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Whitby looks to technology for city protection

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David Littlefield reports from last week's UDAL's annual conference, an event that was overshadowed by terrorism, crime and the menace of the car

The terrorist atrocities in the US earlier this month formed an apposite background for the Urban Design Alliance's annual conference. The attacks allowed speakers to promote an urban vision encompassing everything from satellite-based city-protection systems to the role of CCTV and improving the urban realm for pedestrians. Oddly, the height of buildings was not discussed.

UDAL chairman Mark Whitby proposed installing height-restricting software, controlled by the global positioning system, which would automatically pull aircraft out of harm's way if they strayed too close to vulnerable buildings.

'This would cost a fraction of the Star Wars programme, ' he said, adding that the same technology could be used to restrict the speed of cars on residential streets. 'This is one of our roles; as professionals we can grasp nettles and adopt a vision.'

However, Whitby stressed that better and safer urban environments would also be created through the adoption of small, local strategies, managed by residents acting in partnership with planners, designers and architects. 'Grands projets' were only half the battle. 'We, too, like this government, have had our period of reflection. We now need to deliver, ' he said.

Most speakers clung to the small-scale, reserving praise for developments such as Poundbury and universally condemning the cul-de-sacs and arterial roads of Milton Keynes. Barry Sellers, urban designer from Wandsworth Borough Council, spoke of the need to return a 'humane' quality to the streets, focusing on public art, seating, quality materials and the eradication of painted lines. Too often, he said, housing estates faced inwards, presenting a 'tablet for graffiti' on their rear walls.

But he reserved the greatest scorn for the proliferation of signposts, railings and signals. 'Do we really need to have all that paraphernalia in the street?' Sellers asked.

Instead of a sign announcing the presence of CCTV cameras, he suggested placing screens in the street allowing pedestrians to police themselves.

David Taylor, a partner at Alan Baxter Associates, agreed that most contemporary streetscapes were in need of a serious makeover - and blamed highway engineers for their decline.

'There's a flawed, fragmented approach. . .

we now see streets not as places in a city but as elements with lots of separate functions, ' said Taylor. 'In spite of the number of design guides, our current engineering design standards still hinder creative spaces.'

Jonathan Naughton, from consultancy Urban Futures, also condemned the 'urban desolation' created by front-of-house parking. What was once 'Almond Tree Avenue' was becoming 'Concrete Gardens', he said.

His solutions to the problem ranged from 'moderate' changes such as narrowing the road and building over verges, to 'radical' ones involving cutting into front gardens and constructing communal parking space.

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