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Do we still need masterplans?

Masterplans are often seen as the key to success to our cities, but the reality is they often fail to achieve the desired results. In this article series, we will explore how masterplans should evolve to be more exciting and deliver for people and the planet. We will discuss how retrofitting can deliver system change and the value of embedding delivery into everything we do to help us achieve our goals more effectively.

Do we still need masterplans? This is not a new question. There have been countless articles, talks, and discussions around this topic. Some say ‘yes’, some say ‘no’, some say ‘no, but’; perhaps it’s less about the answer and more about the question of why we keep thinking masterplans are not delivering what we hope they would.

Masterplans have been around for centuries. They were born out of the need to address sanitary challenges, plan growth, or deal with the aftermath of major disasters. After the Great Fire of London in 1666, King Charles II invited architects and surveyors to present new plans for the city’s reconstruction. Christopher Wren’s proposal is perhaps the most widely known, given his prominence as an architect at the time. It included an entirely new street network that reflected his fascination for Rome and Paris.

However, Wren, and all the others, didn’t account for complex land ownership and lack of money available (in part due to the war with Holland) to deliver the proposals. Streets were widened and building standards changed, but buildings were largely rebuilt on their original plots, putting a damper on any opportunity for more significant urban improvements.

In 1944, Abercrombie’s Greater London Plan also brought exciting new propositions to rebuild the city, replacing housing and amenities annihilated during World War II bombings. During the eight months of the Blitz, one in six Londoners became homeless and at least 1.1 million houses were damaged or destroyed. In addition, London was already facing challenges associated with rapid industrialisation and chaotic urban growth.

The County of London Plan 1943, Social and Functional Analysis. Patrick Abercrombie

The County of London Plan 1943, Social and Functional Analysis. Patrick Abercrombie.

Abercrombie’s plan attempted to address some of those issues and established good urban planning principles: diversification and co-location of uses to ensure communities were well served and neighbourhoods active and interesting; protection of green spaces as fundamental assets of the city; and densification with improved connectivity to avoid urban sprawl. Nonetheless, the Greater London Plan was never realised, mainly due to a lack of resources to deliver substantial change and infrastructure.

Nowadays, masterplans still have grand ambitions to create significant change. Why is it, then, that many masterplans fail to deliver their vision?

Masterplans, undoubtedly an overused description nowadays, can be broadly divided into strategic and site-specific. The Scottish Government defines a masterplan as: ‘three-dimensional images and text describing how an area will be developed. Its scope can range from strategic planning at a regional scale to small-scale groups of buildings’.

Strategic masterplans are typically developed around a shared and holistic vision for a place and intend to bring wider cohesion. They support strategic decisions (from policy to the economy), organise area growth, and link different areas and their purposes, avoiding a piecemeal approach. While strategic masterplans can range in scale, they’ll typically reflect more extensive geographies and involve more extensive infrastructure requirements.

In London, the Mayor of London is responsible for producing a strategic framework (the London Plan) that guides the capital’s development for the following 20 to 25 years, with refreshes every five years. Site-specific masterplans focus on smaller areas that are undeveloped or part of more considerable regeneration plans.

At their best, masterplans respond to circumstance and provide a route map towards outcomes that favour everyone. Sadly, in general, they tend to focus firstly and primarily on urban design, only taking timid cues from social, economic and environmental aspects.

Masterplans have historically been an articulation of the times and paradigms in which they were developed and delivered, resulting in plans over the last 50 years that have been created to appeal to developer interests and (at their worst) exacerbate extractive behaviour. In the past, architects were often most interested in how masterplans looked from a design perspective and did not always have to consider—or had the power to outright ignore—how their plans would affect and benefit people.

Today, that approach is not acceptable. Underdeveloped or underperforming areas exist in urban contexts with existing heritage, community value and specific challenges and opportunities that go beyond their urban form.

Masterplans should focus on the people they intend to serve, delivering wellbeing and social impact while protecting natural resources, promoting regenerative economies and preserving the planet. Those aspects should be the starting point in defining design briefs and informing spatial decisions. Proposals that don’t reflect these ambitions open the door to inequality and degenerative practices—and ultimately dysfunctional places.

Going beyond urban morphology and towards systems thinking

Urban environments are complex systems and difficult to model due to their relationships and interactions. While starting from urban morphology (the main physical elements that structure and shape the city including streets, squares, plots, and buildings) is certainly seductive from a design point of view, it is a myth to think that’s enough to deliver successful places. Master planners should understand a place from its social, economic and environmental perspectives before focusing on the urban form and spatial distribution.

We must think in systems rather than transactions, acknowledging the complexity and interdependencies of masterplans. Designs have to be co-created with and for local communities, fostering inclusive places and promoting fairness, while embedding enough flexibility to respond to future demands. And, not least, masterplans have the utmost responsibility to be developed within the planet’s limits.

A new way forward: Stratford masterplan

We are now deeply aware of the social and climate challenges we currently face and are transitioning to adapting masterplan designs to become processes that reflect the ambition to serve, first and foremost, the people and the planet. In this regard, PRD has been working closely with LB Newham to look at how Stratford can play its role in delivering those ambitions in the borough.

Stratford is one of London’s largest regeneration areas, benefitting from the city’s Olympic Legacy, and new development has continued rapidly since the Olympic Games. However, it has not always considered or kept pace with the needs of the pre-existing local communities and the existing built context, which led LB Newham to develop further plans for the area.

Originally a masterplan in the traditional sense, it became clear that Stratford needed a different approach to achieve impactful, locally focused change. LB Newham asked PRD to lead this work, as opposed to an urban design lead, to realign the economy and property elements of the plan to ensure that council priorities on health, wellbeing, participation, representation and climate were reflected in the emerging spatial strategy. Our approach focused on what is important to local people now, rather than on grand plans for redesign and development, leading to a plan that is relatively agnostic to growth and will thrive without this if necessary. It provided a new route map for Stratford built around the principles of people and the planet.

This and other experiences have shown us that masterplans and spatial visions provide a fantastic opportunity to empower and animate local communities; to engage with the bigger societal challenges we face; to push the boundaries on building performance; to reuse/retrofit assets; and to refocus on the daily needs of a local population. Too often, consideration of big investments in buildings or infrastructure crowd out these activities, when in truth they can deliver the benefits of focusing on the inherent needs and opportunities locally.

So, do we still need masterplans? We probably need them more than ever. But, in the same way that Christopher Wren and Patrick Abercrombie responded to their context, the discipline needs to evolve to be broader. Masterplans need to be regenerative and not extractive; they cannot compromise our ecological and environmental future; they should only promote development where it serves people and the planet; and they should be a moment to rebalance power, driven by local need. This will require a rethink of what we value in the built environment and some bold rethinking of how projects are briefed, commissioned and cliented. Get it right and we will have the opportunity to define exciting new approaches, which ultimately will give us thriving, greener, fairer places.

By Carolina Eboli and Chris Paddock