David Tittle on ‘Some myths about diversity’

In this chapter Jane Jacobs refutes the last objections to diversity of uses for land and buildings in the city.

Here in the UK, the paradigm shift in urban planning that began with Jane Jacobs (and many others) at the beginning of the 60s gained official credence at the end of the 90s with the publication the report of Richard Rogers Urban Task Force and other Government reports and policies. Policies supporting density and a mix of uses trickled down from Government to a plethora of regional and local policies and guidance. But changing policy is easy compared to changing the culture of professions and the long-held worldviews of politicians. Use-zoning seems remarkably enduring and pervasive within the culture of planning.

The UK has a development industry which is largely segmented according to end uses: house-builders, commercial developers, developers of shopping centres. This means that public policy promoting diversity is swimming against the tide.

Sainsbury’s by Elliott Brown

An example is supermarkets. A supermarket operator’s ideal is an uncluttered site where they can build a store as cheaply as possible and in 20 years time knock it down and build an updated store. They build supermarkets; that is what they do. They do not resist introducing other uses because it is unprofitable, rather because it breaks with their simple business model.  Introducing residential properties above the retail floor is a complication they can do without, however sensible it might seem in a country short of land and homes. Of course as the major supermarkets fight for market share they need new sites and will jump through most planning hoops put in front of them including a requirement to mix uses.  This is possible where a combination of economic attractiveness and political support for ‘urbanist’ policies shifts the balance of power towards the planner as in London and southern England. Out in the more economically depressed areas desperation for any form of investment works against an insistence on the efficient use of land.

Today that desperation has become a national policy with the UK Government proclaiming, in the pursuit of growth, that the default answer to development must be “yes” and introducing enterprise zones where planning regulations will be relaxed.  An unfortunate consequence of this may be more quick-and-easy, single-use development. Despite the adoption of some ‘Jacobsian’ values there remains a single-land-use-and-numbers-driven imperative at the heart of planning: we get jobs by allocating ‘employment land,’ we get homes by allocating ‘housing land’.

Birmingham Jewellery Quarter by Pete Ashton

But bland, single-use development is the enemy of growth and job creation. I often contrast Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter (‘JQ’), where my organisation MADE is based, with Birmingham Business Park.  The former is an historic area, built up over 200 years with a complex and dense mix of manufacturing (both traditional and modern), retailing, residential, leisure and public uses. It has arisen, as most historic areas have, through an interaction between market-driven development and public regulation, and within the community of residents and business who value the JQ there is constant debate about that subtle balance. The jewellery industry itself is based on small craft producers and retailers with a complex supply chain, but the JQ is about much more than jewellery, with many architects, designers and other industries attracted to its historic streets. If one attempted to overlay a plan of the JQ with a diagram of the economic relationships that exist between all the businesses, residents and public institutions that inhabit the quarter you would end up with a mass of scribble.  That scribble illustrates money circulating, wealth being created.

Birmingham Business Park

Birmingham Business Park is a development on the edge of the urban area, where a series of separate squat office blocks sit in landscaped car parks surrounded by highways. It caters for employers who do not want their workforce distracted by any of the trappings of civilization. They drive in, do their jobs, and drive home again. If there are any economic relationships between businesses in this area they are co-incidental. Of course there is economic activity there, but it is sterile, and isolated, with none of the multiplier effects that dense and complex urban places bring. The irony is that presumably Birmingham Business Park was expressly developed to create jobs.

Fifty years after Death and Life with the decline in manufacturing and the growth of the ‘knowledge economy’ a much smaller proportion of industry presents any form of nuisance to its neighbours. Furthermore threats of noise and pollution have been dealt with in most of the developed world by forms of regulation other than land-use planning.  So the ‘myths about diversity’ are even less true than they were then and, as we strive to bring back growth and jobs in the West, Jane Jacobs’ defence of urban diversity is more persuasive.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. David, I love this post, and I especially love the photos!

    I think we North Americans have a strangely romantic view of the Old World cities and we blame much of our dullness on our recent, post-car development. We have this notion that since the UK and Europe’s cities thrived long before ours even got started and certainly before the automobile, you all have nothing but cobblestone streets and gorgeous old buildings. It was strangely satisfying to see that some of your grocery stores are just as boring and ugly as ours!

    I’m curious: Do your duller areas correspond with the areas that have been built in the last ~50 years? I find that, in Toronto, the vibrant streets are generally found in the pre-war city/town centres (and there are a few, since we amalgamated many cities and towns to make today’s Toronto!).

    A note for readers: Since I’m the editor of this site, I get to read the posts early. When David sent me this post for the site, I hunted around for photos of the Birmingham Business Park on Flickr and couldn’t find any. It seems that no one takes photos of dull streets! David was kind enough to send one of his staff out to document the dullness for us. Perhaps a lack of presence on Flickr is yet another sign of little to no diversity?

    1. David Tittle says:

      Do your duller areas correspond with the areas that have been built in the last ~50 years?
      Yes, more or less. I am always concerned to tell people that old does not always equal good urbanism lest I sound too much like HRH Prince Charles, but it generally holds true.
      But I suppose it depends what you mean by dull. Rows and rows of Victorian terraced streets with no trees can be seen as dull, but are now more often seen as a characterful and enduringly adaptable urban form. A big Victorian factory or a rural country estate, both with a big high wall all way round certainly do nothing for the streetscene, but today at least we can admire the brickwork. Similarly a Victorian railway or earlier canal can be just as big a barrier to movement as a highway, just prettier to look at.
      I wonder if medieval citizens looked at the castle and said ‘it could do with more active edges’?

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