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Masterplanning a getaway

In a frank interview, Terry Farrell explains why masterplanning is so important - and why he will not be doing it anymore

Terry Farrell's career has been virtually synonymous with the development of modern masterplanning.

From Newcastle to Edinburgh and King's Cross to Kowloon, Farrell has been in demand as a man with vision.

He sees masterplanning as 'essentially a discipline in itself '. He is quite clear that it should not be confused with urban renewal, nor regeneration, although he recognises that these terms are often used interchangeably. Regeneration is obviously desirable as an outcome of a masterplan, but Farrell tries to keep end goals separate to any initial consideration. The avoidance of prejudging the 'problem' is an essential aspect of his methodology.

The first three key phases of masterplanning, according to Farrell, are:

getting a feel for the city to enable the production of an overview; a kind of urban SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis;

considering the implementation of a coherent strategy for the public realm and the impact on infrastructural requirements; and Carrying out a design critique on the type and use category of individual buildings within the masterplan - this should only take place after the first two phases.

Farrell is nonchalant about his skills. 'Masterplanning is simply a way of stating desired outcomes and setting out to achieve them in physical, material terms.' After all, he says, 'masterplanning could equally be applied to the setting out of a concentration camp; it's the same discipline but in a different context'.

Tight briefs However, Farrell has now decided that he will not be carrying out any new masterplanning projects. He has had enough. He has plenty of work on his plate so this is not a case of throwing in the towel. Nor is he despondent. He is quite clearly as committed to the project of reinvigorating urbanity as ever and, in principle, delighted by the resurgence of regeneration projects in recent years. However, there is a hint of disillusionment in his reasons.

'I revel in the current tide of enthusiasm for masterplanning cities, ' says Farrell. But he is concerned that it is being carried out while 'there is so much learning still to do'. This is the crux of his concern, that 'masterplans' are being drafted quickly and backed up by 'little money'. He sets the hypothetical example of clients calling in tenders to masterplan run down inner-city areas which have become the soulless repository of thousands of cars: 'For the price of just one of those cars, and - more often than not - in only a few weeks, you are expected to redesign a city.'

For Farrell it is not the derisory fees on offer that are the problem - he considers that the limited budgets are symptomatic of a broader malaise. To create a masterplan takes experience, time and resources and a freedom of expectation that he believes is somewhat anathema to UKculture. London, for example, he cites as having the 'worst town planning in Britain, and not even the best architecture'. For years, London has just responded to events rather than consciously planning meaningful solutions, he says.

American dream Farrell's formative years, training under the likes of Kahn and Venturi at the University of Pennsylvania and Ed Bacon in the City of Philadelphia, had a profound effect on his work and his aspirations. It forged a critical and rigorous attitude to urban design which led him to the belief in a need for resources, teamwork and a strong vision.

Even now he is fulsome in his praise for the role of his former teachers for forging a link between practical knowledge and education, which, he believes, is lacking in Britain today.

'The main thing I learned from my time in America, ' he says, 'is to respect the relationship between public and private.' The Public-Private Partnership (PPP) initiatives in the UK in the last decade, 'have at least forced planning to become much more holistic'.

Masterplanning for Farrell is too important to be rushed and packaged off into manageable chunks; it is a process of raising questions rather than providing quick answers.

According to Farrell, a programme for masterplanning should budget for at least one to one-and-a-half years for feasibility work. But because these are real places with things changing and growing around the masterplan site area, masterplanners should expect to continually modify the layouts during that period. Indeed, his work in Newcastle started in 1995; Edinburgh was started in 1989 and these schemes are still cause for reassessment, adjustment and, above all, reappraisal.

Forget-me-not Restoring or developing an urban memory is one of the essential ingredients in the first stages of feasibility work. Being able to key into a focal point in the collective consciousness is used as a means of celebrating organic development. 'In most great cities, ' he says, 'a critical part of their identity has been the continuity of memory.'

However, when it comes to an appraisal of the post-war new towns, such as Milton Keynes, where there was no original focal point, one has had to be created. One could argue this is urban false memory syndrome. Other new towns, which had no history by definition of their artifice, have, over the intervening 30 to 40 years, developed an urban identity despite themselves. It is this self-creation of the urban - by the actions of humanity in unpredictable ways - which makes the study of urban form and the task of masterplanning so enjoyable to Farrell.

Knock-on effects One of his guiding principles is that 'masterplanning has to go outside the red line if it is to be meaningful'.

The regeneration of Newcastle, for example, was kick-started by his riverside masterplan, although he argues that the effects of his intervention 'extend right from the Quayside through to the Centre for Life in the west end of the city . . . and the ripples are now being felt across in Gateshead'. This, for Farrell, is the exciting thing about his job, the potential to create 'good values of urbanity and design'. However, Farrell is still keen to maintain the distance between cause and effect.

The fascinating dynamic, as far as he is concerned, is the organic development of places after they have been created. He is against ghettos but acknowledges that he cannot design them out. 'The essence of urbanism is that people from all walks of life gather in cities. This is a natural process, which will happen whatever masterplanners do. All I am capable of doing is creating a fair and just plan. A good masterplan survives and is cherished . . . but who knows, it could become a horrible place over time.' Farrell recognises that he cannot be proscriptive of human behaviour and is concerned at those who try.

His early experience within Philadelphia's planning departments at the height of the civil rights protests in America forged his objectivity at a time when there was a belief that town planning could alleviate social need. Farrell resisted and continues to resist the temptation to draw a simple and direct correlation between town planning and politics.

World class Fundamentally, there is a lack of investment in infrastructure and a lack of an overview. Given that there are interconnected problems affecting city areas, (from transport to commercial viability), he argues that 'we need real depth and breadth to really look at what we're doing'. He suggests that even the Greater London Authority, which promised this kind of big-picture analysis, suffers from a lack of serious investment and a commitment to the long-term.

'Site- specific projects like the World Squares initiative don't address the big issues, ' he says before suggesting that the reinvigoration of Oxford Street should be a 'must do' project.

He characterises the quest for 'answers' to specific problems of London as symptomatic of the problems that they are trying to address.

'We need to understand the issues first rather than simply jumping for quick answers. Personally, I would appoint a small group of people, perhaps three or four including Jan Gehl [the Danish planner most responsible for ridding Copenhagen of cars], Nicky Gavron and myself to come up with a clear strategy to make Oxford Street a world class street. We would have to have access to any information and expertise we needed and whatever solutions we came up with would be implemented. The beauty of it is that whatever we came up with would be better than what's there at the moment.' You can't help but be caught up in his enthusiasm.

His conversation quickly escalates to a discussion of the knock-on effects of this Oxford Street regeneration outside the red line; on the requirements for London Underground and his dream to get rid of every pedestrian underpass. All part of a grand plan. Whatever he says about giving up masterplanning, he still seems open to offers.

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