formalised the processes and procedures and set up a national planning system. What was the point of setting it up? It was to make sure that we enhanced the natural and physical environment; afforded protection to the things we felt were important - wasn’t it?

I am becoming aware that the planning system, as it has evolved, is slave to the governance system which we have created; this lumbering processes-based mechanism militates against Place Making, because it has forgotten about the reality of the human condition. How can it engage in things like passion, love and wellbeing? It’s a crazy situation that we find ourselves in; we all recognise bad design when we see it so why do we accept it and condone it.

The peacock’s tail – the male peacock has invested massively in genetic terms in creativity, his tail is a singular masterpiece which will ensure that he will survive in terms of gene pool. This has been related to artistic aptitude and creativity in our species; some believe that these attributes are on the surface as facile as the peacock’s tail in terms of our reproductive cycle. I strongly oppose that view which is a result of our attitude to value, which is linked to the Fordism model of efficiency.

Without creativity we have nothing. It is the human species’ inherent creative 'design' instinct which got us out of caves and led us on the path of urbanism.

Plato developed the concept of the beautiful/perfect solution, this was picked up by many and Buckminster Fuller's statement is one which I believe captures my view on design: when he was working on a design he did not think of beauty but when he got to a solution: if it was not beautiful he knew that there was something wrong. Design ultimately is about problem solving and without it we have no real value.

What has this got to do with what Sir Terry Farrell has been trying to do with his role as Edinburgh’s first City Design Champion? Well, everything. We have to be grateful and honoured that in the first place Edinburgh asked us to get involved. The reality is that no one knew what this should be about. Many hoped that we would stay in our closet and merely focus on project review or on design issues which related to the surface veneer of what we do, i.e., bollards and bins. No; with the support of Trevor Davies, the then Convenor of Planning, we were encouraged to follow the only path we really had; that was to challenge the intrinsic governance issues which ultimately create the environments in which we operate.

The way the silo approach has developed is fascinating as its behaviour patterns are like that of a virus which mutates to defend itself. The best way of counteracting its negative aspects is leadership. If there is a strong corporate agenda and someone to lead it then the machine can deliver tangible benefits. There are a few UK cities where we have seen this happen. Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham and London in differing ways are making the place making agenda central to what they do.

After four years, sadly there are senior officers who still think that what they have been doing is the right thing to do. This inability to admit to having a problem is a glaring symptom of the challenges we still have, the first step to recovery is acknowledgment of the issue. The positive aspect is that it is obvious that the elected members, who initiated this process in the first place, are keen to see change because they are still dissatisfied with what they see happening around them. Jenny Dawe, the leader of the administration, is taking the lead and supporting a place aware way of doing things. She has understood the value of having an independent, unbiased and authoritative voice which can point out simple but difficult issues which need to be tackled.

At a recent meeting with Professor Irvine Lapsley, of Edinburgh University, all the current issues which face the city where discussed, from pressures of physical expansion to the economics of the city. When asked the difficult question of what was the most important issue to be tackled, the Leader responded by pointing out that there was not one single issue that had to be dealt with, but that a holistic approach had to be developed to ensure that we did not create simplistic solution to what are incredibly complex problems. This is a potent signal that the days of the professional comfort zone are coming to an end; the walls of the silos are hopefully being breached.

The Design Initiative, which is the interface between the Council and the City Design Champion, is ready to evolve into something which can help set the agenda for change in a way which will make sure that people and place are central to all the solutions we develop. Jenny Dawe is keen to see what she has called ‘Project Edinburgh’ come to the fore. What will this be? I describe it as a think -tank coupled with a command and control facility. This is not about design but it will create environments where design is not an afterthought deployed to make something look pretty – putting lipstick on the monkey. I hope it will be a flexible multidisciplinary unit which takes its lead from the Leader’s office and council chief executive to support and develop cross-cutting approaches to the way the council deploys its resources. Its main focus will be to ensure that all that we do will benefit the wonderful place Edinburgh is and the people who live, work and visit.

I have been asked, with a tone of suspicion: ‘What have you achieved in the four years that you have been responsible for the Design Initiative?’ Well, I hope we have made design relevant to the way we will plan our future.

Riccardo Marini is the City Design Leader

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