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Masterplan collaboration will lead to success

Opinion - A more collaborative approach to masterplanning will result in better buildings, believes Lucy Musgrave

Sunand Prasad, in his RIBA presidential address, said the knowledge base of the RIBA’s members is its greatest asset, and that this should be built upon and shared (AJ 22.11.07). He wants to ensure that the RIBA will work hard to achieve its mission to create the optimal conditions for architecture.

Prasad also said that there is an absence of a shared knowledge base in the UK on urbanism and masterplanning. This is essential for spatial masterplanning.

There is an increasing feeling that shortlists for the Lea Valley and Thames Gateway are being flooded by masterplanners from abroad. So is there a crisis of confidence in British masterplanning, and if so why?

Other European countries have highly developed fields of urban design, with skilled designers working for local authorities, and a field of urbanism with its own professional bodies. We do not have this in the UK.

Up until the 1980s, the UK had an extremely strong tradition of ‘architectplanners’. London County Council (LCC), individual boroughs, and many county councils had large in-house teams of architects responsible for spatial planning. Quangos acted as commissioning bodies providing collective forms of knowledge that would be shared. There were problems with these structures, but there was also a particular strength. In the dynamic days of the LCC, younger practitioners were invited into the system to test, to build a bank of knowledge and to give the professional framework energy through collaboration and innovation.

Does the make-up and culture of the Thames Gateway Development Corporation, the regional development agencies, the ODA, compare? Are we feeding a knowledge base by inviting the best to collaborate and reinvigorate British urbanism? I fear not. Collective knowledge is now largely held within large, commercial, multi-disciplinary firms where it is protected as a competitive advantage.

The UK planning system has turned into a negotiated system. Detailed spatial elements of a plan are rarely given any degree of fix. The debate and drivers are not around design, but planning targets and profit margins.

But in Britain a new way of working is emerging – a younger generation of practitioners in small and medium-sized practices where the approach is grounded in the reality of place. This is not cute New Urbanism, it is a practice evolving to adapt to complex, convoluted processes of negotiation. It requires an ability to collaborate, and is founded on sharing ideas and practice.

It requires a particular set of skills that mean architects/urbanists develop a way of working in a variety of capacities alongside the planning and development process.

In realising Prasad’s vision ‘to create the optimal conditions for architecture’, a knowledge base should be built that restores the sharing of methods and practice in masterplanning and urbanism. It should place centre-stage the particularly British approach to research-led practice. Let’s demand more rigour in the brief-setting of our quangos. The result will be a more confident plan-led approach and will result in better architecture.

Lucy Musgrave is co-director of consultancy group General Public Agency

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