Saturday, 19 December 2009

Shared Space update

As anyone who's followed my blog, or indeed had a work related conversation with me in the last few years will realise, 'Shared Space' is a bit of a pet subject of mine.

See my previous post on Shared Space.

I was thus interested to see that the most recent isssue of the Landscape Journal had gone for a bit of shared space special. While I was pleased to see the topic being discussed, my feeling is that it's probably bit late as the tide seems to already have turned against the whole shared space concept. This view was rather confirmed by the recent article in Building Design entitled, "Is opposition to shared space kerbing councils' enthusiasm?". See below:

From personal experience it feels like resistance has been steadily building to schemes which include elements of shared space. Whereas, a couple of years ago they'd have been positively received (such as North Arran Way - image above), recent proposals have been rejected early on in favour of traditional bitmac and kerbs. The reasons for this are, I believe, twofold; firstly I think that there is a natural inclination against doing anything new. This is particularly true of the risk driven world of the highway engineer, where the safety of new approaches needs to carefully considered, but also where the lazy officer can easily use safety as an excuse for carrying on with whatever makes their life easier (remember that shared spaces are always bespoke). The second reason is the work that Guide Dogs for the Blind has done to oppose shared spaces. While I'm still a little confused by why they've taken such a hard line on the matter, there's no question that they've done a very thorough job of tarnishing shared spaces in many peoples minds.

As it happens, I went through the concerns of Guide Dogs for the Blind a couple of years back in some detail, when I worked on the North Arran Way Village Centre. The aim of the scheme was to provide a pedestrian focussed centre with local shops and facilities, that also included some car access. The solution we settled upon was to go for a shared space approach with 'cranking roads' and visual narrowing (trees, bollards and paving patterns) to reduce vehicle speed, and using the placement of buildings to create well-defined public spaces. Prior to the planning application we had to go through a user group audit, which inlcuded a variety of members of the local community, including a number of groups representing disabled people. The scheme was also 'challenged' by an experienced access officer from outside the area. Hence, I read up on all the available guidance!

I was surprised by how very positive the experince was. While there was some initial opposition (particularly from a number of blind and partially sighted users, and the organisations that represented them), we were able to adapt the design then and there and include measures to address their very well considered concerns. These included the use of contrasting colours for street furniture and kerbs, introducing definable navigation routes for the visually empaired, as well as many, many other measures which made the scheme far richer than the one we started with. Everyone involved went away happy and I felt that I had designed something that would really benefit the community. With hindsight, I think it was this excercise, which made me realise how well shared space can work for everybody.

If the scheme sounds interesting, it's all on the internet. I've also dropped a link to one of the key plans below:

Ironically, kerbs were actually used throughout the scheme. The only place they were removed was at crossing points, in response to a request from users with limited mobility. I also suspect that had this scheme progressed in the current climate, I would have been met by users with placards, and we wouldn't have been able to have the positive debates that we did.

Guide Dogs for the Blind's opposition to shared space stems from the problems the removal of kerbs causes to blind and partially sighted users. Guide dogs are trained to recognise and stop at kerbs, whilst for many partially sighted users a kerb is visible marker of the road edge. Some people have also pounced on suggestion that pedestrians make eye contact with motorists (this actually dates back to Hans Monderman, but is in my opinion unnecessary - all you need is for the motorist to see you and understand that he doesn't have right of way). Guide Dogs for the Blind repeatedly make the point that blind and partially sighted people don't 'feel' included for by shared spaces schemes.

So is the removal kerbs a fundamental part of shared spaces? In my opinion yes and no. As it happens, I think the removal of all kerbs has been used too much on certain schemes. I would personally only remove kerbs altogether on very low trafficked areas, or areas where pedestrians enjoy a clear priority. However, if you are proscriptive about having to include conventional 80mm kerbs everywhere as some are suggesting (including our friends at Guide Dogs), then I think you lose what shared space is trying to achieve.

So in summary, why are shared spaces so important, and why am I so dismayed by it's detractors?

