Urben 2017 - Our Year In Review
The year started with the Urben team taking a trip to visit our friends at UN Studio in Amsterdam. We were invited to join them for a workshop on a number of urban design topics of mutual interest, culminating in an interesting discussion on the potential for design to help facilitate the circular economy in cities.
Following the workshop we have independently and jointly continued to develop some of these over the course of the year - hopefully you have seen our recent article on rethinking retail for a circular economy, if not you can check it out on our ISSUU channel here.
Whilst in Amsterdam, we were also invited to give a presentation on our work around Urban Agriculture and rooftop farming as part of UNStudio's 'Top Floor Dialogues' series of presentations. We will be doing more work on the theme of urban agriculture throughout 2018.
Springboarding from an upgraded Amsterdam Central Station, we also visited a number of striking new railway stations around the country, namely Rotterdam, Arnhem, Delft & Utrecht. It was great to see how they work as multimodal interchanges, and also how design quality has been central to their development. The integration of cycle facilities is exemplar too, as you would expect in Holland!
We will publishing an article about our stations tour on early in 2018, so keep an eye out for that one ...
The visit wasn't all about work though, and after dark, we got to explore the Amsterdam Light Festival via a beautifully restored canal boat. The festival is an annual event that sees light installations by a variety of artists placed all around the city. It's a great idea, and unlike the Lumiaire festivals that we have around the UK that last only a couple of days, the Light Festival runs for almost two months ... the current festival is running from 30 November 2017 until 21 January 2018 and we would highly recommend a visit!!
February saw the the launch of Think Deep UK - a group of built environment experts committed to creating resilient, sustainable and liveable cities through smart use of underground space. Urben Director Liz Reynolds is a founding member of the group, and as a company we supported the organisation by sponsoring a number of the events held across it's inaugural year. These have included site visits, and workshops on the social value of underground space, and the role of underground space in the future of transportation.
Early in 2018 a third workshop will be held on 3D Urban Planning, and Liz will be the lead organiser for that session. Urben, like TDUK, recognise that as cities grow up and out, specific skills and new ways of thinking are required to ensure the spaces below our cities are also planned, managed and designed effectively. We are keen to see more examples of innovative underground space use from around the world including flood storage, urban transportation, waste heat capture & successful public spaces.
Urben has spoken extensively on the topic of the urban subsurface, and February also saw Liz take part in a special live edition of Monocle's 'The Urbanist'. The edition focused on Rethinking the City, and included a discussion on how to optimise our urban environments, including through better use of the resources beneath us. If you haven't heard it, you can download or listen online at the Monocle Radio page here.
Underground Space is an area of particular interest for Urben, and we are involved in a number of projects which include underground components or have an underground focus. Please keep an eye out for more from us on the topic throughout 2018.
In March, we were appointed to prepare a public realm strategy for the Hatton Garden Area as part of a team with Momentum Transport Consultancy and Benedetti Architects. Working for the local Business Improvement District (BID), we were tasked with reviewing the existing streets and spaces within London's historic jewelery-making quarter. Currently the rich heritage and specialist reputation of Hatton Garden,l is being let down by a poor quality pedestrian environment, with issues around waste management, parking and public realm quality. As part of the study we were asked to explore the potential for both quick win interventions, and longer term aspirations for major improvement projects. Following engagement with businesses and other local stakeholders, a list of potential enhancement projects were identified and then prioritised, with the highest priority schemes being taken forward for more detailed design studies in partnership with local businesses and landowners.
Initial conversations focussed on the gateway spaces which are the key points at which people enter the district as being high priority for improvement, along with the Leather Lane street market which is growing in popularity and draws in lunchtime office workers from beyond the boundary of the BID itself. Once Crossrail arrives at Farringdon in December 2018, the area is likely to become even more popular and with major new institutions such as the Museum of London opening in the coming years, the number of people visiting the area is set to grow further.
