Saturday, December 27, 2014
Prince Charles' 10 principles of urbanism: typical example of what's wrong with urbanists/architects
Recently, Prince Charles published an essay about 10 principles for sustainable cities, which has made some waves. Which can be summed up as follows:
1- Developments must respect the natural land they occupy and not be too intrusive.
2- There must be a building code to follow geometric rules for architecture.
3- Buildings must be built to the scale of humans and of the existing area.
4- Buildings must be harmonious and have a coherent image.
5- The built area must provide enclosure.
6- Buildings must be made of similar materials in a given area, preferably locally sourced material.
7- Street signs must be reduced as much as possible and utilities must be buried so that you can avoid having them intrude over the look of the area.
8- Pedestrians must be the focus of streets, not cars.
9- Density is important but must be done through low-rise buildings (townhouses and low-rise apartment buildings).
10- Flexibility rather than imposing exactly what goes where.
First of all, I do not share some people's dislike of Prince Charles. I do think his heart is in the right place. That being said, I think his approach, well-intentioned as it may be, is a good example of the main flaw common among many urbanists and architects. Namely, they care about urban areas that satisfy their own subjective aesthetic criteria almost to the exclusion of everything else.
In effect, they consider cities more as museums or art galleries than areas in which people live and work.
At the same time, they often like cities they can walk in, so that alone makes them better than the modernists of years past who preferred to experience cities through models, the windshields of cars traveling along expressways and the windows of high-rise offices. But there is still a bit of narcissism here, the idea that cities should be built to satisfy their tastes first and foremost, no matter the cost.
And here's the main issue here...
You'll note that there is a big absence in his 10 principles: the words affordable and affordability are nowhere to be found. Yet these are extremely important factors, though one I understand a royal heir is unlikely to have a personal acquaintance with. No matter how great the areas you build are, if most people can't afford to live in them, only a privileged few will get to experience them to the fullest.
Indeed, in his quest to get areas that conform to his aesthetic taste, he came up with quite a few principles that are going to make housing unaffordable. Namely, the principles 1, 2, 3, 4 and 6 are likely to directly increase the cost of building new homes. Every restriction made upon new buildings increases the complexity of approval processes and therefore the cost of getting building permits, costs that will be reflected into the value of new buildings. His principle about the control of materials is also likely to create shortages of these materials, thus increasing their prices, and thus, the costs of construction.
His principles 1, 3 and 4, asking for harmony between buildings and limiting scale also directly contradict his principles 9 and 10. Indeed, it is easy to sum up these three principles as "protecting a neighborhood's character", a common euphemism of NIMBYs for: "no development allowed". Existing areas can thus not increase density without directly running into his principles for harmony and scale preservation. Any development that is higher density to existing buildings will ALWAYS represent a break in the existing "scale" of the built area. As a result, the only way to build new density and respect those principles is to build a dense greenfield development on the periphery of existing areas. Which is absolutely insane, because then these areas are disconnected from existing dense areas and likely to require cars to travel around. Rapid transit can help mitigate the terrible location, but only to some extent.
Forbidding density in existing areas also mean that you cannot increase housing supply in areas where there is a shortage. So the shortage is just going to get worse and worse, pushing all but the richest away to areas that have bad urban design.
Prince Charles is clearly a traditionalist who likes the traditional cities of his native land. What he doesn't seem to understand, like a lot of urbanists and architects, is that these cities didn't spring in that current form in one day. They are the result of incremental development over the years, with denser buildings replacing earlier ones (often with a little help from our buddy fire). They were not planned this way, they spontaneously evolved to their current form.
Yet, if Charles likes the outcome of this traditional city, he clearly doesn't like the traditional process through which these cities came to be, he would like to plan things out ex nihilo rather than see them evolve over time. Considering the new materials and technology available to developers, turning our back on anything that was invented after the 19th century seems foolhardy at best. The traditional process that created traditional cities is not incompatible with new building forms and technologies, there is no reason to shun them.
In a way, the true descendants of traditional cities aren't the mummified European cities of Paris and London where all is done to maintain buildings and neighborhoods as they were in the early 20th century, but Japanese cities. Yes, Japanese cities are resolutely modern in terms of buildings, but the traditional process of city-building is still alive in Japan, while it has been replaced by planner fiat in Europe and North America. The people who built the cities people love would have likely been more than happy to have our modern technology to allow for taller buildings with more varied materials. Likewise, though the Japanese use modern materials and technologies, they still use them in a way that is more in line with the traditional process of incremental city-building. The opposite of Europeans who use traditional materials and technologies but have a strictly modern planning system to control their urban developments.
So, all in all, I would say that we need more pragmatism and less artistic "integrity" in urban development policies. Any regulation to satisfy subjective aesthetic criteria should be analyzed to see how they impact the economics of urban development, and they should only be applied if they have no impact or only minor impacts on affordability. Prince Charles' principles come from, if I may say, a radical perspective where aesthetics matter above all else, a flaw that is only too common in current urbanists and architects and result in cities that are supremely expensive to live in, with people of modest means forced to live ever farther from the central areas and to commute ever longer distances.