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Time - a missing element in our urban thinking


The technical difficulties which have delayed the raising of London's Millennium Wheel were greeted with relative calm last week. It would be exciting to see it in operation on Millennium Eve, but it is not like an Olympic Games or World Cup stadium. We can be relaxed about it. Unhappily, attitudes to time and the built environment all too frequently betray panic and a false belief that unless something is done quickly it will be done badly or not at all. The obsession with statistics about making planning decisions within a set period disguises the reality of months of pre-planning discussion which need to take place on sensitive sites, either because of planning and infrastructure considerations, or because of split ownerships.

The idea that speed could provide the best means of achieving successful development is laughable, but is in reality embedded in the processes which inform the creation of the built environment. The years it may take to assemble a site, and the costs involved in financing the exercise, need to be recovered by designing and building as quickly as possible. The whole exercise is a sprint instead of a marathon (or at least a half- marathon). Nobody wants to do proper, careful masterplanning, let alone pay for it. The result is delay further down the line and, to take a topical example, the almost certain waste of money in carrying out remediation schemes in ignorance of what precisely will be built on the site, which would inform the way the remediation was conducted.

My favourite time story concerns the Inland Revenue, when it chose a d&b route to procure its new building in Nottingham. It had no time for a proper design competition because of the need, it said, to move civil servants from offices where the lease was about to expire. Of course the Inland Revenue had known for 25 years that the lease would expire, but somehow it had all come as a shock. In the event the Government ordered a competition, and the Michael Hopkins building was the splendid result. Time is on your side - if you will let it be.

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