Good weather aside, why do many European cities have a vibrant café culture, which we have aimed to emulate in the design of our cities and towns? Drive around the French countryside and wind turbines litter scenic hillsides, which might seem impossible to get permission for in most of our green and pleasant land. Telegraph poles with fairy lights and elephants can be found beside 8 lane motorways in the middle of Bangkok, how does a city like that function?
I can’t help but question why I like or dislike places, spaces, landscapes and social settings when I travel or visit new places. And often, much to my own annoyance, question and deconstruct the likely design, policies and governance structures, which must function differently from our own system. So as most of us like to roam beyond our immediate South West borders, we are inviting you to email us your holiday snaps and thoughts (planning and other) on interesting places you have been.
The only requirement is you also include a ‘Top Tip’ or two, to help other young planners if they find themselves in the vicinity.
Carl McClure, SWYP co-secretary
Reconnecting the Golden Triangle – Problems in Pittsburgh’s Downtown, by Tristan Dewhurst
As the airport bus approached Downtown Pittsburgh, I was most looking forward to milling around the downtown of one of the great American cities. I grew up on films and television with the invariable motif of American urban life as a seething, cosmopolitan hubbub, colliding within a man-made mountain range of skyscrapers. Having only visited the USA once as a child (and then only to rove Florida’s theme park region) my anticipation was that Pittsburgh, though not quite in the top rank of the USA’s cities, would match this vision.
Despite the chill November air, the downtown streets were heaving with residents and visitors on the sidewalks and on the streets. “It’s the illumination of the Christmas Lights”, my partner explained as the bus shuttled through the gridiron streets, the commotion dying down as our bus travelled back into the suburbs. Shattered and in need of a shower, exploration of the Downtown had to take a secondary priority.
The following morning the weather remained bitingly cold. We made our way back to the Downtown, though I could hardly recognise it as the same place I had travelled through the previous night. The streets were virtually empty of residents, shoppers, day-trippers or workers. Heading into the Downtown branch of Macy’s (for the unfamiliar, think a US Debenham’s) the paucity of customers was palpable from the overly attentive customer assistants – this, despite this being the weekend before thanksgiving.
By day, merely a palpable sense of isolation and abandonment among the huge towers there was; by night, the area felt as a seedbed for opportunistic crime and delinquency.
‘Effectively, the Downtown is islanded, by both the built and natural environment, and suffers the inevitable isolation caused by vehicle-dominated access.’
The ‘Golden Triangle’, as the Downtown is locally known, sits as the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers, which form the area’s triangular, wedge topography. To the east, the area is physically constrained by the Crosstown Boulevard freeway, beyond which lie large areas of surface parking. Effectively, the Downtown is islanded, by both the built and natural environment, and suffers the inevitable isolation from vehicle-dominated access.
Isolation might not be a problem for a self-sufficient community (see the success of Manhattan, at the opposite extreme, in a similar context). The area was established as a business district in the 1980s, as Pittsburgh re-orientated itself away from the floundering steel industry. As a centre of retail and leisure, it is far out-gunned by the windowless out-of-town behemoth malls, which were heaving on the famously manic ‘Black Friday’. Availability of residential apartments and condos is extremely limited, and as my neighbour on the return flight put it, “Why would you want to live anywhere you can’t even afford furniture?”
Physical isolation and homogeneity of uses is compounded by the overall success of the area as a business district. Land values remain so high that developers and investors have little incentive driving them to explore alternative uses.
‘It is hoped that this project will repair the gap in urban and social fabric . . . tellingly, the ambition is to imbue the urban design with ‘European’ sensibilities’
This problem is not lost on the denizens of Pittsburgh, however, and it is apparent that urban planning is a key part of their arsenal tackling it. In one of the biggest regeneration schemes in recent years, Allegheny County are working with developers McCormack Baron Salazar to redevelop the former Civic Arena site and the surrounding areas of surface parking for a mix of uses, including 1,200 dwellings. It is hoped that this project will repair the gap in urban and social fabric between the Hill and Shadyside neighbourhoods. Tellingly, the ambition is to imbue the urban design with ‘European’ sensibilities regarding scale and access. Perhaps there is a paraphrased proverb about cities always being greener on the other side of the ocean.
Top Tip #2 – Don’t go to Sunny Beach, by Richard Mears
Ebenezer Howard aimed for planned ‘Garden Cities’ which would enhance the existing natural environment and provide high-quality affordable housing and locally accessible jobs within healthy and sociable communities. The 2014 DCLG ‘Locally-led Garden Cities’ prospectus called for the construction of three cities to be built, with up to 15,000 homes. One of the most startling difference is that modern Garden City are under no pressure to included affordable housing, which was a key component of Ebenezer Howards original ideas. So should we be concerned about what might be created?
In summer 2013, on a whim to get some sun, I went to the resort of Sunny Beach, Bulgaria for a week long holiday not knowing what to expect. Before going I had not heard much about this resort, barring that it should have good weather for the week I was going.
