prize book: young – old, urban utopias of an aging society

The Urban Design Group (UDG) Book Prize for 2016 goes to a book that offers a celebratory framing of the third age; ‘a generation embarking on a new bodily experience’. I have been a judge for this award for the last five years a process that is as rewarding as it is elongated. Judging begins in late summer when two books arrive to be reviewed, then when all four judges have published reviews we circulate the books and debate a shortlist for the prize that is announced in Spring at the UDG annual award ceremony in London.

We chose Young – Old, Urban Utopias in an Aging Society by Deane Simpson (published by Lars Muller) as it stood out for its important subject matter, for its coherence and ambition and elegant and intelligent design. The book lays out an expansive and at times entertaining survey of purpose built retirement communities in North America, Europe and Japan since the 1950’s. It interrogates the particular qualities of these places in carefully designed drawings and photographs, developing a commentary and critique of a series of ‘active adult’ communities including nomadic RV communities in North America.

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Young – Old reveals a way of thinking about neigbourhoods that is pleasantly liberated from usual norms. Simpson shows how retirement communities evidence new forms of urbanity that are emerging in relation to a new phase of life – forms that engage in utopian aspirations. Setting aside moral judgements as Venturi and Scott Brown did in their study Learning form Las Vegas (1972) he allows these new forms to be revealed and offered as more general prompt to innovation.

This is an abridged version of a review published in the Urban Design Group Journal, No 137, Winter 2016.

Young – Old, Urban Utopias in an Aging Society by Deane Simpson

published by Lars Muller, 2016: https://www.lars-mueller-publishers.com/young-old

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playing out – space for children in residential masterplans

The 400 meter radius circle that connotes pedestrian accessibility gathers significance if you have a small baby in a pushchair and no access to a car or if you are walking small children to school. You start to appreciate the scale of a neighbourhood very vividly. If in your radius as well as a nursery and school there is a small shop and better still a café and maybe a park or somewhere to sit out then there will be room for parents and babies and small children to congregate. This is where communities which span decades start to take shape and designers should think of these spaces in sequence with one another.

As children become mobile then play spaces become a fixation, plays spaces and swimming pools (and later forests or woods). The scale of neighbourhood activity grows as children do. If your children are happily amused you know they are spending their time well then the chances are you’ll be amused too. A recent review of the evidence of the benefits of free play reported that playing has a wide range of benefits for children including; cognitive development, physical health and emotional wellbeing, social development and resilience. The availability of play space points to wider benefits for families also: ‘Parents associate playing in playgrounds with family well-being, and those who live near playgrounds and visit often report higher levels of family well-being’ (1).

From around five to ten years of age children want assert their independence and play out with friends somewhere near to their homes. For a few months the boundaries of home are stretched into the street and there are difficult decisions to be negotiated. It is helpful initially if there is space apart that is still near enough to be supervised. So designers need to consider how to provide a range of incidental play spaces as part of the landscape of any new neighbourhood, such as well functioning home zones and slivers or margins of spaces that can be safely purloined. The Playing Out campaign grew out of a resident led project in Bristol that aims to encourage and support street play across the UK and enable every child the freedom to; ‘play actively and independently in front of or near their own home’ (2). Playing Out is also supported by Play England.

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Footbridge to the Parish Field, Juliet Bidgood – Photo: Kevin Nicholson

On foot links to bigger and wilder spaces are important for children as they gain independence. By ten they may want to go further afield to play or go on an errand to the shops to experience the wider world for themselves. Even better a day out in the woods with backpacks. A study for Save the Children found that children enjoyed spaces that might not be considered by design teams: “The ‘wild’ areas, which included the fields, woods, ruins and the local bing (an old coal slag heap), were highly valued by the young people and were places where they went climbing trees, biking and to generally socialise and play” (3).

Finding opportunities for these three scales of activity for parents and children: of the street, the neighbourhood and connection to wild spaces beyond is a good test of a residential or mixed-use masterplan. It is another way of asking the Building for Life question two: “Does the development provide (or is it close to) community facilities, such as shops, schools, workplaces, parks, play areas, pubs or cafés?

  1. The Play Return: A review of the wider impact of play initiatives, Tim Gill for the Children’s Play Policy Forum, 2014 – www.rethinkingchildhood.com
  2. http://playingout.net/ – http://www.playengland.org.uk/our-work/projects/street-play.aspx
  3. Outsiders, Children and Young People and Their Use of Public Space, Susan Elsley, 2004.

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building for Life 12 – still a useful benchmark?

Building for Life was re-launched in 2014, ten years after it was first devised. The national housing design standard has been simplified to make it more useful.  It has been refocused as a place making or urban design standard concerned primarily with the bringing together of homes to make enduring residential neighbourhoods. The intention is that the design and construction of individual homes is to be covered by national space standards and Building Regulations. Good urban design and place making are so important because they have a long legacy. As the urban designer Sue Mc Glynn would say new street layouts last much longer than buildings defining places for 100’s and 1000’s of years. Everyone interested in creating truly sustainable places to live should be interested in good urban design and place making.

Building For Life is still the national standard because there is still an urgent need to drive improvement in our collective expectations for housing design. In the last decade national housing audits showed that up to thirty percent of all housing built shouldn’t have had planning permission and another thirty percent were just average. Building for Life can be used as a tool to actively test the quality of a design early on by assessing how it answers twelve key design questions. As a tool Building for Life 12 is designed to have ownership by communities, residents and developers. This shift in emphasis was used successfully in North West Leicestershire. In 2009 they adopted BFL as a standard in planning policy and made it into a place mark or quality award called Our Place. By persuading developers to use the standard themselves early in the design process and offering incentives to do well they were able to drive some really significant changes in overall quality.

Building for Life is set out in three sections covering three different scales of design; neighborhood, place and street and each containing four simple questions: Integrating into the Neighborhood – These are the neighbourhood scale questions these are about the give and take relationship between a new neighbourhood and existing settlements.

Creating a place – These questions focus on how the new place is being created and signals how new places are built up from a number of different components… sequences of buildings, types of streets, materials, form and the intelligent use of (and in addition to) existing qualities of place.

Street and Home – This last section is about the design of the street itself – about the careful integration of functions to create predominantly social spaces. It is a good idea to test a development early on. In fact it could often help the quality of development if local authorities did a strategic BfL assessment of sites before any designs come forward. There are far too many missed opportunities in connecting new development into existing streets and footpaths. If we really want to make sustainable places we have to get this right.

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