First Minister, Ladies and Gentlemen, I’m enormously grateful to the First Minister for giving up so much of his precious time before he has to go back to Parliament to answer questions and also incredibly grateful to Jim Mckinnon for helping to organise this great gathering.
I must tell you that two years ago, I played a very small part in the celebrations that attended the tenth anniversary of Edinburgh's World Heritage status. Edinburgh’s World Heritage designation, as you know better than I, recognizes both its importance as one of the great planned cities and, moreover, a townscape of staggering beauty. Back in 1989, in A Vision of Britain, I wrote that, in my estimation, Edinburgh was the most beautiful city in Britain. The construction of the New Town required vision and conviction. But the shared aspirations for the New Town were strong and clear from the very start.
Indeed, since the Enlightenment, Scotland has had great influence around the world through its architects, engineers and town planners as we’ve already heard. Recently – I am told – our distinguished keynote speaker Andres Duany poetically described Scotland as the “General Motors” of town planning. Ladies and Gentlemen you may wish to corner him afterwards and ascertain to your own satisfaction whether or not this was intended as a compliment! Of course, he is referring to the prodigious and consistent output of generations of planners and engineers whose work around the world informed the growth of countless settlements, whose denizens today may not even be aware of their debt to Scottish vision in years past. Our own pressures for growth have now roused a resurgence of interest in proactive master planning which I am sure resonates well with this rich legacy. So, will all this help Scottish planners to take an even stronger leading role?
I understand that the figures now being quoted in the new growth agenda amount to some 35,000 homes a year for the foreseeable future. Experience south of the border suggests that a game of high numbers soon becomes meaningless without addressing the measure of how new residential areas become places to live – the spread and mix of homes with shops and other functions, the role of investment in shared infrastructure and amenity, the incorporation of public transport, and whether rules can be established about design that can confer that all important sense of “place” – and, indeed, of identity; so increasingly vital to human wellbeing in a globalized world where everything as you travel around, is becoming the same and where the last remnants of people’s cultures are swamped by an all-powerful alien species – so powerful and so destructive of the human spirit that you will find most architects and planners clinging on to the last vestiges of those threatened, civilized habitats which haven’t, as yet, been swamped by the aliens from deconstructed outer space!
So what do these aspirations I mentioned earlier boil down to in practice? For what it is worth my own interpretation of the “neighbourhood” formula is simple – a network of legible, interconnected streets that accommodate the car while celebrating the pedestrian; the principle of encompassing work, play, shopping and living in a harmonious way within walkable distances, and the “pepper-potting” of affordable housing amongst those on the open market – all the while attempting to restore a sense of harmony, proportion and, above all, beauty into our everyday lives. And do you notice how no-one dares talk about beauty nowadays very much? Is this because, along with so much else, it has become subsumed under the stifling blanket of moral relativism? And yet, surely, when you think about it carefully, beauty is actually at the heart of genuine sustainability?
All of this I have striven to achieve – probably exhausting such leadership powers as I possess – at Poundbury (and shortly also on the edge of Newquay in Cornwall), where at Poundbury I engaged Leon Krier on a master plan for Dorchester’s urban extension in order to put my money where my mouth is and create an appropriate legacy for tomorrow. Now that 1,200 people live there and there is a daytime working population of 750, Poundbury richly proves the point that it is possible to break the conventional mould of simplistically zoned development and create mixed-use communities that nonetheless return considerable value – not only commercial value but also, and this I think is the crucial point, enhance social and environmental value.
If I may say so I am delighted that in the past few years, my Foundation for the Built Environment and my Regeneration Trust, have been busy working on a series of projects that subscribe to these all-important principles of “place”. From several initiatives now on the ground I would like to single out the Enquiry by Design workshops, sponsored by Scotia Homes in Ballater and Ellon, and recently, with Stewart Milne Group, to consider the growth and restructuring of some outlying districts of Aberdeen. My Foundation and my Regeneration Trust have also been working to plan sustainable strategies for both regeneration of existing communities and new neighbourhoods at Castletown, in Caithness, as part of the North Highland Initiative. By the way, I would take this opportunity to say how grateful I am for the visionary participation of both Bill Bruce, of Scotia Homes, and Stewart Milne in the work of my Foundation. They really are leading the way in Scotland in this sense.
The Enquiry by Design process brings together a full cross-section of interest groups at the outset, with the aim of drawing up long-term plans based firmly on consensus and sound local knowledge. This is in contrast to the conventional planning route, which tends to pitch competing interests and narrow specialisms against each other, often resulting in incoherent, piecemeal growth. I gather now however, that bold planning reform in Scotland is putting early engagement, speed and certainty at the heart of the matter.
Many of you I suspect may be familiar with Andres Duany’s plans for Tornagrain, developed through a charrette process in September 2006. Numerous others also have contributed to the general movement towards better urban environments, including a number of masterplans for the Leith waterfront in Edinburgh.
I hope that through working closely with communities and other stakeholders, all these projects will become exemplars of sympathetic, organic development.
There is no doubt for instance that there can be immense value in understanding and analysing the essential ‘DNA’ of a place to help inform new development, in terms of urban layout, massing, materials and other successful and distinctive characteristics. My Foundation has demonstrated this principle through the use of Pattern Books, which always begin with thorough analysis of existing qualities. The use of local materials in new development, after all, not only reduces embodied energy, which I would have thought is rather important now, and is good for local identity, but also generates employment and investment.
