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Building a vibrant city

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Fierce turf wars between professions over regeneration roles ignore the need for a range of complementary skills

The Urban Task Force is supposed to have formally dissolved itself, although it appears that some of its subgroups of guerrillas do not want to stop. They should let go. The most recent fruit of their labours is the Urban White Paper, Our towns and cities: the future - delivering the urban renaissance (Stationery Office, November 2000).

If the Urban White Paper does not set your pulse racing (it gave me no adrenaline rush) it is because it is just a compendium of everything that is already under way. We are already getting on with it. For the truth is that neither John Prescott nor Lord Rogers invented urban regeneration.

They might want to rewrite history, but we have all been on the long trek from the Inner Area Studies of the 1970s, through many area-based initiatives to urban development corporations in the 1980s and Single Regeneration Budget programmes in the 1990s.

The only new things in the Urban White Paper are the commitment to see new, over-arching local strategic partnerships between major city stakeholders (I fear there may be 'partnership fatigue' and a serious democratic deficit in this way of getting cities moving - who are these 'partners' and to whom are they accountable? ); the Cabinet Committee of Urban Affairs (which we might be excused for thinking was already in existence); and an Urban Policy Unit in the DETR. The latter will be an innovation. It will have people on secondment from local government, and some invited associate members drawn from 'practitioners and experts in urban policy, from both this country and abroad'. This is an attempt to ensure that the unit has 'the benefit of the widest range of experience' to review and develop policies for towns and cities.

Lord Rogers' vision of the architect as the visionary, and deliverer of the urban renaissance (remember the task force diagram with the architect placed, Pope-like, at the centre of everything), does not find expression in the Urban White Paper.

The main reason must be that asserting a cornerstone role for the architect betrays a fundamental misconception both about what is required to regenerate a city, and about architects' abilities.

Read the T-shirt Urban regeneration certainly requires a vision. The vision needs to be expressed graphically, and architects should be well placed to make that contribution. However, as Terry Farrell has conceded, architectural training has ignored the city-scale, and the profession has been deskilled in thinking on a macro scale. 'Urban design is not just big architecture, ' ought to be printed on T-shirts. There are not many people - let alone, many architects - who can do it successfully.

The vision also needs to be expressed in words, to get the message across in more than just pictorial form, and it is a rare and precious talent in an architect to be excellent in both graphic and written media.

The vision also needs to be expressed as an implementation strategy which explains how to make the vision happen. There is certainly the hardware to create: buildings to erect; streets to make; pieces of town to mend - but there is also the software of place to cultivate: the social and cultural institutions and networks; and the energy and commitment of the people to release.

Delivery of buildings is one thing, and hard enough at that, but delivery of a piece of vibrant city is another. I cannot exaggerate the depth of ignorance I have experienced at first hand, in the offices of some of the most eminent architects in the world, on this vital aspect of the urban renaissance.

Lastly, there is the problem of the flavour of special pleading for architects which pervades the Urban Task Force report. Despite the posed photographs and jolly press releases (hinting that urban design was a shared space of overlapping interests held by all sorts of people with complementary contributions to make), the informal Urban Design Group has been hijacked by the establishment in the form of the Urban Design Alliance, and fierce turf wars are raging as each of the built environment professions lay claim to urban design as their exclusive territory.

All of this is silly and sad - there is a job that needs to be done, and it needs a combination of talents, and rare personalities (regardless of background and profession) to pull it together and make the urban renaissance happen. We need to get wise to delivering it and be realistic about the contribution that architects can make.

David Lock is chairman of the planning and urban design consultancy David Lock Associates and DLA Architects. To contact him call 01908 666276 or e-mail jbarrie@dlamk.co.uk

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