The latest in the series of riba position papers commissioned under David Rock's presidency, published this week, is as good as the first. This is a high compliment since the first stated a clear set of challenges arising from changes in society to which the profession should respond over the next decade. This made compulsory reading. The latest agenda- setting document concerns 'town champions', who used to be called civic architects though that phrase now sounds rather quaint. The principle of the thing is simple: select an architect whose job it is to leave a town in a better condition than when they took up the job, not necessarily by designing anything, though that is a possibility. Much more important is the role of design consultant, ensuring that everything which affects the public realm is given serious design consideration. Rock thinks that the new Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment should investigate how the idea might be taken up and put into effect.
Certainly the public realm, and proactive ways in which it can be nurtured and improved, is high on the agenda of the new commission. All too often, good buildings may be let down by their immediate environment, because of conflicting responsibilities (or just separate responsibilities) of those involved with transport, street furniture and so on. This is a huge area of potential improvement, and is also one of the key topics for the Urban Design Alliance, which held its annual conference this week.
It is possible to address public realm issues through consultative committees, liaison groups, task forces and so on. But as with developments of any quality, it usually requires the driving force of an individual with a highly focused passion to ensure successful outcomes. We have seen prodigious efforts made to analyse what makes towns tick in recent years, ranging from the research work of groups like Comedia to the consultancy of companies such as Urbed. Architects have devoted countless hours to weekends where the future of their area is debated in (and with the) public. But follow-up is all-important; town champions should now be championed.