Academic journal article The Town Planning Review

How Relevant Is 'Planning by Neighbourhoods' Today?

Academic journal article The Town Planning Review

How Relevant Is 'Planning by Neighbourhoods' Today?

Article excerpt

At Greenwich Peninsula, next to the troubled Millennium Dome which signifies the turn of the millennium in London, English Partnerships, an urban regeneration agency, is developing a new residential area called Millennium Village. The project's overall aim is 'to create a secure, high quality modern community with the traditional values of village life' (English Partnerships, 1998, 2). The master plan is designed by the architect Ralph Erskine and

aims to establish a sense of community through the balanced design of buildings and public spaces, the integration of public transport and pedestrian movement and the creation of a varied urban texture that accommodates different uses and activities over a long period of time. (English Partnerships, 1998, 2)

This is a significant project and will transform an important site at the heart of a major world city. There is little doubt that it will develop some high-quality residential space, but, we may wonder, how is it possible and why is it desirable to create a community? We may be sceptical of this choice of words as simply some sort of publicity, drawing upon a nostalgic and cosy image of village life for selling the development, but even if it is just advertising why is it employing the notion of community and not something else, for example the quality of individual units in the scheme, as is the case with many developers?

Many generations before us have been involved in planning, developing and criticising urban neighbourhoods. Creating urban neighbourhoods was once the focal point of urban design and planning, but it faded into the background as severe criticisms were made against its social claims, which included creating communities. Despite these criticisms the quest for promoting communities is with us once again, from social and political debates around communitarianism to a variety of design proposals for sustainable urban neighbourhoods. This trend, which could be called 'micro-urbanism' (Madanipour, 1996), promotes the design and development of small-scale, distinctive neighbourhoods and settlements, recreating a small version of a city.

The question of how to deal with the emotive and controversial notion of community is very complex. Nevertheless, as urban planners and designers are engaged in the-shaping of cities they cannot avoid coming to a clear view about the social significance of urban neighbourhoods and communities. The social scientists who are interested in the re-emergence of the notion of communitybuilding may also benefit from an examination of the way urban design approaches the subject. This paper aims at contributing to an awareness of the notion of planning by neighbourhoods through examining the current trend, its historic predecessors and some of the broad contexts in which it is embedded. The main questions here are: How relevant is planning by neighbourhoods today and why? Why does the notion of promoting communities, through social change and spatial transformation, keep coming back to the agenda of those who are engaged in understanding, shaping and managing cities and urban societies? What are the political, economic, social and environmental parameters that lie at the foundation of such return?

An emerging trend

The Greenwich Millennium Village is not the only example of its kind. It can also be seen in the promotion of urban neighbourhoods by the Urban Villages Forum, which brings together many housebuilders, developers, funders, planners and designers and works on around 35 projects with English Partnerships. In response to the 'bland and monotonous developments of recent years' and rather than 'single use and single tenure estates', the Forum's aim is 'to create mixed use urban developments on a sustainable scale' (Urban Villages Forum, 1998). The qualities of the urban villages are spelled out as offering

a variety of uses, such as shopping, leisure and community facilities alongside housing; a choice of tenures, both residential and commercial; a density of development which can help encourage the use of non-housing activities; a strong sense of place, with basic amenities within easy walking distance of all residents; a high level of involvement by local residents in the planning and onward management of the new development. …

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