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Shaping Neighbourhoods (For local health and global sustainability)

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[BOOK REVIEW]Hugh Barton and Marcus Grant’s updated handbook is a treasure trove of information and a well-argued alternative to the Urban Design Compendium, writes Jonathan Brown of URBED

The new edition of ‘Shaping Neighbourhoods’ is rather good. I may even find it a permanent site on my all too densely developed desk.

As one might expect from academic publishers Routledge, the document is set out as the geography student’s dream text book, richly illustrated with friendly graphics like ‘the settlement as eco-system‘ and ‘a travel-planning pyramid’, as well as familiar Venn diagrams, case-studies and check lists.

That is not to suggest the authorial team from the University of the West of England (UWE) have produced a purely scholastic work - far from it. The clear six-part structure sets out to be a practical handbook for anyone involved in spatial planning - professional, developer or community group, as well as student. It offers a (slightly expensive) hard-copy alternative to the HCA’s updated Urban Design Compendium, which is free but only available on-line.

‘Shaping Neighbourhoods’ will certainly be an accessible and highly informative support for those scaling the steep-looking nursery slopes of the Localism learning curve, addressing in clear, well argued terms the broad purpose and scope of planning, before exploring step-by-step many of the technical processes and normative principles essential to delivery.  The breadth of topics dealt with is truly comprehensive.

For the practitioner of regeneration and planning frameworks, the imperatives of sustainable spatial development should already be second-nature, but the book still raises questions for reflection and provides a wealth of useful supplementary detail and quotable research back up, often in helpful pictographic form.  Every planning office gearing up to facilitate Neighbourhood Planning would benefit from using it as a reference copy and discussion tool.

It is also unafraid to challenge some received wisdom, and offers up sophisticated insights in simple, compelling terms. For instance, the authors discern the seeds of confusion in conflating neighbourhood with community, insisting on the place-based nature of the former as the physical habitat in which healthy versions of the latter can thrive. They offer useful counter-intuition, such as this summary of surveys of resident perceptions of neighbourhood boundaries:

“For the most part the perceived neighbourhoods were not centred on local shops and facilities, rather they were bounded by them, because retailing was concentrated on main roads. Local centres can thus be the place where people from different neighbourhoods mingle.”

Being critical for a moment, the book betrays its ‘southern-centric’ origins a little too often for my jaundiced northern tastes, skirting quickly over regeneration challenges found in areas of weakened demand, and offering relatively few case-studies from the north parts, where so many instructive examples of neighbourhood planning can be found. 

Since publication of the first edition in 2003, regeneration funds running into multiple billions have been directed to neighbourhood focused initiatives such as Housing Market Renewal (HMR), Neighbourhood Renewal Frameworks and New Deal for Communities. Lessons learned could have been given more attention in this new addition, particularly as they align well with the book’s general themes of local health and global sustainability. Certainly the failure of clearance based ‘slash and burn’ approaches imposed by HMR Pathfinder policies in Liverpool and Stoke can be usefully contrasted with more sensitive refurbishment led initiatives like the ‘community green deal’ eco-retrofits seen in Birmingham, Greater Manchester, South Yorkshire and the East Riding.

Overall such criticisms should not permanently detract from this book’s real achievement - which is to provide something of interest and utility to both ‘lay’ and ‘professional’ urbanists on almost every one of its 300+ pages.

Shaping Neighbourhoods (For local health and global sustainability), 2nd Edition, Routledge, ISBN 978-0-415-49549-3  c.£35.00

Hugh Barton, Marcus Grant and Richard Guise


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