John Prescott and Prince Charles want to borrow a US idea – new urbanism – to make sustainable communities function as urban spaces. But some UK architects fear design codes and community consultation could result in the Poundbury vision taking hold.

Planning: the American dream
Planning: the American dream

For Ray Gindroz, it was a great little jolly. In September, 60 American architects and planners crossed the Atlantic to meet the UK’s most influential politicians. First they were addressed by deputy prime minister John Prescott at Admiralty House in London. Then they journeyed out to the Cotswalds for a private seminar with Prince Charles at his private retreat, Highgrove.

The government is so eager to please US architects such as Gindroz because it wants to borrow their ideas for key UK housing projects, such as the Thames Gateway growth areas and the East Lancashire housing market renewal pathfinder. Gindroz is a new urbanist. That means he is a member of the movement among American planners and architects dedicated to the creation of sustainable urban communities that are pedestrian rather than car-friendly – as opposed to the placeless sprawl of the past two decades. Prescott believes that the new urbanists hold the key to the implementation of his sustainable communities plan.

In its simplest form, new urbanism means getting community interest groups to meet architects, planners and politicians to establish specific principles and standards. The Prince’s Foundation calls this procedure “enquiry by design”; Americans refer to it as “the Charrette process”. Either way, the aim is to arrive at agreed design principles for an area.

“The government’s priority is twofold,” says Gindroz. “They want on the one hand to create sustainable communities where people can walk everywhere, but on the other to build rapidly and with quality.”

The government is looking to the RIBA, Greenwich University and the Prince’s Foundation to help develop a British variant of new urbanism. Details will be announced at the urban summit in the new year, but the broad thrust of the policy is in place, judging by a recent comment by Richard McCarthy, the ODPM’s head of sustainable communities, who dubbed it “smart urbanism”.

If the government is to import new urbanism, then it will go against the grain of much British architectural thought, which is dominated by a kind of amorphous, extroverted postmodernism. Some of the most exciting architects in the country – such as Will Alsop, Piers Gough and Sarah Wigglesworth – have opposed design codes on the grounds that they stifle creativity. They point to Seaside, the new urbanist development in Florida that formed the claustrophobic set of The Truman Show, or to Poundbury, the nostalgic, faux-trad town in Dorset. These developments, they claim, are proof that coded development creates lifeless communities. Even well-placed sources at CABE are uneasy about how well design codes interact with design – although this has more to do with Prince Charles’ influence than the theory itself.

New urbanists argue that their modernist critics do not understand the theory, and Gindroz would like to enlighten them. “New urbanism is a revival of urbanism, inspired by the traditions of creating urban space instead of object buildings, neighbourhoods instead of subdivisions and downtowns instead of strip malls,” he says. “Existing codes and standards of zoning and road design make it almost impossible to create good urbanism as they’re based on one aspect only – moving traffic.”

Architecture has deteriorated to the point where it's about the creation of iconic buildings not houses and neighbourhoods

John Norquist

The new urbanists have a philosophical bone to pick with “artistic” architects such as Alsop. John Norquist, head of the Congress for the New Urbanism in the USA, says their architecture concentrates on the object or building itself, not the environment. “New urbanism is a reaction against the burning utopianism of modernism and its arrogance in thinking it could develop an architecture to end all forms,” he says. “Architecture has deteriorated to the point where it’s about the creation of iconic buildings instead of the creation of houses and neighbourhoods.”

Another American, Michael Mehaffy, director of education at the Prince’s Foundation, agrees. “There’s this notion that the best new architecture has to be about deconstructing something. It is seen as an artistic symbol instead of carrying with it economic, political or placemaking responsibilities. It’s a very narrow view of what being an architect is.”

Gindroz, Norquist and Mehaffy are open to the accusation that they are meddling Yanks who don’t understand existing British views of urbanism. But it is not as if the UK has always been that successful. Take Alsop. In the field of urbanism, he is more famous for his failures – such as New Cross and the Aylesbury Estate in south London – than for successes. And although his masterplans for failing cities such as Bradford and Barnsley were undeniably imaginative, they do not offer a serious template for other locations. Nor do they go with the grain of British public taste. Most people in this country regard towns such as Bath, or at least its Georgian centre, as the apotheosis of Urban Design. And Bath was built to tight guidelines that are reminiscent of new urbanism. But Alsop doesn’t like Bath, or codes, as he wrote in a recent article: “My worry about design codes is that if it means laying down certain principles that are adopted by planning authorities throughout the land, it becomes a stultifying experience. How do the people who produce the codes know they are right? Implicit within the creation of design codes is a huge arrogance that the principles they identify will lead to a better life.”

In any case, it seems that opinion formers in the UK are coming to the same conclusions as Norquist and Mehaffy. The Prince’s Foundation and the RIBA have been holding an increasing number of conferences extolling the virtues of urbanism. Only last week Mehaffy and Gindroz chaired a conference at the Prince’s Foundation attended by Simon Thurley, head of English Heritage, Keith Hill, the planning minister at the ODPM, and Prince Charles himself. In his keynote speech, the Prince unleashed broadside

after broadside against what he eruditely called the “thin gruel of badly done le Corbusier” and denounced “egotistical architects who need to reflect their own presence on a project” as being guilty of “graffiti on nature”.

