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Urban masterstroke

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Government proposals for housing development zones mean the role of the masterplanner is set for a renaissance

Writing in the Observer last month, Lord Rogers reviewed the Urban Task Force's three-year-old renaissance strategy.

He outlined the plight of cities 'haemorrhaging' their populations and of greenfield sites being 'consumed by new development'. He argued for the need for 'holistic' planning, social inclusion and a housing renewal. He spoke of the benefits of brownfield sites and the opportunities for the Thames Gateway area.

On cue, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister identified 42 brownfield sites around the UK earmarked for new housing development.

Alongside the Thames Gateway, the key areas identified in the south include Ashford in Kent, Milton Keynes and Stansted in Essex.

Nationwide, the sites range from Telford to Middlesbrough, Stevenage to Nottingham and Hatfield to Corby. The role of the masterplanner, it seems, is assured.

While many may wish to jump on the bandwagon, LDA Urban Design is a specialist design unit based in London which has a wealth of experience in masterplanning proposals - which director John Phillips describes as 'pre-architecture'. Here we look at some of its masterplan schemes, currently in progress.

Much ado about nothing

Phillips argues that masterplanning needs, in the first instance, 'to help develop a brief in order that a proposed scheme be best situated in 'its wider historical context'. It is also important to be 'pragmatic', he says.

Both of these beliefs were tested at the scheme in Portishead, Somerset, a town where 'nothing has ever happened', and hence its historical memory is difficult to tap into. Its official weblink instructs the casual visitor to 'click here to find out where Portishead is' and 'to explore (its) street map (and) bus timetables'.

The sites to the north and south of Portishead dock, owned by Crest Nicholson Homes and Powergen respectively, had submitted individual planning proposals to the local authority in the mid-1990s. Both represented, as LDA Urban Design director Nick Shute says, 'a typical suburban housing layout with no mutual coherence and no respect for their waterfront setting. Their primary intent was to get planning permission and move on.'

North Somerset Council rejected the proposals and LDA was appointed under the auspices of Crest Nicholson, which had subsequently bought the Powergen site, to reappraise the overall masterplan. The revised scheme, which will increase the population of the town from 18,000 to 27,000, has been passed, and is incorporated in the local authority's supplementary planning guidance.

The masterplan is a commercial enterprise - the guiding principle is for properties that are saleable - but even so, Shute says that proposing waterfront apartments in sleepy, elderly Portishead was a big risk for the developer.

The original block plan was developed into a detailed design scheme in consultation with a range of consultants, the client and the local authority, and was market tested at every key stage. The team built a computerised terrain model to deal with the changes in level, fitting 10,000 housing units onto the 20ha overall brownfield site, and dealing with the difficult remediated land conditions left by a disused power station, HV cables, and deep concrete foundations.

After approval of the masterplan, individual architects have been appointed to develop packages of the site. LDA has been retained in an overseeing, liaison role, but is pleased that, with Phase I nearing completion, the actual scheme is faithful to the initial concepts. Crest Nicholson now describes the western residential area, known as the Upper Regency Gate, as 'a melange of three- and fourbedroom Regency-style terraced villas, lodges, town houses and apartments, all enjoying a gently sloping landscape'.

Dockland regeneration

Phase II, another bleak brownfield site in Portishead, was home to an old phosphorus works; the remnants of which had to be carted off to a wetstorage burial site during a year of enabling works. Here, unlike the granite-lined northern bank, the dock edge was in a poor state of repair and has been excavated to provide a larger surface water area to take the docking pontoons.Although the 400berth marina has been completed, the construction of the mixed-use buildings (apartments, employment and leisure facilities) is just starting and the whole scheme is scheduled for completion in five years' time.

While Phillips has a call-off contract to revisit and advise, he recognises that LDA's role will decrease as the scheme takes on its own momentum. However, it is keen to become involved in the landscape implementation works in future ('it's LDA's bag, ' says Shute), which will ensure that it remains hands-on during the course of the construction works.

While the dockland regeneration is proceeding apace, two linking projects are also key to the overall success of the vision for the town. Portishead District Centre will be built on derelict land and include specialist retail, eateries, and commercial blocks with residential units above.

The scheme is specifically designed to tie Phase I and II in with the existing townscape and includes new paved routes, traffic engineering and the relocation of the existing library to become a new focal point.

The final piece in the jigsaw is the Ashlands development - so named because it was the home to a dump of pulverised fuel ash - adjoining the Gordano Valley ecological site and the Bristol Channel salt marsh SSSI.

The masterplan - now the local authority framework plan - will accommodate more than 1,500 dwellings at various densities designed as a Homezone. The biggest challenge for this site, according to Shute, was that it was a blank sheet, but he believes that he has succeeded in creating 'character areas'which will be organised around a large central parkland.

Destination Southampton

The Royal Pier site in Southampton is a typically desolate, working dockland.

A 32.5ha site accommodates the Isle of Wight ferry and hydrofoil terminals, massive car parking facilities, marshalling yard and loading bays, a city park; and the site is dislocated from the city by a major road. The actual pier, which is a listed structure, has been significantly damaged by fire.

The park, Mayflower Park, has to be retained and the working port is an essential feature of the economic life of the city, which, too, has to be incorporated into the masterplan. Both of these effectively reduce the financial returns available to a speculative developer, offered by such a prime site. But for Southampton City Council, the main enabling force on the client team, (comprising Southampton City Council, Associated British Ports and the Crown Estate), the objective was to get Southampton on the map - as a destination rather than as a staging post to somewhere else - and to maximise the city centre.

The open brief, according to Shute, was to 'use good design to promote inward investment'. Working with chartered surveyors and quantity surveyors, LDA had to ensure that its proposals stacked up;

'what is it going to cost to build and what'll it be worth', and so included considerations ranging from 'do nothing' to razing the area.

The proposals are currently going through the local plan, and include moving both ferry terminals - essential if anything is to be made of the site. Working in concert with the highways department, designated pedestrian crossing points across the inner ring road and improved traffic engineering will assist the connection with the centre.

The scheme opens up the waterfront - for the first time allowing pedestrian access along the waterline - and includes mixed-use residential, hotel/conferencing, leisure, retail and office facilities. Approximately 25 per cent of housing will be designated as affordable housing, pepper-potted across the six- to seven-storey scheme, although the best views will tend to be reserved for the private residents.

Some have had concerns about the detrimental impacts of targeted regeneration for those areas left out.

Such flux has been apparent in Southampton's Northern Above Bar area, where major retailers such as John Lewis and C&A have relocated to more affluent areas, leaving their existing premises, and the area, run down. The council is therefore in the process of repairing the failures of previous regeneration by trying to engender an 'arts-led regeneration' in this central area.

Repairing the damage caused by previous urban regenerations should be a cause for reflection. Whether this case is a site-specific/historic problem, or whether it is inherent in the targeted nature of regeneration (leaving areas outside the redline to degenerate), needs broader consideration.

As far as LDA is concerned, it will always try to extend the scope of its works, to ensure that the scheme is contextualised as much as possible.

Unfortunately, at this stage, sufficient money is not available to fund the proposals, which include an Art Quarter (gallery, theatre and workspaces), built in and around the aforementioned abandoned properties.

It seems that, while grand holistic proposals may be the political order of the day, good old-fashioned constraints such as lack of investment will be the determining feature of even the most considered urban masterplan for some time to come.

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