At it's heart, shared space isn't about kerbs of paving or even cars, it's about designing for people. By understanding how people behave in certain situations, we can use the built environment to positively influence their actions. Shared space is also about taking the priority for our streets back from cars - at the moment road design is all about turning circles and visibility splays, when it should be about the people that use them. What sort of people use the space and what are their needs? Where do people want to cross the road? Is the road a comfortable place for people?

It seems to me that there is a very real danger that the shared space 'furore', will serve only to maintain the status quo of cars first, people second. I sincerely hope I am proved wrong and that a satisfactory solution for is found.

Cabe Space: What we'd like to see in the next 10 years

Also featured in the recent Landscape Journal, was Cabe Space Director, Sarah Gaventa's wishllist for public spaces over the next 10 years. I think she makes some excellent points. Unfortunately I've not seen this online, so have reproduced it below:
  • The green spaces in social housing projects to be of the same quality as a Green Flag or Green Pennant Park.
  • Every new housing development of more than 50 houses to have some public space designed into it. A car park doesn't count.
  • Solve the problem in urban streets of how people who are visually impaired can navigate well, without throwing out the whole shared space agenda. Cabe Space has sponsored a research fellow at the RCA to look at product design: blister paving is 20 years old and we believe design innovation needs to keep evolving in our public spaces.
  • All our street furniture to be designed by furniture and product desgners and not by engineers so we get seats you can actually sit on, not the same ubiquitous designs in every city. We want to see furniture that is distinctive and of the place.
  • Reverse the loss of democracy in privately managed public spaces. I have sat on grass in new urban squares and been asked to move within five minutes because it's not really a 'public' space.
  • Kids to be allowed urban play spaces close to their homes, schools and shopping centres and reverse the attitude from some local authorities that play isn't a priority.
  • Fallow urban development sites to be used as nomadic allotments full of grow bags.
  • The importance and value of green infrastructure to be understood and embraced at regional, county and local levels and fully integrated within planning policies and frameworks.
  • To be able to walk or cycle through every city on some sort of green route.
  • Vocal, innovative landscape architects to lead projects, with architects being part of their team.
  • Manual for Streets Volumes 2, 3 and 4 to be published for high streets, commercial streets and arterial roads so that the balance between people and cars is redressed throughout our towns and cities.
  • For a landscape architect to win the Stirling Prize.
  • For professionals to stop talking about public space as 'the space between buildings' but as the places that make cities work.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

CAD Monkey

This has been around for a few years, but I still think it's absolutely spot on.

I still use the old, 'issue drawings at the end of the day, so clients can't ask you to change them' trick.

Thursday, 10 December 2009




1. Furnished with turrets and battlements in the style of a castle.

2. Having a castle.

The sharp eyed may have spotted that there's another blog next to my name in my Blogger profile. For the last couple of months I've been quietly adding a whole heap of photographs, together with a few pithy quotes, to a new blog called 'Castellated'.

You see when I'm not eating, sleeping, watching TV or being a landscape architect, I quite like to visit old places; houses, gardens and in particular castles, and take photographs. I didn't have any particular purpose in doing this, until it occurred to me that I could put them into a blog, and hence 'Castellated' was born.

Like the blog, 'castellated' is a word that generally applies to castles, but it's also a word that I really like the sound of and would like to use in coversation more frequently (I'm also quite partial to the words tartiflette and caribou). Being a rather uncommon word, I had intended to start the blog with dictionary definition of it, but then something intersting happened. Googling 'castellated' not only came up with definition's of the word, but it also showed me a number of quotes from literature that featured the word. They all seemed to be by terrific authors and offered interesting little vignettes from their work. The first I read was from 'The Masque of the Red Death' by Edgar Allen Poe, and as I had just spent the day exploring a 'castellated abbey', I felt compelled to post it with my pictures.

When his dominions were half depopulated, he summoned to his presence a thousand hale and light-hearted friends from among the knights and dames of his court, and with these retired to the deep seclusion of one of his castellated abbeys.

