Rethinking Masterplanning | Book Review

When the proverbial person at a party asks what we do for a living, it can be slightly uncomfortable to admit to being a masterplanner. It can sound Fascist, even State Socialist and, as Joe Ravetz points out in these pages, it is hardly gender neutral. How has such a politically incorrect term become so central to the process of urban design and indeed urbanism?

This book goes a little way to explaining this, but its main objective is to propose new forms of masterplanning that are less authoritarian, rigid and top down. Many of the authors in this book seek to deconstruct the idea of a masterplan and to rethink it as something that is more inclusive, holistic and sustainable. Moving from the blueprint to the systems’ approach, from the top-down to the co-created.

In doing so many of the authors (if not perhaps all) recognise the paradox in this argument. Masterplanning is in many ways the antithesis of the loose-fit, evolutionary, participative city that many of the authors argue for. For all of the talk of co-creation and bottom-up process, a masterplan is nothing unless it is fixed through some form of collective authority that can only really be top-down.

Through The Academy of Urbanism’s awards scheme we have assessed 165 places. From this we can observe that masterplans have played a pivotal framing role in many of the great places that we have assessed; from the tiny town of Westport in Ireland to Cerdà’s Eixample in Barcelona, from James Craig’s masterplan for Edinburgh New Town to Richard Grainger’s Grainger town in Newcastle and Mayfair in London. The same is true of newly built neighbourhoods, be they Aarhus Western Harbour, Freiburg’s Reiselfeldt or Glasgow’s Crown Street.

All of these great places have strong masterplans and few were created through a collaborative bottom-up process. Yet these imposed, even authoritarian, plans have created diverse lively urban areas. It is a puzzle that is explained in this book in chapters by Jonathan Tarbatt and Ombretta Romice (together with her colleagues in Glasgow). The masterplan is some kind of holding frame – which the two of us have identified as a ‘trellis’ or a ‘lattice’. The framework might be fixed, but this very rigidity creates the conditions for spontaneity and for places to evolve over time. Time is the component that is missing from many modern masterplans which have been conceived as end-state visions, almost as if they can be wished into existence and emerge fully formed over night. Good masterplans are never complete. They create a framework, both physical and regulatory, on which places can grow and evolve.

This book is an important contribution to the understanding of this process, resurrecting the tarnished idea of the masterplan and illustrating its relevance to the modern city. With an ever-expanding global urban population, there is an urgency to understand this process. The skyscraper and the mega structure are not the inevitable result of rapid urbanisation that they can sometimes seem. If we can re-teach ourselves the art of masterplanning, we can accommodate rapid population growth whilst also creating lively, resilient towns and cities. This book is a valuable starting point to begin this relearning.

David Rudlin AoU, Kevin Murray AoU
The Academy of Urbanism

Rethinking Masterplanning is edited by Husam AlWaer AoU and Barbara Illsley
ISBN: 978-0-7277-6071-5
Buy this book from the end of June online at: icebookshop.com (for hardcopies).


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