using ‘plot-based urbanism’ to reclaim the basic unit of the city

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Background

In recent years, urbanists have decried suburban developments on large greenfield properties in favor of a return to diverse, close grain urban fabrics. This granular form of development once served as the foundation for pre-automobile streets and town centers. Increasingly, urban designers, town planners, academics, community organizations and governments worldwide now seek more sustainable approaches to contemporary placemaking.

This move towards urban sustainability is old news. But, exploration of paths forward continues at many levels and under many urbanism monikers—from “new” to “landscape” to “tactical” and more. Late last month in Glasgow, I had the opportunity to learn about another urbanism moniker, “plot-based urbanism”, based on diverse, solution-based perspectives in the United Kingdom (UK).

Plot-based urbanism is best known in the UK, based on work by Sergio Porta, Ombretta Romice et al. at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow and notable contributions by several UK practitioners.  Plot-based urbanism returns to first principles of city-building, and underscores the fundamental importance of the plot in sustainable urban development over time. Specifically, the approach derives from historic traditions of placemaking, fosters staged growth, mixed land uses, minimizes adverse economic risks, encourages informal participation, and respects local culture.

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At the University of Strathclyde on October 27 and 28, the University’s Urban Design Studies Unit (UDSU) assembled leading voices in the plot-based urbanism dialogue, to move towards practical implementation and greater collaboration in research, practice and policy. I was honored to keynote the Summit, organized by Alessandra Feliciotti and J. Alexander Maxwell, as a Visiting Scholar at the University. For me, this was a tremendous opportunity, given the American tendency (and often economic necessity) to aggregate land for urban redevelopment.

The discussion was diverse and interdisciplinary, and ranged from academic concepts to potential practical principles, as shown in the brief summary below (compiled and adapted from the Summit abstracts submitted by the speakers). It was clear that a return to basics evoked different issues for each summit participant, with varying perspectives presented on how a plot-based approach could enhance different urban development issues and scenarios going forward.

Keynote address: Returning to the first principles of urbanism

Charles R. Wolfe, Principal, Attorney at Law, Seattle, Washington, USA

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There are basic similarities among placemaking, plot-based urbanism, and other contemporary “urbanisms”; however, the underlying rationales for urban policy, planning and regulation are best understood from a historical perspective and in a better understanding of the everyday uses of urban space. In order to create vibrant, sustainable urban areas for the long-term, we must first understand what happens naturally when people congregate in cities—innate, unprompted interactions of urban dwellers with each other and their surrounding urban and physical environment, also known as “urbanism without effort“.

First Panel

Recalibrating the plot for mixed-use buildings

Jonathan Tarbatt, John Thompson & Partners, London, UK

Plot size and traditional close-grain vertically mixed-use building typologies (‘living over the shop’) are essential to plot-based urbanism. To be viable in today’s market, new mixed-use plots must be configured so that the resultant buildings are able to meet modern standards and expectations. This configuration is more complicated for mixed-use plots than for single uses, because to design something with no detail – a plot – it is necessary to know, or at least anticipate, all the detail.

The Popular Home Initiative using plot-based approaches

Kelvin Campbell, Urban Initiatives, London, UK

The Popular Home Initiative focuses on the stumbling blocks to housing recovery in the UK and explores inroads into the delivery of medium density family housing based on a plot-based urbanism approach. With a lack of both finance and new ideas to solve the problem, we face a serious challenge—one than cannot be entirely solved by using old models. Housing is not about the products of high design; it is about the good “normal”, and we have lost sight of what this means and urgently need to discover our new urban vernacular.

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Second Panel

Urban regeneration in Glasgow through plot-based development: The Botany, Maryhill

Gordon Barbour, Glasgow Housing Association, Glasgow, UK

Glasgow’s population is expected to grow significantly in the next 25 years, after decades of decline. At the same time it has, as a legacy of population loss and economic change, a large amount of well-located urban land lying vacant or derelict, most of which is publicly owned. With limitations on the construction of both subsidized social housing, and housing for sale by private enterprise, conventional methods themselves will not be enough to prevent displacement of future housing development to greenfield sites on the urban periphery. A plot-based approach might offer the means to unlock the housing development potential of much of this vacant land in the city.