Since then I've posted lots more photographs, but also more 'castellated' quotes that I've found and been amused by. The result is a quirky, but admitedly fairly ideosyncratic blog, that I've really enjoyed putting together. If any of this sounds interesting, please feel free to click on the link below.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Leicester's Bowstring Bridge Saga

I was interested to see that ongoing saga of Leicester's Bowstring Bridge, has finally made it into the national media.

Sadly it appears that Jonathan Glancey's article is an attempt to close the stable door after the horse has bolted, as when I drove past yesterday, the steelwork was all but gone.

I'm not really enough of an expert to tell you how significant the loss of the bridge is. I've seen similar bridges in other parts of the country, and couldn't tell you what would make a Victorian bridge particularly worthy of preservation. I guess that's why I've not commented on the issue before. However, I do recognise that the Bowstring Bridge is an important Leicester landmark, and I'm amazed that the Council are going to such trouble to get rid of it.

The more I've read about this, the more ridiculous the situation appears. As I understand, the Council is spending just under £500,000 of it's own money removing the bridge, before selling the land to De Montfort University for just £1. Apparently DMU have plans to build a new swimming pool on the site, but this is currently all we know, as they haven't released any further information about it (no drawings, no plans, zip!). However, they have repeatedly said that it is 'vital' that they have the Bridge land for the project to be feasible.

Considerable local opposition has been met by a very hard line from Leicester City Council , who's attitude seems to be 'we're knocking it down and that's that'.The wider story of this has been covered in pretty exhaustive detail by Leicester Mercury Editor, Keith Perch, on his blog. For those interested in the matter, I've put the links in below:

Personally, I'm less interested in the aleged underhand actions of a local authority (although I'm more than happy to open this up to a wider audience), than why they have chosen to treat an important feature of Leicesters heritage, as a problem. Someone must have pointed out that the bridge was a valuable heritage feature, but the decision was made to ignore this. I suspect this sort of treatment of heritage features happens every day, up and down the country, if perhaps not quite so blatantly.

Jonathan Glancy isn't the first person to suggest alternative uses for the bridge, but those who hold the power have been adamant they're knocking it down. I would have liked to seen it developed as a linear park, similar to New York's, High Line, as I think the photo below hints at this potential.

I also think it would be wrong to finish this article without also mentioning the loss of the Pump and Tap, which is due to be demolished as part of this development. It may not be the finest Victorian building in England, but it is a good old-fashioned pub, of the sort that is fast disappearing from our cities. I suspect if it was a village pub being demolished there would be more sympathy (loss to the community etc), but people often forget that urban areas have communities that can be damaged by the loss of facilities too.

The whole thing is a sorry story, and everyone involved from Leicester City Council to De Montfort University, should be ashamed.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Power Station Landscape

Waiting for a train at East Midlands Parkway a couple of weeks back, I found myself reflecting on the beauty of Ratliffe Power Station. I guess this isn't something you would normally expect to hear from someone with an interest in the landscape or our environment. But somehow the manmade, somewhat brutal form of the cooling towers made an interesting counterpoint* to a bright, fresh morning.

Apologies for the lack of blog updates recently. With any luck normal service will be resumed shortly!

*Please note that I have deliberately avoided the use of the word 'juxtaposition', for reasons that I may one day elaborate on.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

The Private Realm

Will Wiles' review of 'Ground Control' by Anna Minton, and his recent blog post on the subject (see links below), got me thinking about public realm in a way that I hadn't necessarily considered before.

The abiding theme of both articles is how new areas of 'public realm' are springing up in Britain's cities under the auspices of regeneration, but are in fact privately owned and managed. Many of these have restrictions for individuals, such as a ban on leafletting, which would not be possible in public owned space. The articles make a good case for how this is eroding our basic civil liberties.

You see, up until this point, I'd been thinking that public space that was not managed by a local authority was an entirely good thing...

