Saturday, 31 March 2012

A review of URBAN ETHIC

This review by Carol Dair of my 2006 book URBAN ETHIC was published in Planning Theory and Practice Vol.8 Issue 2 2007 pp. 559-560

The book is about urban regeneration and redevelopment, with a specific focus on contemporary urban design practice. Drawing on historical examples of urban form, it seeks to provide a methodology for the analysis and design of urban spatial environments for the benefit of urban dwellers. According to the author, such a methodology is necessary because few contemporary urban regeneration projects display quality in design.
Here ‘quality in design’ has a specific meaning. It refers to the capacity of urban environments “to articulate a common ethos, to accommodate coexisting rival expressions, but also reflect individual concerns” (p. 77). Hence the methodology sets out how this ethos can be achieved in regeneration projects. To do this it concentrates on four elements: patterns, narratives, monuments and spaces.
The book is divided into two parts. Part I consists of a survey and analysis of the history of urban development (with specific reference to urban spatial character). It traces development in the historic city, the industrial city and the post-industrial city, mainly through the writings of architects and designers though the volume does include some social commentaries. Canniffe elucidates his view on what constitutes an ethical urban environment and while few could disagree with his aims, his ideas as to how they can be achieved are more controversial. Canniffe is a firm believer that the only way to satisfy ethical values is through the application of traditional principles in urban design. He therefore eschews approaches based on Modernism, Neo Modernism and New Urbanism, and the analysis he presents and the examples he selects are used unashamedly to support and justify this standpoint.
In Part II the methodology and the tools of analysis, namely the patterns, narratives, monuments and spaces, are explained and described. Canniffe draws on a broad literature and uses case studies to illustrate how the combined application of these four elements will allow individual expression whilst creating a shared understanding amongst citizens, thus giving rise to an ethical city.
The four elements are the focal point of the book. However, despite the fact that, as Part I illustrates, these are not the only elements that could have been selected, a robust, meaningful discussion on the selection process is missing. This is not the volume's only weakness. The model itself does not resolve the dilemma of how urban design can represent disparate individual expressions. It is not until the final chapter that a solution is offered, in the shape of public participation in the design process. Conflicts between participant ideas will be resolved and decisions taken by some form of independent authority, made up of design professionals. However, this still does not tackle the question of how any differences amongst these decision makers will be resolved.
The style of writing makes the book difficult to read, despite the fact that its argument is straightforward. Rarely are the disparate strands drawn together in a coherent way to guide the reader through the discussions. Rather, each section or chapter simply runs on without a clear summary or conclusion. For example, it is left to the reader to deduce the connection between Part I and Part II of the book. Canniffe acknowledges this problem in the final chapter but the justification given is inadequate and the conclusion provides little reflection on what has been said so far and instead presents yet more examples, descriptions and comments to reinforce Canniffe's idea of an urban ethic.
So who is the audience for this work, and how will they benefit from reading this book? These are difficult questions because the volume presents Canniffe's personal and expressive response to the failures of contemporary urban regeneration projects. In other words it is not a critical review of the elements of urban design along the lines of Carmona et al's comprehensive book Public Places—Urban Spaces (2003). Nor does it offer a new theory of urban design. It does not present results from in-depth empirical research of regeneration projects, and it does not offer an explanation of the ways in which urban design (and specific patterns, narratives, monuments and spaces within it) is successful, or an account of the groups for whom it is successful. The book is more a crusade for ‘ethical’ design considerations (i.e. those outside the short term political and commercial interests) to be taken into account in regeneration projects, and therein lies its appeal.

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