urban design

Bright lights, big city

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Big cities show survival of the fittest in action.

The fittest don’t have to be fittest in body. Just fittest in mind.

If you come to the Big City naïve, stubborn, vain, or showing poor judgement,

The city will smile its grim smile, encircle you and slowly but surely take wealth and hope off you.


If you come to the Big City with a survivor’s mentality, hungry to learn, hungry to succeed,

The city will take you under its wing. As one of its own.


Does this make the Big City harsh and cruel?

Or a good judge of character, with judgements made at big-city speed.


Big cities house the most charities and some of the grandest public structures,

Big cities are where the congregation of high talent assemble,

Where the future of humanity is discussed, agreed and governed from.

Big cities are indeed the bright lights.


A tale of two cities

Less than an hour’s plane ride separates Amsterdam and London. What can they learn from each other, to be even greater cities of the World?

Five things Amsterdam could learn from London (in no particular order):

To build more inner city parks (and areas for children to play outside). If Amsterdam’s canals and cycle lanes are its arteries, such green squares would be its lungs. London’s got Hyde, St James’s & Green within walking distance of Piccadilly Circus & Victoria Station. Then there’s Regents, Holland Park, Victoria, Primrose Hill, Richmond & Hampstead Heath a bit further out. Where, apart from the Dutch countryside, do Amsterdamers go to get away from the crowds?

To encourage more street entertainers & buskers. Street music, jugglers, magic acts, acrobats, illusionists & human statues all bring culture to the café crowds, whether tourists or locals. How about buskers in canal boats, tempting you to throw coins into their boats, as they slide past?

Restaurant diversity. Amsterdam’s restraint in allowing food chains to dominate its city is admirable. However, what seems to be missing in the inner city are more than occasional Far Eastern, Caribbean, Africa and Middle Eastern restaurants.

Create a Tech Canal City. Away from the computer company & telco buildings further out, where’s the critical mass of inner city design, games and SME software houses to support next generation, highly skilled ICT developers?

Encourage more Metro marts – the Amsterdam equivalents of Tesco and Sainsburys Metros wouldn’t have to be modern on the outside, or vast on the inside. In Amsterdam, Marts could still showcase the best cheeses, beers, breads, fruits etc, just showcase them together, not in multiple speciality shops or weekend market stalls.


Five things London could learn from Amsterdam (in no particular order):

Make greater use of the city brownfield land – the premium price of land in Amsterdam demands it be used productively. Cafes even extend into canals, land is reclaimed and 2,500 houseboats extend residential use beyond the residential suburbs. Docklands get converted into new cultural icons and café terraces sprawl outwards from the cafes themselves. What lessons can London learn regarding its planning process, planning regulations and creative use of inner city land to meet resident and employer needs? After all, its land price is soaring also.

Develop a love affair with the humble bike. Amsterdam apparently has more bikes than inhabitants of the city. Main routes tend to be segregated between pedestrian, tram, car and bike. Dutch bikes may not look futuristic, but are a great social leveller and could (by some) be termed ‘chic traditional’. A vast bike storage area guards one side of the Amsterdam central train station. Cycle lanes run all over the inner city and bicycles frame the canals and side walls of houses & shops. It didn’t start off that way, but the city forefathers didn’t block the progressive evolution of bike culture. HGV’s tend not to trouble Amsterdam cyclists, because there is little high rise construction/excavation to attract HGV’s into the areas that cyclists use.

Create clean and beggar-free streets. In Amsterdam, people either take more pride in their city by dropping less litter or Amsterdam’s street sweepers and rubbish bins are more effective in handling the rubbish that does accumulate. In contrast, some Londoners think nothing of discarding chicken takeaway food scraps and cigarette butts on the ground, or leaving beer cans and empty bottles on any available flat surface in the street. Beggars don’t ask for money in the main streets either, yet the average Amsterdamer is probably as wealthy as the average Londoner, in their disposable income.

Improve the ratio of people to floorspace. Even in relatively busy centres like the Amsterdam central train station, airport or shopping arcades, somehow the building planners have designed the spaces to cope. In contrast, London’s busiest hubs still suffer perpetual congestion and simply need to be spread out over a larger (underground) footprint.

London to develop its own flag – Amsterdam has the flag of three crosses. Could London have a design competition and trademark register is own flag too? Having a flag logo would provide ongoing tourism and merchandising opportunities, just as the London 2012 Olympic logo generated income for the city (for a brief period). Having its own flag might encourage the inhabitants to harmonise. At various street parades, the London Marathon, London-Brighton ride, Notting Hill Carnival, music in the parks etc, some people may favour waving the London flag over the Union flag, or the national flag of their parent’s generation.