Designing public realm is the thing that get's me out of bed in the morning - parks, plazas, streets, squares and shared space is what really interests me. I'm also passionate about regeneration; and if you ask me the way to get regeneration happening from the bottom up, then I'd suggest you start with our public spaces. Buildings by their very nature are never as inclusive as our civic spaces. The public realm is for everyone, and improvements to it demonstrate investment in a community, and that you value the people within it.

However, there has traditionally been a lack of recognition for the importance of public space. Most people I speak to seem surprised to hear that
any design is involved in the built environment, outside of buildings or gardens and I suspect many more regard it's design in similar terms to their daily bin collection - it just happens (I could quite happily start off on another 'landscaping' rant here). However, things are improving, and it seems to me that private developers in particular, have cottoned onto the value that a well designed public space can bring to their developments.

Sadly, it seems to me that there are a lot of people working for local authorities who aren't as enlightened, which brings me onto the absolute bane of my working life - 'adoption'. Not unreasonably, if you want a local authority to maintain a space, you have to agree certain standards. However, in practice if you are proposing anything more than grass and tarmac, you are often in for a difficult ride. I expect to get some stick from local authority officers, but I have simply lost count of schemes that I have seen diminished by adoption issues (I'm not going to go into commuted sums). There are many excellent and forward thinking people working for local authorities, but it often only takes one saying 'no' to scupper a proposal. While I think certain departments have a culture of saying no, the real problem is that many officers will constrain proposals by what is current in terms of maintenance. This makes it nigh on impossible to do anything new or make significant improvements to an environment.

As something of an aside, whilst reading the original book review, I was wrestling with something of a lighting adoption issue. While I have a good relationship with the local authority in question, they have one of those new-fangled PFI lighting contracts, where you have to ask a particular supplier to design your street lighting. The quality of the actual lights is piss poor, and it is nigh-on impossible to get them to adjust the design to co-ordinate with the rest of the scheme. Interestingly, there are also moves to have street lighting turn off at a certain time, as research has apparently shown that it can reduce anti-social behaviour (and saves stacks of cash too ,I'd imagine). I bet the muggers and rapists are rubbing their hands in anticipation...

Back on topic, once you have a scheme adopted, the other big problem of public spaces is maintenance. There is simply never enough cash devoted by local authorities for adequately maintaining public spaces. I noted this in a recent blog post about Port Marine in Bristol, but this is by no means an especially bad example. As I said in that post, on the back of showing a client around this scheme, they decided to not to put their regeneration scheme up for public adoption. In order to ensure the long term maintenance, the intention is to set up a Community Interest Company (CIC) which will look after all parks, footpaths, public squares and spaces. While I believe the developers intentions are basically good (they just want to ensure their investment is maintained), it is clearly the beginning of gated communities.

In conclusion, while I am troubled by public spaces being removed from public ownership, it seems a logical response to the current situation. Although I don't believe wseeing any significant curbs on civil liberties at the moment, it would not require a great change of direction for that to happen (for example, banning groups of young people congregating). However, my abiding feeling is that until there is wider acknowledgement of the value of our public spaces, they will continue to fall into private ownership. I think we'll miss them when they're gone.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

The Alnwick Garden

It’s a couple of months since I visited The Alnwick Garden, but I’m still not entirely sure what to make of it.

I suppose I should start by saying that I had absolutely no preconceptions about the Garden, and if we’d had better weather for our week in Northumberland, I might not have bothered going to see it. However, while the rest of the country was sweltering in 30 degree heat, the north-east was sitting under a thick layer of clouds and steady rain, and I was steadily working my way round the regions tourist attractions. As I love castles, one of the first places I visited was Alnwick Castle and as I had nothing better to do, took them up on their offer of a joint ticket to the Castle and Garden.