Urben Director Paul Reynolds has worked on similar studies in the past for other London BIDs including Heart of London and New West End Company, and this later commission built on the methodology developed and honed working . In 2018 we are hoping to take forward a number of the ideas set out in the study in partnership with local businesses and landowners, and also to work with other BIDs across London and beyond to develop strategies for the enhancement of the pedestrian environment in their own areas.
Please follow us on Social Media (links below) to keep up-to-date with all our latest news in 2018
April saw Urben Take Off, in more ways than one! Firstly, Urben Director Paul Reynolds joined the business full-time, after more than 15 years working at the multi-disciplinary consultancy Atkins. He had been part of the Urben team in the background since we established in 2012, but by joining the company full-time, our capacity to deliver even more exciting projects grew significantly, as did the skills we were able to offer our clients. Since joining, Paul has helped expand the studio's capabilities in Urban Design, Public Realm & Landscape Design, and also in Townscape and Visual Impact Assessment. With Paul joining, we are also proud to become a Landscape Institute registered practice.
When Paul joined we were also fortunate to be asked to continue as a sub-consultant to Atkins on a handful of projects, including on the London City Airport Development Project (CADP). Paul, with Atkins, had been involved with the scheme since 2012, and following the decision to grant planning permission in July 2016, Paul has continued to work on the design of the Dockside elements of the project. These include the Digital Air Traffic Control Tower - a first of it's kind in the UK - which has been designed by Architects Pascall + Watson who have been working on City Airport alongside Atkins over the past five years.
It has been a big year for London City Airport in 2017, as not only did work commence on the £400m upgrade project, but it also celebrated it's 30th Birthday - On 26 October 1987, a flight from Plymouth carrying around 40 passengers touched down on the peninsula between Royal Albert Dock and King George V Dock. It was the first commercial flight to land at London City Airport.
Urben looks forward to continuing to work with Atkins in supporting the delivery of the CADP project in 2018.
At the start of May it was time for Urben Director Liz Reynolds to pack her suitcase again, this time heading off to the Arctic Circle as part of an International Society of City and Regional Planners (ISOCARP) delegation to visit Bodø in Norway. Liz was leading an Urban Planning Advisory Team (UPAT), the objective of which is to mobilise the extensive planning experience and expertise of ISOCARP members in order to help and assist cities and regions with for projects, programmes and policies on spatial planning and urban design. Liz had previously taken part in a similar visit to Gaza and the West Bank for UNDP, and this time, working with the local Bodø Municipality the team would be looking at how the City should respond to the relocation of a large portion of Air Force Base - a key NATO facility - over the coming decade.
The runway is shared between the military and civilian airport, and this provides a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to look at the future of the whole City. A plan called New City - New Airport had been developed, which envisaged moving the runway and then creating a large new urban expansion to the City - almost doubling its area. The UPAT team provided a critical review of these proposals, also considering how to incorporate the municipality's desire for Bodo to become a 'smart city'. The output was a magazine which not only summarised the findings of the week long visit, but also provided an insight into Bodø itself - the place and its people. Urben produced the magazine on behalf of ISOCARP, and it was published in November - you can download a PDF copy here if you are interested to find out more.
The work was well received by the local municipality, and the team are set to return in 2018 for a second visit - not least because the City will be hosting the annual ISOCARP Congress in October - Urben will be going, and we hope to maybe see you there!
As we approached the summer solstice, Urben was pleased to see the opening of Bird Street - London's First 'Smart' Shopping Street. The Bird Street project was one of the last projects that Urben Director Paul Reynolds worked on before leaving Atkins, and it was very much intended to be an incubator project which allowed the testing of a range of new 'smart street' innovations. Designed by Atkins and Harry Dobbs Design, the project was delivered by New West End Company, the Business Improvement District which covers Oxford Street, Regent Street and Bond Street. The scheme was part funded by the Mayor of London's Future Streets Incubator programme, and the idea for the project originated in a study that Paul produced for NWEC back in 2015 looking at a number of the side roads along the western end of Oxford Street, and setting out ideas for how they could be improved to better support the main shopping streets.