Sunny Beach, turned out to be a planned new settlement , started in 1958, to serve as a holiday destination for USSR’s rich and famous. Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, Sunny Beach has become an alternate destination to more famous Greek Islands and Spanish resorts, mainly due to its cheaper price. This tourism focused development has seen by the end of 2013 over 800 hotels, with 300,000 beds, making it the largest purpose built seaside resort in Bulgaria by some margin. Sunny beach, in 1963 below to left and modern to right.
The young age of this resort means it has little in common with the rest of Bulgaria and could be mistaken for any popular Mediterranean resorts.
The approach to development of this new settlement has some noticeable deficiencies including no public landscaping, poor road conditions despite the heavy traffic, poor public order and security and stalls along the promenade which degrade the image and spoil the whole product. This tourist driven development means in winter the resort changes completely with preparations for the next summer beginning, new hotels are built, old hotels are renovated, repaired or maintained. Some hotels accommodate the workers but few stay open for business, leaving Sunny Beach mostly a development of hotels, shops, bars and restaurants closed and empty.
Nessebar is a World Heritage Site , designated in 1983, due to the quality of architecture dating the 2000BC, with UNESCO calling it “a unique example of a synthesis of the centuries-old human activities in the sphere of culture”.Due to the rapid expansion of Sunny Beach, UNESCO are concerned, that it isbeginning to threaten the traditional urban structure of the city, its architectural appe
arance, and its atmosphere.
Despite these problems there are some good aspects of Sunny Beach, a water park near Nessebar provides good fun, the weather is good, the local food is really good and the locals for the most part are friendly.
The driver for development has been tourism and economic development, rather than a housing crisis however, there are some stark lessons for development of new settlements. The rush for development and obvious low spend on shared areas, public infrastructure and parallel demand for has resulted in a low quality settlement. The current view of planning in the UK as a ‘drag anchor’ and approach to viability abating achievement of high quality design, sustainability, green infrastructure or affordable housing, when applied to ‘garden cities’ or new settlements to provide much needed housing, might lead to a less sunny version of Sunny beach.
From the favelas of Rio to the Planning Inspectorate, by Georgina Murray
During my planning studies I become increasingly interested in the ‘unplanned’ urban environment. Having graduated (MSc Global Urban Development and Planning), I decided to seek work experience in Rio de Janeiro, a city that epitomises an urban divide between those who have and those who have not. Where better to experience how those with few opportunities and low income realise their aspirations? Informal settlements across the world illustrate the vast benefits to (and challenges in) grassroots development.
The well-publicized tension between World Cup driven development and deeply embedded socio-economic structures that reproduce conditions of inequality seems to be an intractable problem. I wanted to take a view from the ground. A simple ‘Google search’ revealed opportunities to volunteer with NGOs in informal settlements across low-income nations.
Brazilian friends advised me about potential opportunities available with local NGOs, so I didn’t organise anything in advance.
After a month of living in the Northof the city, learning Brazilian Portuguese and getting to grips with the culture, I was offered a volunteer opportunity with ICOS Cidadnia. They were working on a number of projects, one notably with UN Habitat as well as others focussing on violence reduction and infrastructure upgrading within Rio’s favelas. As the only volunteer with English as a first language, my first job was to produce a funding proposal aimed at investmentsources that support infrastructure upgrading within the favelas to provide residents with access to educational opportunities. Where a settlement receives infrastructure investment, it is in effect being acknowledged as a legitimate land use.
I set about researching Rio’s favelas, where at least 20% of the city calls home. There was no publicly accessible local monitoring of land use and by nature of their ‘informality’ these settlements are not homogenous and are constantly changing. Each favela, however spatially defined, could be placed along a spectrum of ‘degrees of formality’ with mixtures of tenure or rights to land and buildings, as well as temporary residents, tenants and landlords. As such, I had to draw on my creativity to undertake research, using connections I had made during my first month, as well as doing site visits and general digging about. Eventually, I produced a brief character analysis of Rio’s favelas as an evidence base to present an argument for the investment proposal.
Meeting residents, identifying community boundaries and collating population data, with a topographical map showing building and landscape features, are just a few key elements to begin to understand a community. As was the case when I did my MSc fieldwork on Neighbourhood Planning, communities in Rio debated boundaries, which, in reality overlapped. Favela residents collaborating to improve their settlements found such challenges in ‘self surveying’, the first step to being able to amongst themselves establish priorities and programmes for improvement and upgrading. I learnt that the techniques in community mapping especially those that were ‘resource light’, that I studied in my MSc, were practical and useful for residents and yet they were not common practice. I revelled in sharing the techniques I learnt about during my MSc with residents, even though I only managed broken Portuguese!
Of course, I didn’t return with any solution to either side of the most contentious and divisive issue facing Rio. On the one hand some informal settlements are resisting development pressures and gaining more confidence from investment and upgrading of their settlement and on the other, the government are reclaiming land to regenerate land values and stimulate urban economic growth. Who has rights to land? For what purpose will they use the land? What is the social benefit or harm caused by the development? My view from the ground raised more questions than answers on the issue.
Now working towards my RTPI accreditation in the Planning Inspectorate’s graduate scheme, I still check the Rio ‘favela watch’ email updates. The importance of ensuring the deliverability of projects, cross boundary issues, and the realities of varying perspectives on what should, and should not, be developed are familiar themes from my work in Rio that carry into my current placement in the Plans Team.