The first thing you see as you come into the garden is the gigantic, wibbly-wobbly cascade fountain, that appears to have been inspired by a jelly mould. I found it generally displeasing to the eye, and I was also slightly puzzled by what the frenzy of activity around the base of it was. On closer inspection, I realised that these were kids riding around in mini John Deere tractors (I didn’t take any pictures on account of not wanting to be arrested as a paedo). For the life of me, I can’t work out what these two things have to do with each other, and I think this sums up the whole Garden. It’s a series of wacky, “wouldn’t it be fun to have one of those”, that have absolutely no connection or relevance to each other. The Eden Project was obviously the role model for the Alnwick Garden, but whereas the Eden Project has an overarching philosophy of sustainability, hugging trees and generally appreciating the natural world , the Alnwick Garden is just a bunch of unrelated stuff.

Some of that stuff is actually very fun and inventive, other bits less so. As a landscape architect, and something of a pseud, I have a bit of a problem with the whole design. It feels rather alien, as if somehow it’s been beamed into place, with rows of immaculate, specimen grown trees and topiary - it‘s not awful, but it’s all rather contrived. There is no sense of Northumberland about the Garden, and little of the British Isles. The giveaway is the surfacing, which is a side-laid clay paver that I’ve only ever seen used before in Belgium (yes I know I‘m being spoddy). No surprise then that the designers, Jacques and Peter Wirtz, are Belgian. I can’t help wonder how the garden would have turned out, had it been designed by someone with more understanding of the areas landscape and gardens.

That said, if the brief was to create the most flamboyant garden possible, then the Wirtz boys have had a fair crack. It is without doubt the campest garden I’ve ever visited. You want examples? Well apart from all the fountains and other froo-froo, the backdrop to the main cascade is provided by what I can only be describe as giant, topiary birdcages!

Which kind of brings me onto my second major gripe with the gardens - cost. According to the bumf you get with your ticket, the cost of the garden was £42 million and I can well believe this. Everything looks seriously expensive, from the very tasteful Sir Michael Hopkins visitor centre, to the stacks and stacks of specially grown trees. The worst offender by far though, is the aforementioned topiary birdgcages, which must have been astronomically expensive. They’ve been formed by training hundreds and hundreds of specially grown hornbeam trees (minimum cost £200 each I’d suggest) over a giant pergola, to create… actually I don’t know what they were meant to create. There’s not an awful lot going on inside them at all, as I think my photo’s show. My point is that if you’re going to spunk a shed-load of cash on something, I think that it really ought to have some sort of purpose (as it happens I found them reminiscent of the Hiroshima dome). Similarly, someone should have reminded the person that ‘designed’ the Cherry Orchard, that simply specifying hundreds of the most expensive trees you can find, won’t necessarily give you the best result.

Ok ok, I’m being really critical and in fairness most of the punters I saw seemed to be really enjoying themselves. There is lots that good…

The liberal use of water features is pretty cool. I know it’s easy for designers to get a bit sniffy about this, but the public loves a good fountain, and the Alnwick Garden certainly delivers them. There are big water features, like the main cascade, but the little riffling channels that run through the gardens are a really nice touch. I particularly liked the circular pools, which sit behind my favourite giant topiary things.

The visitor centre is very pleasant, and serves nice sandwiches in a setting that’s reminiscent of the Eden Project. Oh and the loos are amusing too, with different coloured led’s for you to aim at.

The Poison Garden is a fun idea (yes a garden full of mildly to moderately poisonous plants, located behind big gates marked with a skull and cross bones), if only one suicidal teenager away from disaster! I can see the Daily Mail headline already.

The formal gardens located in an old walled area, are nicely laid out around a structure of fountains and channels. At present the perennial planting is a bit disappointing, but hopefully they can develop this with time.(p.s. The rose gardens are a bit dull)

In particular, I thought the Bamboo Labyrinth was inspired. Mazes are fun anyway, but the use of bamboo made for a really dense and atmospheric screen.

Finally, I probably ought to mention the water features again, because if you’re under the age of 12 you’re going to love them. The Serpent Garden has a whole bunch of fountains, and the excitement levels of the children is something I’ve not seen since they took the tartrazine out of orange squash.

