building in flexibility

Have you noticed how many projects have built-in obsolescence? Public realm schemes are a good source of examples, where soon after the redesigned street layout has been built it becomes clear that the design solves some problems but creates others – but it is so “fixed” that it can’t be easily changed in response.

Paisley town centre pedestrianisation and traffic management, design and implemented around 10 years ago, is an example which is particularly local to me. I fully sign up to the principles of the scheme: a more pleasant environment than the free-for-all it used to be with pedestrians getting a raw deal, and a better streetscape for people visiting and working in the town centre to match the quality of the buildings.

The scheme has, unfortunately, come in for considerable criticism from local businesses, their argument being that pedestrianisation and overly restrictive traffic management drive people elsewhere.

In reality, Paisley is suffering from its proximity to the greater attractions of Glasgow city centre and out-of-town shopping centres at Braehead and now Silverburn. But there is a grain of truth in the claim that changes to the town centre contribute to its lack of attractiveness compared to other shopping destinations.

The local authority is taking steps to review the traffic management scheme, as part of a strategy of measures to regenerate the town centre. (As part of that, I am leading a commission on the Council’s behalf to encourage local property owners to bring vacant units back into re-use – but more of that another time.)

Ideally, this review will look at the balance between vehicle and pedestrian accessibility and recommend changes if they could help to boost the town centre economy – such as greater vehicle movement through the town centre, for example. But the Council is restricted in its options for change. The public realm design that was implemented a few years ago uses high quality, expensive materials to delineate areas for pedestrians and vehicles. Re-allocating space for vehicles and people would involve moving slate paving, granite setts and tarmac – an expensive job.

There is a pattern of similar scenarios throughout the country: town centres are pedestrianised with schemes which use top quality, robust materials – but the lack of built-in flexibility means that the longevity of the design nowhere near matches the lifetime of the materials. Paisley just happens to be my local town, which is why I mention it. The local authority is actively trying to address the issues that the town centre faces, and should be applauded for that.

Moreover, this problem isn’t restricted to public realm schemes. You can see the same thing throughout planning, urban design and architecture:

Big outdated ‘60s town centre shopping malls that become obstacles to regeneration as their sheer size means the challenge of redevelopment is too great.

1990s suburban housing estates built around the car, perpetuating the need for everyone to have a car and making it more difficult to tackle traffic congestion and carbon emissions.

A national housing stock which doesn’t reflect current demand for smaller families and people living on their own – occupants which have dramatically different space requirements from the bigger families and shared housing conditions of 100 years ago.

Hindsight is of course a wonderful thing. But as planners and designers, it is part of our responsibility to try to avoid built-in obsolescence in the environments that we create.

not Paisley !With this in mind, perhaps I could make three suggestions:

Flexibility. Assume that the world will change, whether we’re designing a new building or a new town. Design to accommodate change, not for the moment.

Review. Suggest to the client that they should plan for the design to be revisited after it has bedded in, with budget made available for any necessary adjustments.

Humility. Let’s not assume that we are smart enough to get the answer right first time.

Implementing these three things is not easy – I find it challenging myself on projects that I’m currently involved with, from a masterplan for Turriff showground to proposals for repositioning Aberdeen city centre’s role. But I believe they would make for better environments.

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