Finally, if both cities do have something to learn from each other, should they become twin cities with regular exchanges of city planners, architects, urban designers and design students?

Transformation of the Silicon Roundabout

I recently read an interesting Guardian article ‘The slow death of Silicon Roundabout’ by journalist Cory Doctorow. http://www.theguardian.com/cities/2014/mar/10/slow-death-of-silicon-roundabout

The article and some follow-on comments, neatly highlight some issues tech start-ups and wannabe start-ups face in large urban cities. In spite of central government desire for tech SME’s to proliferate, create jobs, boost overseas earnings and boost the tax receipts flowing back to government, at the local government level (below city level), the priorities are different.

Local government (below city level) might argue that, as its funding from central government diminishes, it’s forced to turn to large property developers to build new, high-density property, to replace near derelict properties in its jurisdiction.  Urban renewal, particularly if on brownfield sites, is desirable and helps cities rejuvenate. Likewise increasing the supply of inner city space helps to offset rental price rises (eventually). However, in my view, there’s an important role for local government to ensure that replacement property plans allow flexible use and include park space to offset higher-density effects.

On the park space point, Central Park in New York is a good example of consolidated park space co-existing with high rise, in (relatively) close proximity. London’s approach on park space has been to scatter large parks all around the city, which also works well. In the London of the future, is there scope to create elongated ‘strip’ parks in Eastern London, to offset future high-rise while incorporating cycleways, to separate cycle lanes from existing road users?

Returning to the Silicon Roundabout/Tech City article, a final thought. If the local government institution (Hackney Council in this case), want long-term occupants (workers, property renters and live-in property owners) occupying as much of its jurisdiction as possible, to contribute Council taxes and reduce the social costs (crime, fly tipping etc) associated with derelict areas, then why encourage purpose-built student accommodation development at the expense of tech city accommodation? As the journalist quite rightly points out, tech city is a diverse community of start-up services and organisations. Encourage a critical mass and it will spawn ongoing replacement (successful start ups move on and are replace by new ones starting out), in a similar way to market traders. In contrast, in allowing developers to build (overseas) student accommodation en masse in the inner city, the Council risks putting too many eggs in one basket, if the educational institution occupants aren’t themselves of top quality and since education institutions don’t appear to benefit from clustering together physically* (Eton & Harrow, Oxford & Cambridge, the US Ivy Leagues, excepting MIT & Harvard).

Best case, if elite higher education institutions move in and then attract successful companies to relocate alongside them, the Council plan will pay off handsomely. However, worst case, the Council will find itself surrounded by empty new build space, purpose-built for the education sector, vacated by non viable education institutions. And therefore reliant on other educational institutions to move to the area.

*In contrast, there are mutual advantages for commercial organisations locating physically next to research-led higher education institutions.

London Banks and Rail Companies

‘Leaves on the track’, a special rail language that most commuters can’t understand. And encouraging the astute to run into the arms of alternative transport providers.

Train companies who want to dodge a bullet, have to be faster than a speeding bullet train in their planning.

Train Companies – training for gold?

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In banking, the 3-6-3 rule used to mean; offer at 3%, lend out at 6% and be on the golf course by 3pm. Now it means; offer 3 benefits to depositors (a competitive deposit rate, personal service and safe custody of their money), give 6 benefits to borrowers (a competitive lending rate, personal service, extensive product array, global reach, minimal red tape and minimal cross-subsidisation of risk) and offer 3 reassurances on the net reserves held.

Goodwill banks are the best banks of all, since the less  (goodwill) you give, the more risk you take.

For banks and rail companies, these days, market share is the displacement of water by a boat, on an ocean of uncertain size.

A brand that isn’t about innovation is one brand too many in the World.


Self Improvement

I’d rather have a design challenge in front of me, than a depressed economy.

Life isn’t about finding Nemo. It’s about creating yourself.

Problems in your neighbourhood cry out for design ideas from your head and courage in your heart.

The creative process – more Picasso, Dali and Pollock. The dependency process – more still life and pointillist.

Creativity; On switch, expresso shot, file create, discuss, argue, kiss and make up, file save, email samples to client. Cycle home and mental edit tomorrow’s revision, while dodging other commuters doing the same.

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Social Comment – London 2

Modern day London – a city under raps and a city under wraps.

Good London design is good policy. Good London policy is good design.

If British culture is an iPod, London’s the earphones.

London overcrowding is a Council policy & enforcement problem first and a supply problem second.

London overcrowding is a squat environment pretending to be a rental flat.

London’s housing problem quickly becomes the overground train companies’ overcrowding problem.

The Tube; mind the gap getting off. Mind the mosh pit when you get on…