Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Things I really hate #2: Crap Public Art

I like art. I like well-designed, public spaces. I’m not sure if I like public art.

Actually, I’m not altogether certain what public art really is. Is it simply art that is located in the public realm? Or is it art that is somehow created by the public, a bit like when someone’s auntie has their poem published in the local paper? You see the former - I like, the latter - I don’t.

I’m not saying that only art designed by arty types with fuzzy hair and ethnic pantaloons is suitable, but there does need to be some assessment of whether it is a worthwhile addition to the public realm, or just art produced by members of the public. You may think that your child’s painting is wonderful, but there’s a difference between displaying it on your fridge, or 50ft high in Town Hall Square. I also dislike the idea of art being 'worthy'.

It’s strange how both grammatically and in practice, the addition of one word to another can change it’s entire meaning. Rock and soft rock. Meat and reclaimed meat. Engineering and value engineering. Music and lift music. Sheets and polyester sheets. Landscape and landscape ping. Coke and diet Coke. Art and public art.

This piece of ‘public art’ from Bristol is an absolute classic, which made me sit up and write this blog entry. It’s as if they’ve laid a blue, dog turd into the very fabric of the paving.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

More Health and Safety

Just flicking through the channels last night, I came across the tail end of a Panorama programme about Health and Safety. While I was initially put off by the presenter coming across as a bit of a tit, think Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall but without the charm, it did seem to be making the same point as I had in my recent post about personal responsibility.

I gather that I missed the section with an angry widow talking about gravestones being damaged by Council inspectors, and the bit about how building sites continue to be very dangerous, but are rarely inspected. As I turned on, it showed a church that had been told it needed to install hand rails going up to it’s antique altar, as part of some general work and repairs. While it highlighted the absurdity of putting modern handrails into the historic setting, it didn’t really give the reasons why. Thinking with my work head on, my guess is that this was actually a Building Regs requirement, regarding access to buildings (Part M), which in itself is a response to the Disibility Discrimination Act (DDA).

This kind of got me thinking; it seems fairly typical that there is misunderstanding of why there are these sort of requirements, which are normally just put down to ‘health and safety’ or maybe ‘political correctness gone mad’. Obviously, these are popular themes in the Daily Mail, so it comes as little surprise that the presenter of this item, Quentin Letts, is also a Daily Mail columnist. It’s also easier to criticize health and safety, than it is to talk about the issues of disable access.

In principle, DDA requirements or considering the needs of people with disabilities seems fair enough to me. However, I do wonder if it is over enforced. I’d suggest that the quantities of tactile paving across our towns and cities of illustrative of this. For those that are not aware; tactile paving marks points where blind and partially-sighted people can cross the road, however they often seem to extend way beyond the kerbs and right across the pavements. I think the thinking is – if you’re not sure what is required, more is better.

For landscape architects, a key DDA requirement is getting level access to buildings, and often requires ramps to negate steep slopes. Generally this is fair enough, but I have worked on smaller schemes where the construction of a ramp to get up to the height of a small step, has pretty much negated everything else going on, or even made other access’ very awkward. I sometimes feel that you should be able to relax DDA requirements, if it has a particularly negative impact on the rest of the scheme. The problem is that disabled groups are able to take legal actions against schemes that they perceive to not make provision for them. Local Authorities in particular are terrified of this happening, and I’m told that there are some very militant disabled groups out there.

A couple of times recently I’ve seen schemes from abroad, which have unusual steps or level features (play areas in particular), and I know that there is simply no way you’d be allowed to do this in the UK. A good example of this is the Liffey boardwalk in Dublin – in places the decking runs up and down in waves, or undulates. It makes an interesting design feature, but in the UK someone would almost certainly say that it discriminates against people with limited mobility.

I just feel that the DDA requirements are slightly skewed, and I’ll leave you with this example of an issue a colleague had. He was presenting some paving samples to a City Council team, and on describing a particular slab as having a ‘polished surface’, was told that he couldn’t specify this on DDA grounds. He explained that while it looked shiny, it was actually more slip resistant that it’s rough-textured equivalent. However, Council Officers explained that they had just put some shiny looking paving outside a new shopping centre, and had found that old people in particular, avoided it on the assumption that it was slippy. The point was, that because this material was perceived to be a problem (despite not actually being slippy), it was actually a breach of the Disability Discrimination Act.

