From Concept to Completion: A Critical Analysis of the Urban Village

By Biddulph, Michael; Franklin, Bridget et al. | The Town Planning Review, June 2003 | Go to article overview

From Concept to Completion: A Critical Analysis of the Urban Village


Biddulph, Michael, Franklin, Bridget, Tait, Malcolm, The Town Planning Review


This paper provides a critical review of the 'life' of a planning concept-the urban village. Initially it considers the process whereby the concept has become discursively fixed into something seemingly homogeneous, and located carefully in relation to both established and emerging debates about, for example, community, design and sustainability. The paper then moves on to consider the value and utility of the concept as it has been implemented and then subsequently as it became a lived experience. This process of implementing the concept has resulted in it becoming unfixed. This resulted from-an intensification in debates relating to urban policy; changes in the institution that owns the concept; tensions from the competing professional agendas; tensions between urban village design and development principles and the local circumstances; and contradictions between the concept as a product of professional discourse and the experiences and aspirations of residents.

A number of development concepts have emerged recently in Britain whose proponents claim that, if achieved, they would deliver more sustainable urban environments. SpeciRcally these concepts seek to transcend typical patterns of development and instead capture and promote a different vision. Such concepts apply to a range of scales, but include the compact city (Jenks et al., 1996), the polycentric city (Frey, 1999), the urban quarter (Krier, 1998), the sustainable urban neighbourhood (Rudlin and Falk, 1999), the urban village (Aldous, 1997), the eco-village (Barton, 1999), and the millennium village (DETR, 2000). These concepts have become important in legitimising and coordinating more finite elements of an underlying development strategy and in some cases providing a perceived deeper legitimacy to the act of planning. Gaining acceptance for these concepts and translating them into practice has, however, proved more difficult, and the only one that might claim to have resulted in any significant number of planned or built examples is the urban village.

Using the urban village as an example, this paper aims to consider what might be called the 'life' of such a concept in planning. In particular it considers a number of transformations which together constitute the processes involved in conceptualising, developing and finally living in the urban village concept. Central to this approach is an understanding of how various actors have taken multifarious strands of thinking and 'fixed' them into a seemingly homogeneous concept, and then how and why this concept has been progressively 'unfixed' as it has been transformed into 'paper' planning schemes, transformed again into built products, and finally realised as a lived experience.

Despite the proliferation of developments under the urban village rubric, little academic research has been conducted into the phenomenon. Biddulph (2000) argued that the urban village concept is largely derived from traditional notions of neighbourhood planning updated with reference to more recent urban design concepts. Thompson-Fawcett (1996; 1998a; 1998b; 2000) investigated the background and philosophy of the urban village and compared it to the similar New Urbanist or Traditional Neighbourhood Development (TND) movement in the USA. Her empirical work of the British experience is limited to two case studies, the location of one of which is also the subject of a less critical paper by McArthur (2000). Both Thompson-Fawcett and commentators on the TND argue that the thinking behind the respective concepts is utopian, nostalgic and deterministic, as well as based on a flawed premise about contemporary constructions of community (Audirac and Shermyen, 1994; Thompson- Fawcett, 1996; Southworth, 1997). Built examples too do not always match the vision, since in addition to giving substance to a 'cloudy paradigm' (Thompson-Fawcett, 2000, 278), they are also subject to the whims of developers, the proclivities of residents, and the reality of economic and social forces (Leung, 1995; Southworth and Parthasarathy, 1997). …

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