The renewed interest in urban design - the pronouncements of the Urban Task Force, the proposals contained in the Urban White Paper, the creation of the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, and the Urban Design Alliance - suggests that the design of the spaces between buildings is at last being taken seriously. On the basis that urban designers need all the help they can get, it was with great anticipation that I opened Larry Ford's book The Spaces Between Buildings.
Back in the 1970s a book with such a title would have contained an assortment of ideas from the emerging field of environmental psychology alongside the design recipes of architectural determinism.Whatever the shortcomings, an attempt was being made to establish the behavioural basis for architectural and urban design - to understand how we interact with the physical environment. Most of these ideas remained undeveloped as architects opted for the less challenging concoctions of Post-Modernism.What does a book published in 2000 add to the discussion?
Larry Ford, professor of geography at San Diego State University, supplies his peripatetic interpretations of America's cities and suburbs, under such headings as 'Visual Chaos and the American City' and 'Fences, Walls and Gates'. Experienced urban planners and designers will recognise the account he offers but feel let down by the modest number of new insights and the lack of a vision for improvement and change.
Ford is not an urban designer and seeks merely to observe. His anecdotal and meandering journey must be targeted at other geographers - but here the book is also lacking. Surely geographers would be interested to know about the site situations being described, yet there are no drawings to support the text and photographs.
The suburbanisation of our cities has largely followed the pattern of the US, so in this regard the book does offer some helpful insights into what we are beginning to confront. We are asking many of the same questions about how the design of our cities should be improved and how the spaces between buildings can better answer current demands. But we need more robust theories and approaches than Ford offers.
Lacking a cogent philosophy, the book neither adds greatly to our appreciation of the complexities of city development nor holds up a mirror to our aspirations. You want Ford's stories to provide you with a deeper awareness of what is actually 'out there' as the basis for future interventions but his view of the subject is too simplistic.
Such conclusions as he offers are a recommendation to move away from city zoning to mixed-use planning - hardly original thinking here - and, at the end of the book, the suggestion that the reader develops the thoughts of Kevin Lynch promoted in his Theories of Good City Form (1981).
This mention of Lynch, however, only serves as a reminder that he, and authors such as Jane Jacobs, Richard Sennett, and Christopher Alexander, have not only surpassed this book's descriptions, anecdotes and occasional analyses but have given designers some philosophical tools.
Urban designers, planners and architects will be largely nonplussed by The Spaces Between Buildings, but first-year undergraduates on built environment courses who are observing the city for the first time will find it a gentle introduction to the subject. I can't help thinking that it could have been reduced to a 50-page primer, a starter before the meatier main course of Sennett, Lynch et al.
Dan Bone is an architect, town planner and director of urban design and development planning consultancy CIVIX