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"Transport and Placemaking for Sustainable Communities" by Riccardo Marini, Design Leader, Edinburgh City Council - Meeting of 25 February 2009

Riccardo Marini is a trained architect and a Chartered Planner. He defines himself as an "urbanist", a person who likes the built environment. He pointed out that design is important and made reference to Plato's perfect solution - design is perfect. He thought that grand solutions is a good design. Since 2004 he had led the Design Initiative for Edinburgh. So why the Design Initiative? Mr. Marini said that it was established in response to the Scottish Executive. He then looked at the difficulty in getting things done.

Place is made. Humans shape things and bring value to places. If we do it right we can produce beautiful places. Places have value. But in this country, it is the buildings rather than the place that is given value. Mr. Marini then looked at what it means to be a capital city. He3 looked at the most notable capital cities, pointing out that they all have distinctive features that identify them uniquely. All places can be mapped, have distinctive buildings and features, for example, New York has the Empire State Building and yellow cabs, London has the "Gherkin" and black taxis, whereas Paris has the Eiffel Tower and Champs Elysee. Mr Marini said that Edinburgh is one of the most elegant capital cities.

Turning to urban design, Mr. Marini looked at some of the developments in the UK that have shaped today's places, As an example, he looked at housing. In the UK housing estates tend to be similar in design, so the houses all look alike. Places have to function, for example, refuse has to be collected and whilst this is taking place other functions still have to continue, so this design reflects the various needs. However, design tends to follow the "Multiple Simultaneous Flush syndrome" in that infrastructure is designed to cope with hypothetical situations.

When it comes to placemaking, Mr. Marini posed the question of why don't we get places that we like? Places are being built that are good, but not generally in the UK. Since the 1940's we have not really created good practice and we tend to have "silos". Each of these is good at what they do but it is difficult to break them apart. Each silo is good at producing too many rules , regulations and legislation.

The accountants and lawyers do this well but what is needed is an "understanderscope" so that we can easily understand the situation as it can be complex. We have handed the world over to the accountants who are only interested in making sure that everything is on time and within budget. An example is the design of housing estates - some 80% - 90% are all the same, costed to within a narrow tolerance and built to that price. What we now have are areas of similarity that whilst complying with all sorts of rules and regulations is not good design. Mr. Marini pointed out that growth is not the same as expansion. Shopping malls can be viewed as cancerous growth in an urban area. Think of the land given over to the development of these places and the effect they have on the surrounding area. Expansion is where, for example, housing develoments expand to take up more of the available land.

Cities have traffic departments and perfect statistics concerning traffic and parking. Cars are very visible in the planning system, but what about pedestrians and public life? There is a need to make people visible in the planning system. With developments, normally the building comes first, then more buildings and then thoughts turn to providing some public realm, then finally people are considered. The system should be changed round. Life, and people, should come first, followed by the spaces and finally the buildings. The most valuable areas are not the buildings, but the space. But we assign values to buildings and think in terms of the income buildings can generate.

We need change in relation to traffic too. Traffic is like a river, and as with all rivers where erosion of the banks takes place, there is erosion of space. Traffic would take everything over if given the chance. We spend a lot of money on improving traffic flow. Colin Buchanan's report "Traffic in Towns" of 1963 suggested ways of managing traffic within towns. However this should be contrasted with the views of Hans Monderman who had differing views on treating traffic.

In many places, rather than segregate traffic from pedestrians, traffic mixes with pedestrians and in some places the same place is used by both cars and pedestrians. This slows traffic down. Streets are highly complex places with many different functions and we need to provide for all sorts of activities.

Mr. Marini then looked at some of the design challenges facing Edinburgh and looked at the impact of the tram on the city. The scheme to build the tramway provides opportunities to improve place at a number of points and he illustrated some of these ideas. The tram is important for the city and can lead to more active street frontages. As trams are very efficient, they are visible for only 3% of the time, so in essence they are invisible for 97% of the time. This is because with a well designed system the trams themselves will not be visible for 97% of the time. Contrast this with buses, whereby the perception in the city centre is that there are lots of buses and these are visible most of the time. With good design, trams need not be totally segregated from people.

After his presentation Mr. Marini answered many questions and there was an interesting discussion on many aspects of design and on some of the points that had been raised in particular. At the end of the evening, the Regional Chairman thanked Mr. Marini for his presentation and the debate it had stimulated and presented him with an engraved quaich as a memento of the evening.

Report by John Fender.

 

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