Monday, 20 April 2009

Sir Clement Freud

While the news of Sir Clement Freud’s death is clearly very sad, I have to admit that I’ve been highly entertained and amused by the coverage of his life.

Having spent pretty much the entire Easter period being ill, I wasn’t looking forward to our weekend away, particularly as the highlight was going to be trying out the newly constructed rapids at Symonds Yat. In spite of being too sickly to set foot in a boat, we headed to the ‘Yat’ on Friday for a bit of a mooch about. No kayaking meant that we quickly ran out of things to do, so headed into the nearby Saracen’s Head for a drink and a sandwich. Nosing through a couple papers, I noticed the Times had covered his life and death in some detail, and after initially browsing through, soon found myself chuckling at some his humorous observations. The more I read, the more fascinated I became. As a starting point, I’d recommend the Times obituary:

While I had realised that he was the Grandson of Sigmund Freud, and also the brother of Lucian Freud (I’m happy to engage in fisticuffs with anyone who disputes that Lucian’s the worlds greatest living painter), I hadn’t realised quite how dysfunctional a family they were. You couldn’t make it up that Clement and Lucian hadn’t talked since they were small children, reportedly over a bet on a race to Green Park (Clement apparently bet on everything). Or that he held his son’s 4th Birthday party at the Playboy Club, complete with Bunny Girls. It reminded me of ‘The Royal Tennabaums’ or maybe Sallinger’s Glass family - brilliant but eccentric.

It seemed appropriate that I should post a few of Sir Clement Freud’s quotes, which made me chuckle:

“When propositioned recently by a woman to ‘come upstairs and make love’, I had to explain that it was one or the other.”

"if you resolve to give up smoking, drinking, driving and loving, you don't actually live longer. It just seems longer."

He later gave up smoking, was known to hide his head behind curtains at parties if anyone smoked and once had an altercation with a woman on a train who was smoking just inside the no-smoking zone. "I'm only 10ft from the smoking section," she insisted. "Madame, we're only 5ft from the lavatory," he replied. "Is it all right if I piss on the floor?"

Finally, someone posted this link on Twitter of Clement telling what may well be the funniest joke ever told.

It had me in fits. What a brilliant man.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009


I’ve been meaning to write something about ‘eco-towns’ for a little while now, but being a bit of a lazy sod, hadn’t quite got round to it. However, the Landscape Institute’s recent newsletter, gave me a bit of a prod - it included a request to members for input into the draft Planning Policy Statement on ‘Eco-towns’, as the LI is (for what it’s worth) a statutory consultee into the process. Hence I put together a few of my thoughts, which I posted on the Landscape Institutes forum:

For those people as lazy as me, I’ve posted my text in full:

“I think the basic idea of ‘eco-towns’ is a good one. Recent initiatives aimed at pushing sustainability and conservation of resources seem to have focussed too much on the smaller issues, such as incorporating recycled materials or native plant species into schemes, rather than the really big ones that can make a significant difference. In my opinion the biggest challenge our society faces is finding affordable homes in locations that do not necessitate excessive cost/use of energy to travel to essential facilities; be it places of work, education or healthcare. Realistically, the best way to do this is to plan new settlements around a sustainable transport infrastructure.

However, the process of choosing sites for ‘eco-towns’ has been fundamentally flawed. What should have happened is that some form of national scoping took place, determining where there was greatest need and assessing potential suitability in terms of issues such as economy, transport and yes, landscape. The reality was that developers and landowners were asked to bid for massive developments and potentially massive financial returns, based largely on their existing land holdings and interests. The result seems to be that the current eco-town sites have been chosen more on the basis of their proposer’s financial resources, than the actual suitability of the sites. From studying the proposals from the outset, this certainly seem to me be the case. The proposed ‘eco-town’ at Marston Vale, which had excellent transport links to London, Milton Keynes and Bedford, as well as connections to the growing distribution sector and a scarred landscape in need of regeneration – dropped out due to a lack of funds from the developer, despite it’s appearance as an ideal location for such a development. Whereas, the more contentious site at ‘Pennbury’ in Leicestershire, backed by the Co-op (more on that later), now appears to be one of the front runners to go ahead. Further, the debate surrounding the issue appears to have degenerated to something of a political football, with clear sides forming along party lines.

