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BOOK

REVIEW

Urban Design Futures Edited by Malcolm Moor and Jon Rowland.Routledge, 2006. £30

The Anglo-American discipline of Post-Modern urban design is now around 40 years old.

Begun in opposition to the Modernist orthodoxies of planning and architecture, it had to struggle for 30 years to gain mainstream acceptance, even though at its beginning those orthodoxies were already showing signs of failure.

From the Quality in Town and Country project in 1994 initiated by John Gummer, and progressing through the Rogers report, the creation of CABE and PPS1, Post-Modern urban design has perhaps become the new orthodoxy. Certainly the squeals heard from some architects objecting to the growth of design codes, recently imported from the Congress for the New Urbanism in the USA, suggest that in some ways the tables have been turned.

So maybe there is a danger in sitting contentedly on the now-conventional wisdoms of perimeter blocks, mixed uses and pedestrian permeability.

Urban design has to keep moving in a non-stop world.

Where is it to go from here?

This book asks that question, as does issue 100 of Urban Design, the quarterly magazine of the Urban Design Group, which has done so much since 1978 to promote the cause. Both publications bring together diverse contributors to give their answers.

The result in the case of this book is stimulating, but rather like being harangued by a series of speakers at an election hustings. Some platforms we can guess in advance. Jan Gehl promotes walking. Tim Stonor advocates the use of space syntax. Bill Dunster warns us of global warming. Jason Prior offers the London Olympic masterplan.

A recurring theme is that the current modes of urban design, as seen for example in the regenerated centres of Birmingham and Manchester, are applicable to only a small part of our planet. Much of the developing world operates on very different patterns, and even in this country, the conventions of the compact city are irrelevant to huge areas of suburbia and the growing numbers of exurban distribution centres.

Some prescriptions for the future make me sceptical. Ken Yeang's proposition of a vertical theory of urban design sounds implausible. Richard Rees of BDP advocates an urban design, based upon the temporary super-cialities of retail development, which sounds depressingly unsustainable. For me, the most persuasive voice is that of the wise old bird John Worthington, who describes well the complex realities of the networked city - no longer centre and periphery, but multiple centres.

The contradictions of the 21 contributors are well book-ended by the two editors.

Malcolm Moor writes a scene-setting introduction that explains how we got here.

Finally, Jon Rowland has a good go at categorising the diverse alternative futures. Here, as elsewhere, there are more questions than answers. As he acknowledges, we never trust those who claim to predict the future.

Joe Holyoak is an architect and urban designer in Birmingham

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