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Not a single section of the Farrell Review comprehensively addresses sustainability

Farrell Review fails to give sustainability top billing, yet a close read reveals valuable guidance, says Hattie Hartman

‘Sustainability should be part of life,’ Terry Farrell told the AJ last week at the Farrell Review press launch. Hence the decision by the team responsible for the review to ‘embed’ sustainable design throughout the report. ‘A sustainable and low-carbon future’ is indeed one of the review’s five cross-cutting themes, but it does not come across forcefully in the headlines of the executive summary and there is not a single section of the report that comprehensively addresses the subject.

I therefore approached the review’s ‘embedded sustainability’ with scepticism. So often sustainability gets lost if it is not proactively championed.
The acronym ‘PLACE’ seems destined to suffer the same fate as CABE, and its hand-drawn graphics are off-putting at best. My initial impression was of ‘urban design lite’, brought together in a report which would gather dust on a shelf, or be a tab on a website with only a handful of clicks after the buzz of the launch died down.

Yet the real power of the review lies buried in its detail. It benefits from Terry Farrell’s international experience in Asia, which sets the UK planning context against a backdrop of experience in other parts of the world. It should be compulsory reading for anyone interested in the future of the built environment in this country. And a close reading reveals many nuggets of best practice in sustainable city-making. Perhaps the most telling image of the entire report is the organisational diagram (Farrell Review, Executive Summary, page 7), which illustrates the multitude of central government departments responsible for the built environment over the past half-century.

A sustainability workshop at Farrells last August (pictured) highlighted the fact that the city as a key governance structure should be a new focus, and cities should be required to report on how they will reduce carbon and create sustainable places. One example which bears closer scrutiny is Birmingham’s Green Living Spaces Plan, which colour-codes the entire city to map out its green infrastructure and assess its economic benefits. Another promising sign was to see George Ferguson leave the launch determined to implement many of the review’s recommendations in Bristol.

Who is the review’s intended audience? Its high-level conclusions are directed at government as well as relevant institutions, agencies and professionals. Yet its clarity makes it equally accessible to students and the public. ‘We must get off the idea that the only proof of the review’s success depends on new regulation, or a loosening of the purse-strings by government. This is a running call for the long-term. The review presents commonly held wisdom couched in accessible language where individuals can get traction,’ said Farrell Review panel member Sunand Prasad.

The call for a common foundation course for all built environment disciplines, like many of the review’s recommendations, is not new, but it addresses the crux of the problem for more sustainable city design. The current disconnect between Part 1 education in the majority of architectural schools and the proliferation of masters’ courses on the subject filled primarily with international students, means that today’s graduates are not equipped to address the challenges posed by the Farrell Review. Breaking down these silos would be a good place to start.

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