You see there’s so much that’s fun and positive in the Garden, that I could almost forgive it. And then…

I see the Treehouse.

What in God’s name made them build this monstrosity? Not in Walt Disney’s wildest dreams could he have come up with this. It’s beyond kitsch, beyond fairy’s down the bottom of the garden with Harry Potter - it’s quite unbelievably tacky, twee and hideous. Who is it for? No really, it may look like something that you’d use to decorate a particularly saccharine, 6 year old girls bedroom, but it actually contains a ‘fine dining restaurant’. Who in there right mind thought these two things could go together? I suspect there’s a reason why Gordon Ramsey hasn’t installed an adventure playground at Claridges.

Well there you go, that’s my take on the Alnwick Garden. It saddens me to be so critical, because the idea of building a new contemporary Garden is one I’d support. You certainly can’t criticise the investment, but the taste, or lack of, is at times rather obvious. There's lots that's good about the Garden and it is in many ways so nearly right, but certain elements seemed to be something of vanity project. Whether this was from the designers or the Duchess patron I don’t know, but someone should have said that certain things just aren‘t right - like putting a classy restaurant in a Disneyfied, treehouse is never going to work. I’ll be really interested to see how the Garden develops, but my advice is that if you want to visit a brilliant, contemporary garden in Britain - go to the Eden Project first.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Ashford Ring Road, Shared Space

Whenever we hear about the rights and wrongs of shared space being debated in the media, one scheme seems to be mentioned more than others – the Ashford ring road. Jeremy Clarkson hates it, I suspect Guide Dogs for the Blind aren’t too keen and local residents have complained that someone will surely be killed! I thought it was worth checking out…

Geek that I am, I actually arranged to spend the night in Ashford before I headed off to France for my hols the following day. Unfortunately, traffic and the British weather conspired against me and I ended up arriving in Ashford at about half past nine, on a dark and rainy night. As a result I didn’t get any decent photo’s (and hence why I’ve included a few from around the interweb) and I probably missed a few of the schemes intricacies.

It’s an interesting design, and perhaps not quite as radical as I’d imagined it to be. The thought of making a ring road a shared space, conjured up images of pedestrians trying to get across a dual carriageway. In reality it’s not quite as dramatic as this, and it’s pretty much a standard stretch of urban road that’s been given the shared space treatment. That said, Ashford have gone for the full shared space package – no kerbs and some big spaces where cars and pedestrians can intermingle. Personally, I think you can achieve a lot whilst still having some small kerbs and I’m not convinced that big spaces with cars and pedestrians mixing, are necessarily the best idea.

However, I’d imagine that on a nice day it’s an attractive scheme with lots of new street trees, and I particularly liked the look of some of the hard detailing. However the biggest surprise for me is the abundance of some seriously wacky public art. One of the key concepts of shared space is that by making drivers feel unsure and even uncomfortable, you reduce their speed and ensure that they behave with more consideration for other road users. Hence, I can understand the rationale for incorporating some art features. However, I think that there is also a danger that you will also make pedestrians also feel uncomfortable, by including so many seemingly incomprehensible features. I’m just not sure that the combination of rather frivolous art, and a pretty serious change in road safety policy, is a great idea. It doesn’t exactly inspire confidence and I’m not particularly surprised that so many local users have been baffled by the whole thing. I would also imagine that it rather reinforces the idea that the Council have ‘gone mad’.

The worst offender by far, is the ‘Notaroundabout’ installation (not a round about, how clever). The image below was emailed to me with just two accompanying words. Utter tosh. It looks to me like someone’s buried a rusting, miniature observatory in a giant, patio recreation of a Moorish garden.

Despite all of I’ve said, I’d still be interested to visit the scheme again – ideally in daylight. It’s a bit of an ongoing experiment really; some things have worked, others haven’t. But for anyone interested in public realm and shared space, it is fascinating. I’d also really like to hear from other people who’ve visited and experienced the scheme.