As someone who lives and works in Leicestershire, I’ve followed the proposals for the ‘Pennbury’ with interest. Whilst not likely to be directly effected by the proposed scheme, I have none the less been alarmed by what I’ve seen. The proposal is to locate the new ‘eco-town’, including 15,000 homes and associated infrastructure, on the rural east side of Leicester away from major roads or transport infrastructure. With no significant funding allocated for improving the transport situation, the result is that the majority of additional traffic will feed straight back into Leicester. Leicester itself is a small city which appears in recent years to have grown beyond the capacity of it’s existing transport network. Even from the most cursory inspection of the proposals, it is quite clear that they are wholly unsuitable from a transportation perspective, and by association as a potential site for new employment or housing. This has been verified by independent assessment.

So flawed are the proposals, that I could easily come up with a whole host of arguments against the development. However, as a landscape architect I am obviously dismayed by the impact on the areas landscape character. Leicestershire is not overly blessed with features of cultural interest, but it does have substantial areas of unspoiled countryside, which have a strong underlying character. It seems to me a pity to destroy such a significant amount of this, for the sake of such a poor development.

Finally, stepping aside from the local issues, I believe that we are in danger of embarking on the greatest development folly since the concrete high-rises and ring roads of the 1960’s. It would not only be a tragedy for the communities and areas damaged by inappropriate proposals, but I think could turn national opinion against the drive for sustainable developments itself, which is so desperately needed.”

Sunday, 5 April 2009

Shared Safety or Shared Danger

I’ve been ruminating on writing an article about ‘shared spaces’ for a little while now. It’s a subject I’m personally very interested in, but also seems to be a current hot topic in the press. At some point in the future the fruits of my musings may appear on here, but in the meantime I’ve been doing a bit research into the thinking behind it and have found some interesting related ideas.

For those unfamiliar with the term and without getting too bogged down in it, ‘shared space’ is an approach to the design of roads and streets where the traditional separation between pedestrians and vehicles is removed or eroded, to create a space where all users co-exist. This generally involves the removal or lowering of kerbs, reducing signage and the associated roadway paraphernalia, and the merging of footways and carriageways with the aim of improving road safety by forcing drivers to reduce speed and have due consideration for other road users.

The approach was originally developed by Hans Monderman, a highway engineer working in the Netherlands, but has since been applied to schemes worldwide. According to the Gospel of Wikipedia however, it was British shared space enthusiast, Ben Hamilton-Bailey who first used the term ‘shared space’ to describe Monderman’s approach (note that Ben Hamilton-Baillie’s Wikipedia article was written by a B. Hamilton-Baillie). In the UK, shared space concepts have been promoted by a number of sources, but perhaps most influentially in ‘Manual for Streets’; a guidance document for the design of roads and streets, prepared in partnership by the Department for Transport and the Department of communities and Local Government. The aim of Manual for Streets, of which I’m a big fan by the way, is to try and promote the role of roads in place making and improving their environment, rather than looking solely at issues of vehicular transit and pedestrian safety.

However, not everyone seems so enamoured by current developments and there has been a significant amount of negative press coverage of some recent shared space schemes. This seems to stem from broadly two sources; organisations that represent the blind and partially sighted, and then the doomsayers who read the Daily Express and write to Ester Rantzen to complain that someone will surely be killed! Now without going into all the in’s and out’s of the arguments, I’d say that there clearly is an issue with guide dogs not being able to negotiate roads without kerbs (although there is little recognition of the potential benefits of this to those with limited mobility), but the rest…

It was actually Ben Hamilton-Bailey’s website, which first made me aware of Warwick Cairn’s excellent book, “How to Live Dangerously”. First and foremost it’s a very entertaining read, but it actually makes some pretty serious points about our compensation culture and the paradoxes of public safety. Interestingly, it both references Monderman’s work on shared space, but also gives some background on the thinking behind it and I think offers an interesting perspective on many issues in today’s society.