In addition, John Thompson, the head of the RIBA’s urbanism unit, is behind a campaign to retrain architects as urbanists. He says architects should have an understanding of planning, the law and engineering. “We fundamentally need to change the shape of architectural training,” says Thompson. “Chartered surveyors, the Royal Town Planning Institute and the RIBA should all be working towards a common goal. Architecture that focuses on the object should come second to urbanism.”

What underlies the “artistic” criticism of design codes is the fear that they will lead to a proliferation of Poundburies, each with the same detailing, and set the same distance from the curb. Gindroz responds that new urbanism does not prescribe the same solution regardless of where it happens to be. “New urbanism urges a careful study of the existing contexts of communities as a basis for creating new places,” he says. “I don’t understand why codes are considered prescriptive, since they are following the intent of a plan devised by the community.”

The best new urbanist examples in the US were private developments by brave entrepreneurs who created places of great beauty

Ray Gindroz

Mehaffy compares design codes to genes: a common set of tools can give rise to many different organisms. “We’re asking, what is the collective DNA of a place?” he says. “You look at the history of a place, its climate, its geography, its building materials, even its plants and trees. When you have those building blocks, you can establish a pattern for that place. It’s far more dynamic than a cold masterplan.”

The key quality of the new codes will be their ability to adapt to a region’s building tradition. The codes would only be required in an area of multiple developers and housebuilders, such as a city, to establish general principles. For entirely new developments on single-ownership land all that could be required is a pattern book of different styles. “If you have a single architect you don’t need a code,” says Gindroz. “If you’re a big housebuilder you could simply follow a book of patterns. It doesn’t have to be awful – look at Belgravia and Bath, which were built exactly like this.” Gindroz is currently working on studies in Yorkshire on this very subject.

The father of the design code is probably Chris Alexander, a professor at Berkeley in California who wrote Notes on the Synthesis of Form and A Pattern Language in the 1960s. Alexander has just joined the University of Greenwich, where he will occupy himself with a quest for the holy grail: that is, a design code that produces sustainable, coherent communities, but does not dictate a particular style.

The biggest danger, for Gindroz, is the speed with which Prescott is trying to develop. When combined with the snail pace of UK planning on sites of mixed ownership, this could be a major problem. The ODPM is to receive the findings of nine design code pilot schemes by the end of the year, but not all are proving successful. “I don’t know if the codes will actually speed up the process,” says a source working on one of them. “And even if they do, the key thing is whether developers will be keen enough to buy into them.”

Gindroz is also wary. “Success is achieved when there is consensus among citizens, public officials and the developers,” he says.

“The rapid pace of the programme in Britain, combined with the cumbersome entitlement processes may make this very difficult. The best new urbanist examples in the US were private developments, by brave entrepreneurs, who assembled a team and created places of great beauty. That is more difficult in a large bureaucracy.”

But it is the market, not the whims of flashy architects that drives development. One housing architect source says: “Look at the popularity of traditional terrace housing in east London. Traditional urban forms are redesigned inside, given a pine-floor finish, and the young professionals flock in. For modernist architects to describe this as boring or unadventurous is to be prescriptive themselves. Everyone knows what a Richard Rogers building looks like, but he lives in a big converted townhouse in Fulham with a modern interior.”

It remains to be seen if the codes will be the solution. But in the great battle between urbanists and modernists, Prescott’s sympathies can be gleaned from the mantra that always creeps into his speeches. Every time the deputy prime minister gets behind a microphone to outline his vision, he always offers the same grim reminder: “We must never repeat the mistakes of the 1960s.”

10 things you didn't know about new urbanism

1 There are 210 new urbanist projects either constructed or under development in the USA.

2 The earliest historical influences on new urbanism are largely British and American. They include Joseph Paxton's Birkenhead Park in the Wirral in 1843 and Saltaire in West Yorkshire, an industrial village by Lockwood and Mawson.

3 Christopher Alexander effectively founded what was to become the key tool of new urbanism – the design code – in the 1960s. He was born in Vienna and obtained his PhD at Harvard, but the Brits can take some pride: he was raised in Oxford and Chichester before passing his undergraduate degree in Mathematics and Architecture at Cambridge.

4 The first new urbanist town to be built from scratch was Seaside in Florida (pictured), which provided the setting for The Truman Show. The masterplan for the town was drawn up in 1982, when the theory was in its infancy.

5 When the theory was being developed in the 1980s and early 1990s, it was known as neotraditional planning. Peter Katz gave it a more catchy title when he named his book on the subject New Urbanism. Katz became the first head of the Congress for the New Urbanism in 1993.

6 The principles of new urbanism are laid out in a charter drawn up by architects and academics between 1993 and 1996. It was ratified by the CNU.

7 The principles are broken down into three categories: the region, such as a city; the district (the optimal size of this is a quarter of a mile, according to the CNU); and the street or building.

8 The next CNU annual meeting is June next year in Pasadena, California. This 13th meeting will be on "polycentric city" – how new urbanism can apply design codes to an area with many centres, such as Southern California.

9 The current president and CEO of the CNU is John Norquist, who was previously elected mayor of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1988.

10 The CNU is based in Chicago, Illinois, and has more than 2300 members in 20 countries. The first Congress in 1993 had 100 attendees; by 2001 this had grown to 1100.