Control and Transitional Edges: Towards a socio-spatial morphology for plot-based urbanism

Kevin Thwaites, University of Sheffield, Sheffield, UK

A new urban spatial structure called the ‘transitional edge’ seeks to connect social sustainability and human well-being. John Habraken’s discussion about the structure of the ordinary built environment is combined with spatial concepts from Experiential Landscape research to form an analytical framework. The resultant ‘transitional edge’ spatial structure provides an important conceptual thread reconnecting social and spatial dimensions of urban form to inform planning and design decision-making for urban sustainable living.

Plot-based urbanism: Experiences in developing countries and UN-Habitat’s latest activities

Salvatore Fundaró, UN-Habitat, Nairobi, Kenya

Cities face an enormous backlog of services and housing. There is indeed an urban planning crisis: the unplanned city is largely inefficient and requires increasing resources to make it more functional and livable. In order to further advance innovations, UN-Habitat proposes: (1) planning in advance of population increase and leveraging plans for revenue creation through value capture; (2) planning at the scale of the problem, particularly the projected growth of the urban population; (3) planning incrementally, starting with streets and following with water and sanitation, drainage, energy and lighting, transport, etc.; (4) planning for density and mixed land use; (5) providing urban networks for sustainable mobility and sustainable energy.

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Third Panel

Town centers and the power of plot-based change

Diarmaid Lawlor, Architecture and Design Scotland, Edinburgh, UK

Town centers fit the ‘too hard’ box: too hard to understand, too complex to manage, too small to matter. The big economic narrative of place is about cities, and their regions. In this, towns are part of the story of other places.

Imagine though, the town center as a set of fixed spaces which can be re-purposed, plot by plot, in clusters, and along streets. A massive civic estate, a place with its own story. Imagine the town center as a place for public service collaboration, small and medium enterprise, new forms of participation, creative uses of space, new reasons to be. Imagine town centres as the best way to deliver collaborative public services, in places people want to be, in ways that matter.

Grow your own Garden City plot-by-plot

David Rudlin, Urbanism Environment and Design (URBED), Manchester, UK

URBED first referenced plot based urbanism in the late 1970s, when they developed the idea of ‘balanced incremental development’. In their book, Sustainable Urban Neighbourhood, first published in 1999, they explored the idea of the trellis and vine. According to URBED, the trellis is the master plan and the vine is the city that grows on the framework created by the plan. URBED suggested that the way to create a good place was to draw a plan, divide it into small plots, auction the plots and allow development of each plot with no rules whatsoever. This of course was a “ridiculous” idea that could never happen, except that it is the method by which our most admired urban areas were originally built.

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Looking to the future and preliminary lessons learned

A Summit summary report, available soon, will set the stage for a follow-up summit in 2015. This report will set an agenda for future discussions and more practical implementation of plot-based urbanism.

As a preliminary matter, like all attempts to summarize approaches to city-building, Day 1 of the Summit provided varying, sometimes disconnected perspectives. However, after a moderated conferral on Day 2, the Summit established that:

  • Contemporary placemaking often fails to deliver longer-term sustainable, liveable urban environments.
  • The design of plots, blocks, and master plans must allow for urban change over time by establishing  context-specific, fundamental frameworks for urban development.
  • Unlike other parts of the world (e.g., Austria, Belgium, Italy, Sweden, Norway and the United States), housing development in the UK is provided by only a handful of developers. This raises questions about power of large-scale developers and the role of land use regulation and local municipalities in incentivizing more diversity.
  • The ideas inherent in plot-based urbanism have potential in both regeneration and new-built projects, in both more developed and less developed countries.
  • There is a need for more collaboration between research and practice and between practice and policy in order to implement plot-based urbanism on a meaningful scale in order to affect change.

(Thanks to J. Alexander Maxwell, Fulbright-University of Strathclyde Postgraduate Research Scholar, for his contributions to this article.)

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