Bird Street was identified as an opportunity for a significant intervention as it has no through-traffic and a long blank wall along the eastern side, yet was also just 2 minutes from Selfridges and St Christophers Place - two key destinations on this part of Oxford Street. The scheme combined a number of innovations including Pavegen paving which generates electricity as you walk on it, and an Airlabs bench which draws in polluted air and cleans it before pumping out the cleaned air again. Harry Dobbs Design was also brought on-board to design a number of retail kiosks to activate the blank facade and provide retail spaces that could be rented to smaller boutique and maker businesses who may not be able to afford the normal Oxford Street rents.
The scheme was part of the 'Oasis' concept which NWEC have championed over many years, and which we at Urben have promoted in many of our public realm projects to-date, including our recent work at Hatton Garden. Going forward it is likely to be something which is a much more common site in London - certainly a number of these spaces are identified in the consultation for the pedestrianisation of Oxford Street, which is likely to deliver a permanent solution on Bird Street and a number of other similar streets and spaces. We will watch with interest.
In July we were back on the road, or the train to be precise - this time it was just a short trip on the Eurostar to Lyon, where we had been invited to speak at the International Conference of La Fabrique de la Cité. With a theme of 'Beyond Borders and Boundaries' Urben Director Liz Reynolds presented our growing portfolio of work on Underground Space in the session on 'Building the City Under the City'. Organised by the think tank of the same name, La Fabrique de la Cité is an invitation-only event designed to promote discussion and leadership on urban innovation. The conference is held in a different French city each year, and runs across three days with the international group of delegates and speakers getting the chance to tour the city, with a range of venues and excellent local hospitality helping us to better understand the fascinating history and culture of Lyon.
In the Building the City Under the City session Liz was joined on a panel by highly regarded French Architect Dominique Perrault from Agence Dominique Perrault, who along with speakers from the City of Montréal, ITA Committee on Underground Space, and the Deep City Project at EPFL was able to engage the audience in a thought provoking debate despite the summer heat in the striking courtyard venue. Themes discussed in the session included:
As the summer holidays came around, Urben found itself on a plane again - but not off to the beach, rather on a brief working trip to New York. We had been invited to have a behind-the-scenes guided tour of the mammoth Hudson Yards project. Billed as the largest private real estate development in the history of the united states, and the largest development in New York City since Rockefeller Centre. the masterplan by KPF aims to expand the traditional Midtown Manhattan business district westward, towards the Hudson River. The scheme is truly mixed use - with residential space, office towers, retail outlets, a collection of high-end restaurants, a new arts centre, and a luxury hotel with more than 200 rooms. And that is just part one - the second phase of the development, west of 11th avenue, will include additional residential buildings, further green space, and a school. However, while the scale and ambition are enormous, we were here to look get under the skin of the scheme - literally - and see how all this has been delivered on a deck over an operational rail yard.
What has gone on below-deck is probably more impressive than what has happened above it. Columns have been positioned, decks created and a whole new train depot delivered all while the Yards have remained open and operational. They have been able to take a couple of tracks out at a time as there is some spare capacity, but much of the work has been done in overnight possessions. Space is at a premium, and every inch has been put to good use, with services run between the beams both above and below the deck - which varies in depth from a few inches to a few feet. Despite the engineering complexities they have managed to retain flexibility above ground to accommodate late changes to the scheme buildings and structures, including the striking 'Vessel' installation by Thomas Heatherwick, which was a late addition at the centre of the public space. On our visit it was starting to be assembled - it topped out just before the end of the year. It was also great to see how the scheme interfaces with the immensely successful Highline, which wraps around the site on two and a bit sides.
We look forward to going back as the scheme builds out, and seeing how it starts to come to life and integrate into the wider neighbourhood.
