Trends in masterplaning | Robert Adam AoU

Identifying Trends in Masterplanning

17 July 2013, 70 Cowcross Street, London EC1M 6EJ

Hosted by Alan Baxter Associates

A talk by Robert Adam AoU, Director of Adam Architecture, on recent research by Claire Jamieson, given at the Academy’s Mid Year Review on 17 July 2013.

The Mid-Year Review on July 17th saw over 50 Academicians gather to assess the Academy’s progress in 2013 and look ahead to events for the rest of the year. Discussion and debate centred around issues such as the need for thought leadership in the rapidly expanding area of digital urbanism, the uniqueness of the British perspective on urbanism and the importance of local initiative, and the Academy’s role in mentoring a new generation of urbanists.

Robert Adam (AoU) was the keynote speaker of the afternoon and his presentation on ‘Identifying Trends in Masterplanning’ pointed to some interesting possible applications of the typological classification system his research has produced.

As any urbanist knows, more often than not you can tell the age of a town or city by looking at the figure ground of its plan. Given that execution of plans lags many years behind their creation on paper, Robert and his research assistant Claire Jamieson decided to take a different approach to the normal procedures of regulation and analysis and look at the plans themselves. To do so, they deliberately stripped out the qualitative, content based aspects of their material (eg. different political systems in different countries). Instead they focused purely on form and quantity.

350 mixed-use samples of at least 10 hectares in size were selected from towns and cities around the world, dating from 1981 onwards. In order to deal with this material, Robert came up with 8 different categories of assessment: plan type, permeability, density, network articulation, block articulation, architecture, use and context. Each category was then subdivided into further classifications, in this way producing layers of information until countable units were arrived at. For example ‘plan type’ was divided into categories such as: orthogonal, clashing, distorted, radial, townscape, ‘Olmstedian’, stem pattern etc. Some categories, like ‘use’, were straightforward, being based on already existing and familiar classifications (mixed, residential, zoned). Others, like ‘permeability’, were more speculative – here based on the number of intersections in a plan.

The next step was to test the methodology on some more limited examples. Robert started by comparing 10 samples from 1996 and 10 from 2006. The results showed an increase in perimeter blocks and orthogonal grids. He then tried testing against a known result – the predominance of orthogonal grids in the US compared to Europe. Sure enough the method worked on this case too.

A perhaps more surprising result of one of these ‘tests’ was to show that the ‘New Urbanism’ in North America and elsewhere does indeed have a consistent form, suggesting that it isn’t as ‘responsive’ as it claims.

What started out as an attempt to identify historical trends developed into a quest for a methodology. This, more than anything else, has been the main outcome of the research. Robert was keen to stress that his methodology is an open system: new categories can be added or existing ones taken away as necessary.

The research is due to be published, so hopefully it will be taken up and further adapted. In the meantime Academicians at the Mid-Year Review had adaptations of their own to suggest:

Some suggested that transport would be an important element to introduce, in terms of thinking about how the geometry of a city is interlaced by lines of movement and connection. Picking up on the ‘geometric’ nature of the research, one Academician suggested that a 3-dimensional, topographical aspect be introduced. Finally, attempting to connect the research back to the world of policy and politics, there were other suggestions that results be compared in terms of the nature of the political systems and the predominant language of planning policy in a given time and place.

The Review ended with drinks on the rooftop garden of Alan Baxter Associates, our generous hosts for the day, where Academicians and guests could put some of their typological thinking into practice, looking out over a sunny London skyline.