Tuesday 24 January 2012

Places are made of people (and bricks)

I blogged yesterday about the book, A Pattern Language. One thing it teaches us is that places aren't just bricks and mortar and concrete, they are a culmination of thousands of years of human activity, and constantly adapt to the patterns of life which occur there.  They are shaped by humans to operate for the benefit of humans (or, more usually, a subset thereof).

But this is by no means the end of the story! As Jonathan Smales of Beyond Green said in a lecture I attended at the Festival of Architecture in Norwich and Norfolk (FANN) last year, "We shape our cities; thereafter they shape us." The phrase is based on Winston Churchill's quote which talks of buildings, rather than cities, but it all boils down to the same thing... the designers of our environment have a lot to answer for because of the influence that their perhaps seemingly trivial decisions can have on how we live our lives.

How can we live low-carbon, ethical and fulfilling lives when much of our environment is designed for car-drivers, supermarket shoppers, individualistic materialists and resource wasters? Sure, there are some great places too (which I shall mention in more detail in tomorrow's post), but there's a double waste associated with bad environments: firstly the wasteful environment itself, but also the destruction of the potential for a sustainable environment. Fields, once turned into car parks, cannot be turned back into fields without another huge packet of waste.

Beyond Green Developments are, in some ways, in a great position to try this out, and indeed they are determined to, as developers responsible for an entirely new place to be built in the north-east Norwich "growth triangle", but that doesn't mean that we should just leave all these complex place-making decisions up to them alone. As potential residents, shop-owners, community members, we also should be able to guide these design decisions.  Luckily, Beyond Green, unlike other developers, is keen to ensure that the new community members do get a say in the form their community takes.

Such new communities would have the ability to design an "identifiable neighbourhood" (pattern 14), with a "web of shopping" (pattern 19) where "individually owned shops" (87) form an activity node (30), served by "bike paths and racks" (56), encouraging the use of those local shops over bland, out-of-town supermarkets.

But why shouldn't we also try to influence decisions made about places that already exist?  What small changes could we make to our environment that would help us to live in a more sustainable way, without having to rely on huge redevelopment? Take, for example, the pattern "Fruit Trees" (170), which suggests that small orchards should be planted "on common land along paths and streets, in parks, in neighbourhoods" for the experience they add of "growth, harvest, local sources of fresh food; walking down a a city street, pulling an apply out of a tree, and biting into it." We could quite easily plant up places like the above open space on Trafford Road with a few fruit trees.  It would serve multiple purposes, as it could also create a vibrant "public outdoor room" (pattern 69) by planting up the area near the road, effectively forming a wall (pattern 173) to shield the space from the road.

When people talk to you about how they want to live more sustainably, but lack the ability to follow through, why not ask yourself how much of that is because their environment is shaping their lives more than they themselves are? Perhaps it's time for a change of environment, like moving to Norwich from the middle of nowhere so that you don't have to drive everywhere, for example!  

Images: Chapelfield Mall Car Park entrance and park on Trafford Road, both by Simeon Jackson both released under Creative Commons.


  1. You are right, how can one live sustainable in unsustainable environments? I like to give you a couple of quotas, first one from Charles Siegel:

    "New Urbanists are building developments today that are similar to the railroad suburbs, streetcar suburbs, and urban neighbourhoods of a century ago. Their use of models from the past is a real challenge to the modern economy, because it implies that people would be better off living more simply. Suburbia and the automobile were the mainstays of postwar economic growth, whereas New Urbanists are saying that we would be better off if we lived in homes that use less land and in neighbourhoods where we have the choice of walking, rather than being forced to drive every time we leave our houses.

    If New Urbanist neighbourhoods are more liveable than conventional automobile-dependent suburbs, that fact is a real threat to General Motors, ExxonMobile, and Wal-Mart - unlike the self-consciously 'radical' gestures of the post-modernists, which do not challenge our economy at all." See:


    Then one from Michael Mehaffy:

    "But there's a problem. We have fractured these urban networks, and rebuilt much more dispersed, “dendritic” systems, connected not by pedestrians, but by automobiles, dispersed suburban campuses and parks, and single-family monocultures, supplemented by telephones and now, computers. The majority of us lives in encapsulated houses, in encapsulated neighborhoods, and travel in encapsulated cars to encapsulated work places, stores and other destinations."

    But this is not all, in addition to rejecting us to live unsustainable lives, today's dominant architecture is anxiety generating and making us gloomy. Here I like to recommend a resent essay by Nikos Salingaros:

    - Why Monotonous Repetition is Unsatisfying:


    Here is a recent recording of Christopher Alexander helding a lecture in London, sent to me by Brian Hamilton, Irland:

    - Christopher Alexander Talks on the Process of Creating Life :


    Brian plans to make a transcript of this speach by Alexander, I will post it as soon I get it, but meanwhile you have to live with just this amateur video.

    Further, thank you very much for writing about the Pattern Language, one of the most important books of our time:


  2. One more quota from Charles Siegel:

    "In architecture, also, we need to reject the avant garde's pursuit of novelty and its belief that new technology should sweep away the past, in favor of design based on enduring human values. Christopher Alexander has laid the groundwork with his theory that there are continuing patterns underlying all traditional architecture, which modernists have abandoned, but to which we must return in order to build on a human scale." See:


    By the way, have you read Charles Siegel's new book Classical Liberalism, it's posted for free at his homepage:


  3. Thanks for your comments, Øyvind! I haven't really looked at Charles Siegel's work, so I must! But I definitely do consider myself a New Urbanist!