To those that are interested by the subject, I’d recommend getting hold of a copy, as it's a nice light read (see link below). For those of such an inclination, I suspect it would prove good toilet reading …

Rather cheekily, I thought I’d drop a few quotes from the books chapter “ The Safety of Danger”, in below.

“Where this is all leading is to one of the most important theories of how human beings deal with danger and risk, and why. It’s a theory that has very important and far-reaching implications, as we’ll see a little later. The theory goes by a number of names, including ‘risk homeostasis theory’ and ‘risk compensation theory’, but you may prefer to think of it as just plain common sense.

Here’s what the theory says: all of us have a natural or ‘ideal’ level of risk that we feel comfortable with in our lives... When things become more dangerous than we like, we take more precautions – when the roads are icy, for example. And – here’s the important part – when things become noticeably safer, we feel that it’s all right to take a few more risks.

So, strange as it may seem, and mad as it may seem, and hard to believe as it may seem, the safest course of action, much of the time, is the one that appears, on the face of it, the most dangerous.

In 1989, the year that UK law first required children in the rear seats of cars to wear seat belts, the number of children killed and injured in rear seats didn’t go down at all. It didn’t even stay the same. What it did was it actually increased. Significantly. The reason for this was that people felt their children were now properly protected, so they didn’t have to worry so much, and so they could afford to drive faster and more recklessly.

And when, for example, we make children’s playgrounds less dangerous by replacing tarmac with special spongy rubber stuff, and when we take away the big tall slides and climbing frames, and when we prevent children from playing conkers unless they wear protective goggles, what we are doing is not actually making them any safer: we are just making life duller, and challenging children’s ingenuity to come up with ways of experiencing the same level of thrills that the old playgrounds used to give them, and that the old unstructured play used to give them. Which may mean using playgrounds in ways for which they were never intended – as places to vandalize and spray graffiti on, for example, which carries the risk of being chased by an irate adult – or not using them at all but going somewhere else altogether – a derelict building, say, or a railway line you can run across as a train approaches; and getting your thrills there instead.

In the 1990s a committee of scientists, psychologists and health-and-safety experts from sixteen countries gathered to examine the evidence for this theory, to see whether more safety precautions actually protect people, or whether they just make them feel safe and confident enough to take bigger risks. Their verdict was unanimous and unequivocal: ‘It is clear,’ they said, ‘that confidence in safety devices – whether they be helmets, seat belts, safety ropes for climbers, or safety nets for trapeze artists – affects behaviour. People respond in a way that tends to nullify the intended effect of the device. Safety measures that ignore this tendency almost always disappoint their promoters.’

And here’s the point: if it isn’t so much things themselves that cause accidents as people’s willingness to take risks, then making things safer won’t mean there will be fewer accidents. It just means that there will be different ones.
The only real way to make people safer, the only real way to cut the rate of accidents in one place without it leading to more accidents happening somewhere else, is to lower people’s willingness to take the particular risk that you have in mind. Which is to say, it is to make that risk more frightening. Or, to put it another way, the most effective way to make a thing safer is to make it more dangerous.”

While it seems a fairly contentious premise, if not counter-intuitive, as Cairn intimates there has been some serious research to back up these opinions. Professor Gerald Wilde of Queen’s University, Ontario coined the term, “risk homeostasis” to describe how human behaviour offsets external improvements in safety, by behaving less safely. While not universally accepted, much of the criticism of his work, seems to originate from those who have a vested interest in promoting the value of safety equipment.

All of which makes an interesting response to those who seek to sanitise, standardise and safety-fy everything around us. It rather sadly seems to me that personal responsibility has been largely forgotten in Britain today.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Things I really hate #1

I really hate it when a space is paved in a material of the same colour, as the surrounding buildings. It nearly always seems to happen when you have brick buildings, like in the above picture (all pictures are of the lovely Bede Island in Leicester).

It's the built equivalent of when someones Dad decides it looks cool to wear both pale blue jeans and a denim shirt, or you see a really posh person in mustard coloured, corduroy trousers and a tweed jacket.

It. Just. Looks. Wrong.