In September we were off travelling again, this time visiting Abu Dhabi to help support ISOCARP’s objective to improve the exchange of knowledge between urban professionals from different countries. Liz prepared and hosted three days of workshops with graduates employed by the Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council. The training was under three themes:
Elements of a Successful Abu Dhabi
It was also a chance to revisit an Emirate where Urben Directors Liz and Paul have both worked in the past, and where Liz lived for a number of years. Certainly much has changed over the past six years since she returned to the UK, but it was just as noticeable what hadn't - or at least, the things that were anticipated and talked about a decade ago, but which still haven't come to fruition. Top of that list was the Abu Dhabi Metro. Key to the future of urban mobility that formed the first of the training module themes, this was a scheme which had been talked about for many years, and following the success of the system in Dubai it looked certain to be implemented. Contracts were set to be awarded in 2013, but nothing happened and no official announcements on the scheme have been made since 2016. It is a shame that what was set to be a transformative infrastructure project is yet to get going. However, as is typical of the Middle East, for every project that hasn't happened, a dozen have been delivered. One of those was the sprawling Ritz-Carlton Hotel, one of the first projects to be delivered after the announcement of a renewed focus on growing tourism in Abu Dhabi. Sited on the Grand Canal, it opened in 2013 and contains 532-rooms along with all of the facilities you would expect at a luxury resort. We were reliably informed by friends who still live in Abu Dhabi that is also has the best brunch in the Emirate! However, it was another even newer project that sits between the hotel and the Grand Mosque, which was a highlight of the visit.
The Wahat Al Karama (Oasis of Dignity) memorial is less than a year old, and we had a personal guided tour as the only visitors on the day we went. The entire memorial site area covers more than 42,000 square metres, and consists of different sections including the Pavilion of Honour and the Memorial Monument. In 2015, a decision was made to create a National Memorial to remember those Emiratis that make the ultimate sacrifice, and Wahat Al Karama is the result. It is a moving space, or rather series of spaces, albeit slightly compromised by the noise of the adjacent highway - although this can be barely heard in the most solemn Pavilion of Honour. The story that evolves as you are guided around the space is thought provoking, and the combination of hard & soft landscapes and structures works well as a way of remembering those that lost their life. The largest space contains a shallow water reflection pool which can be drained to create a large amphitheatre for use in the annual Commemoration Day ceremony.
We would thoroughly recommend a visit next time you are in town.
As Autumn got into full swing, we left the confines of the studio and headed firstly to the Urban Design Group Conference in Manchester, and then to the ISOCARP Congress in Portland Oregon. Two very different organisations in two very different cities, but both really interesting from the urbanists' point of view.
For the first time the UDG conference took place over a full two days, and was on the topic of Health Happiness Harmony: The role of Urban Design. It also returned to Manchester for the first time in more than a decade, and hosted at the University of Manchester, it found an institution and campus which much like the wider city, is undergoing a significant change. Following a series of institutional mergers, the University is midway through delivering a campus masterplan which will see a series of new buildings constructed surrounded by new public spaces and landscape. It was our first visit to the City for a couple of years, and along Oxford Road which runs as the spine of the campus, it is clear that walking, cycling and the occasional inter-site bus is king. This is a marked contrast to when we were last here a couple of years ago, and saw the other side of the city which is still very car-dominated and orientated. This dichotomy was fitting to the topic, which looked in depth at the role that urban design has to play in health and well-being. One of the overriding messages to take away was that dependence on the motor car was one of the biggest urban design threats, but that the heralding of a new era of automated and electric vehicles may be the opportunity to return to designing cities around the needs of people rather than the combustion engine.
Move forward a week and about 7,500km and the message was strikingly similar. The theme for the 2017 ISOCARP congress was Smart Communities, and while many of the presentations were around the collection and use of data in city design & management, there was also a lot of discussion on the new forms of mobility and transport we are likely to see in our cities. A particularly striking keynote lecture was given by local Congressman Earl Blumenauer - and we will be writing a more in-depth article around what he had to say about the mobility-as-service revolution soon. Sadly, a number of speakers weren't able to make the event as a result of the Trump administration Visa restriction policies - and as the event was held jointly with the local chapter of the American Planning Association it meant that local participants missed out on hearing about some global best practice, which is perhaps a lesson in unintended consequences .. something which urban designers and planners know all about!
