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Place making needs to be a continuous process

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Not a fix in time, writes Paul Finch

Not surprisingly, people get very cross when buildings and places that have been paid for by public subscription end up in private hands with no interest in history nor the moral obligations that might be attached. That is what Sainsbury’s has just discovered in relation to recreation grounds in Bristol, donated after the First World War, but now being redeveloped by the supermarket chain that is running a Christmas advertisement based on that very war.

Margaret Thatcher never grasped how deeply offensive it was to Londoners when she flogged off County Hall as though it were a warehouse estate, when in fact it was a municipal landmark paid for by public subscription.

Contrast this shoddy behaviour with that of the Duke of Westminster when faced with financial problems in respect of the Liverpool One town centre scheme. Did he value-engineer the final phases into mediocrity? He did not, instead fulfilling what he saw as a family obligation to the North West, carried out since its arrival with the Normans, to leave the environment better than he found it.

People with no sense of history are not to be entrusted with the built environment; a failure to understand and respect the past will inevitably result in a failure to build well for the future. Not that this implies an architectural or planning attitude stuck in the ideas of yesteryear - far from it.

Take the case of Rotterdam, for example. A magnificent city, it deliberately chose to make modernity its touchstone in the post-Second World War reconstruction programme, which followed its near-destruction by bombing. It could take as some sort of precedent the Van Nelle factory from the 1920s, which survived the war and is now a Unesco world heritage site.

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The city has pursued its ambitious programme ever since, most recently with OMA’s De Rotterdam complex, a magnificent triple-tower mixed-use complex which has rewritten the rules for this sort of development.

Appropriately, Rotterdam (in competition with Aarhus and Turin) has just won the European City of the Year Award from the UK Academy of Urbanism. The academy held an excellent ceremony in London last week, attended by representatives from all three cities. There were also UK awards for Aberystwyth, Holbeck and St Pancras, and the whole event, compered by academy chairman Steve Bee, was a reminder that places are about people as much as their architecture.

Place-making is a word that has become fashionable in recent years, with the last Labour government making it the heart of heritage and regeneration policy. However, the Farrell Review concluded that there was still much to be achieved, and more than 80 organisations are signed up to promoting it in an initiative being organised by University College London. This will be a Herculean task, since getting the multiple professions and organisations involved with the built environment to agree on anything would be a major achievement.

We can all agree with the intention while disagreeing about how best to achieve it; what is smart about the Academy of Urbanism awards programme is that it focuses on success stories, not failures, and visits candidate cities to find out not just how the places were created, but how they are now operated and how they have been improved.

Inevitably this involves new thinking and often new facilities, as well as an existing urban grain or condition. That combination of old and new is often what keeps a place alive, rather than existing as a tourist destination to contemplate how nobody lives or works any more. Consumption of the obsolete should be a treat, not a regular diet.

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