Sustaining the traditional matrix of our cities

For many the above will be a surprising subject title for an architectural blog but it is a vital component in sustaining the traditional matrix of our cities.

Good urban design shapes the backdrop for life in cities and towns and it creates the right conditions for places to be lively, welcoming and safe.

It fosters social and economic diversity and is probably the principle condition for achieving successful urban integration on every level.

Neighbourhood means much more than a localized geographic area – it means human scale buildings, a variety of types and densities, accessibility and proximity to services, public transport, shops, businesses, etc – a livable, workable environment.

Cities need texture and age, physical and cultural continuity.  Density and development need to be balanced with ‘livability’ if we are to preserve them as authentic places for people to live and work in.

Coarse grain urban fabric is like coarse cloth – functional but by no means comfortable.  Such places resist integration and connectivity – instead they promote isolation, are inward looking and are inhospitable to human interaction.

Fine grain urban fabric is like a finely woven material that is comfortable to wear or linger in.  It gives a sense of belonging, of being safe and therefore able to discover and turn corners without knowing where they might lead.

It evolves over time and relies on what was there before as well as what is there now.   It is not imposed, it can be piecemeal but it is evolutionary and has a dynamic that implies continuity and community.

A built environment that is increasingly dominated by fewer, larger ‘hybrid’ buildings is a symbol of developers negating the ‘wants’ of city dwellers.  And tearing down and re-building is counter-productive to sustainability and ecological goals.   Large, high-rise buildings fail to engage with the pedestrian, and they say little of what is going on inside.

It also negates the opportunities for smaller developers whose motives are often not dissimilar, but can and often do improve and enhance the immediate environment.  Small scale developments take into consideration existing streetscapes and building heights, the number of storeys that will complement the surrounding buildings, the construction materials that will respect what already exists, and the detailing considered and respectful.

There will always be a case for the wholesale regeneration of an inner-city area that has become obsolete because it’s original purpose and activity have vanished.  In these circumstances the ‘historic’ buildings that populate the area can be preserved and re-used and the empty spaces in between can be sites for housing, recreation and communal activity.  Newcomers welcomed by oldcomers with an interplay that is genuinely ‘fine grain’ and reflects the dynamic between decline and renewal.