Edinburgh demonstrates how good urbanism and architecture constitute a city organism; representing a constant, dynamic process of sustenance, renewal and occasionally rejection. Because the majority of traditional buildings were built typologically, according to simple rules, with straightforward modes of construction, they help make cities and towns more flexible and adaptive. The historic quarters of Edinburgh also demonstrate how such sympathetically planned areas, based on the tried and tested patterns of the mansion block and terrace, not only achieve the kind of densities claimed to be possible only by building ever-taller towers, but also retain and enhance their value over a long period.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I know I need hardly remind this audience of the special responsibilities that come with a World Heritage status designation and the fact that U.N.E.S.C.O. has been forced to review that status in relation to a number of UK sites due to new construction in recent years. And so they should, as there is no point at all in having a World Heritage site unless it retains its unique integrity. I always wonder what is it about our outlook that perpetuates desire deliberately to desecrate such places by vandalizing the few remaining places which retain the kind of human scale and timeless character that so attract people to them in the first place and which increase in value as time goes by? Why does it have to be “modern” to abandon the kind of timeless principles that have produced the best, most enduring, most civilized and most commercially valuable townscapes throughout the world?
Such traditional or sustainable urbanism demonstrates a viable and manifestly better alternative to the kind of soulless buildings and developments we have seen erected in both the United States and the United Kingdom and you see now all over the world. To take this tradition forward, however, we will require I suppose ‘eco-engineers’ to blend the latest techniques and discoveries with ancient knowledge, wisdom and experience to produce what I can only call ‘integrated urbanism’ – an urbanism that can still reflect our cultural and geographic identity and can continue to tell the great human story of an enduring connection with nature. A connection that is being severed in so many areas of our existence with increasingly disastrous consequences as we now beginning to discover.
So Ladies and Gentlemen I think we have to demonstrate that traditional eco-efficiency is more carbon neutral, requires infinitely less embodied energy and uses renewable materials far more effectively and harmoniously than the “business as usual with little green knobs on” somewhat fashionable approach. Surely, rather than festooning each house with eco-tokens such as individual wind turbines whose contribution is, in fact, minuscule, and various builders and developers have mentioned this to me. Might it make more sense to concentrate on renewables at the community scale, where biomass C.H.P., anaerobic digestion and wave power are all becoming economically viable, and focus on building efficient green houses with proven techniques including solar hot water, water reclamation and passive design?
It seems to me that Scotland has a golden opportunity to draw upon its rich traditions of planning and vernacular building to create a practice - a body of work - that demonstrates how to achieve the lowest carbon approach possible, but within a vernacular and traditional framework. Perhaps you could call this the ‘eco-vernacular’ approach?! Such a uniquely Scottish practice and behaviour would define a living tradition, one that incorporates craftsmanship, local identity, and respect for climate and place. Such an effort would again demonstrate Scotland’s leadership to the world and would enhance so many more people’s lives, not least those who could benefit from becoming craftsmen, at a time when we are all being so increasingly challenged by the global environmental and economic crisis.
Incidentally, I believe that there would be economic advantages for Scotland from leadership in this area – including new business opportunities in sustainability, lower energy costs for business occupiers and business opportunities in the development, provision and financing of renewable energy. Scottish Business in the Community has led the way in thinking about responsible business practice in this area, and has made sure that many of Scotland’s leaders have in fact visited Poundbury. I know that they will continue to exhibit this kind of business leadership in partnership with the Scottish Government and my Foundation for the Built Environment.
Now ladies and gentlemen if I may, I would like to conclude with one more example of how the built environment can promote social and cultural cohesion at a more local level. As the First Minister mentioned, the establishment of the Great Steward of Scotland’s Dumfries House Trust, formed after Dumfries House was saved for the Nation last year, seemed to me to point toward ways in which our own age of building can learn afresh the lessons of the Enlightenment. An exemplary development adjacent to the Dumfries House Estate, between Cumnock and Auchinleck, is now being drawn up by my Foundation with the full collaboration of East Ayrshire District Council and the local community. All parties have signed up to support a regeneration strategy for the broader area including Cumnock, Auchinleck and other communities. Through this project work, I hope there will be opportunities to establish a regional traditional building skills training centre that can be a model for others elsewhere throughout the country.
All I can say is my Foundation stands ready to work with Scottish planners on this challenge, both in evolving a new vernacular and in equipping local planners and architects with the tools and skills they need to take the agenda forward. As there is an urgent need for the kind of practitioner who can help to deliver the art and it is a real and complex art of Placemaking. I am particularly grateful, if I may say so, for the suggestion from the First Minister that a civil servant might possibly be seconded to work closely with my Foundation, which I think is already proving a particularly fruitful way of developing the dialogue.
So Ladies and Gentlemen, the purpose of this conference as far as I am concerned is to remind ourselves that with sustained growth came a whole set of challenges that we need to resolve, not least to avoid merely repeating the disastrous mistakes of the past in a 21st Century guise and to remember that we live on a very small island on which, presumably, many generations after us will have to live so, apart from anything else, we have to work out where the water is going to come from in an increasingly uncertain world. We owe it to our children and grandchildren not to wreck it for them through short termism and fashionable obsessions that as we’ve seen in the last century, rapidly become tomorrow’s uglification. It seems to me that Scotland will best accommodate growth that is emphatically designed to marry with and respect a much older tradition of enlightened urban planning. That was essentially civil in nature in other words courteous, considered and well-mannered. But we also I would suggest need to rediscover out respect for nature and her universal principles that can give us inspiration.
So if I may entreat you for a moment, can we ensure that the new confidence astir in the Scottish nation translates into types of places we all know strike a chord in our, by now, rather bewildered hearts, however “modern” we think we are – places that convey an everlasting human story of meaning and belonging; composed and built with an innate grammar reflecting the unity between humans and Nature and built for the long term with an innovative combination of time-tested techniques and contemporary environmental technologies. These are surely the building blocks of neighbourhoods and towns that will become the much more highly valued and ultimately “sustainable” heritage of the future.