A good friend of mine recently asked ‘what do you actually do for a living?’ I was a bit surprised as I often talk about the places I go and the people I meet, but as it turns out I never actually tell them the bit about how I design places (and get paid for it), and if I’m brutally honest, in that instant, I really struggled to explain what I do.
After some thought, I began using the kind of language that often gets us designers (of all types) a reputation: sense of place, public realm, permeability, cohesion. Words I use every day not to bamboozle people, but it is the way I have learnt, over time, to explain the ideas of creating new places. My good friend kindly pointed out though that these words can actually make urban design, and what I do day to day, less accessible to the very people we are hoping to improve the lives of.
It therefore got me thinking. What is it in simple words that an urban designer does and why is it a job in itself? Is it not just architecture dressed differently? Isn’t it just what Town Planners do?
I started my career in architecture, designing stand-alone buildings for specific functions, be it a new house, a hotel or a hospital. The interesting part of this was that each building had its own unique requirements and sat in isolation from other buildings. I would consider this the traditional view of what an architect does. Moving to a multi-disciplinary practice to work alongside planning consultants shifted my focus. They seemed to work at the other end of the scale, considering what kind of land use should go on a site – retail, residential or retirement? Clients approached them with large pieces of land and wanted to know what they could do with it and it was at this point that I discovered the fascinating world of urban design, not in a textbook theoretical university way but in a live, evolving and hands-on way.
After struggling for a long period of drawing various ideas and going round in circles I decided to (and you may laugh) go and walk around the site, and while doing so started chatting to a local out walking their dog. They told me what used to be here and how it was used, how people walk and cycle through here on their way to work, where the sun shines and the wind blows, and in that conversation it occurred to me that I had being going about this the wrong way.
Designing and delivering a successful place in which people live is a direct result of understanding the site, not from maps and photographs but from being there, and learning from local knowledge. How do you get to the shops? How do the kids get to school? Where do they play? Which way does it slope (no site is flat)? The questions are limitless, but the key is that this seemingly simple knowledge becomes the fundamental building blocks of successful place making.
So it’s that simple then? Creating a place for people to live is just about understanding the site. Well, it starts there. The next part is where the real work begins and where I get the most satisfaction: developing the designs, making it commercially viable and buildable, getting and keeping local residents involved and on board, consulting with local authorities on planning, landscape, roads, public transport, affordable housing, drainage and, my personal favourite, rubbish collection. This just about scratches the surface of what it takes to start to design and deliver any place, never mind a successful place.
At any one time I can be working on the regeneration and reimaging of an economically challenged corner of North West Edinburgh, developing creative responses for small pockets of land throughout the city or I may be guiding the delivery of a brand new settlement in northern Scotland to provide much needed homes and economic growth and stability. Either way, place is critical and must be understood and enhanced.
The fact that my job has three possible titles: urban designer, master planner or place maker illustrates the fact that it is a relatively modern discipline in an ever-moving and evolving industry that has many conflicting and contradictory faces. On reflection, I believe what I do is sit in the middle of a number of specialised disciplines – architecture, planning and landscape – and try to provide the scaffolding that enables these to work together to deliver places that people both want to live and work in.
In response to my friend, I will therefore now reply that what I do is try very hard to create places for people to live, work and play that fit like a glove, in areas which have often been around for a long time, learning from the mistakes of the past and making places and spaces that people want to spend time in and hopefully make their home.
Urban designer, master planner, place maker – I don’t think it really matters what you call it, it’s about trying to do simple things, wanting to make places as good as they can be, be it a hamlet, a village, a town or a city.
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David Rodger, Edinburgh, Scotland, Urban design, place making