Heading towards the end of the year, Urben went to court as we took part in our first public consultation event of 2017 - for the conversion of the Greenwich Magistrates Court in Deptford. We were appointed by the owners, London Hotel Group, back in the summer to provide townscape advice as part of a multidisciplinary team. The site is a really interesting one on a prominent spot at the corner of two major roads - Greenwich High Road and Blackheath Road - opposite Deptford Bridge Station. The site itself contains three existing buildings, including the Grade II listed Courthouse, and areas of open space which formed the car parks of the court facility. It is also within the Ashburnham Triangle Conservation Area, so any development on the site needs to not only respect the setting of the listed courthouse, but must also take into account the townscape character of the wider area.
LHG are proposing to build a hotel on the site, part of which will see the listed courthouse building's primary ground floor spaces and rooms opened up to the public as ancillary spaces such as bars and restaurants. These include the impressive waiting room with its 'MP' monogrammed floor (reflecting the fact that the building began life as a Metropolitan Police Court) which is also where the consultation event was held. The proposed conversion will not only allow for the restoration of these rooms, but also allow the public to see and experience rooms which many will have hoped to never have reason to see when it was in its previous guise!
The event was well attended, with an interested and engaged local community keen to find out more about the proposals and also to get to see inside the building. We received lots of feedback and have already started to work through comments as we evolve the scheme further. We are looking forward to continuing with the team to further enhance the scheme and hope to submit it for planning in early 2018.
The year ended on a 'low' for Urben as we were appointed by the British Geological Survey to undertake a piece of research reviewing the role that geoscience data and information can play in supporting urban planning. This exciting study underpins our developing portfolio and specialism in underground space, and also provides a welcome opportunity to undertake research which is something which we enjoy doing as a practice. We believe that research provides an opportunity to explore topics in more depth than we are often able in a project environment, and in turn it underpins the evolution of our approach and understanding as a practice. It is also an opportunity to engage with a wider group of stakeholders that we may otherwise get to work with, which again allows us to develop a deeper understanding of a topic or theme. Obviously, as a piece of research on underground space, it also adds to our growing body of work in this increasingly important area. More and more we are seeing the urban underground being used - for everything from transport and utilities to buildings and storage.
The basis of the review is in two parts. Firstly, a study of the overarching national planning policy (as relevant to urban geoscience), and secondly a location-specific study focussed on Greater Manchester, but with a methodology that could be translatable such that other cities in the UK can be reviewed in the future. The review will consider:
The BGS already produces a wide range of products that can be used in urban development and land use planning, including land use mapping reports, 3D urban geology models and contaminated land mapping - some of which can be accessed for free on their website. These are used by a variety of parties including the Environment Agency, water companies and developers, but it is not clear to what extent they are used by local authorities or how they link into the statutory planning system. The outputs from the study will hopefully give a better insight to their use, and in turn help BGS to evolve them and to to develop new tools and techniques.
Keep an eye out for insights from the study in 2018!
We wanted to finish this review with a quick look ahead to 2018 - we are excited about what the new year has to offer, and we go into it with a portfolio of exiting work already underway and we are confident that there will be even more to come throughout the year. The start of the year is likely to be dominated by a few projects which are set to be submitted for planning in the coming weeks, and then we will be attending MIPIM in March - which always feels like the start of Spring. If you are also going to Cannes please do give us a shout!
We are also planning more overseas travel, with trips to Australia and the Middle / Far East in May and June, and a return to Bodø in Norway for the ISOCARP Congress in October. We hope that these visits will allow us to get the opportunity to bring our skills and experience to new international markets and work with overseas partners.
Last but not least, the year will then end on a real high, with December seeing the opening of the Elizabeth Line. We have been providing consents advice and support to Crossrail since 2016, and the Urben team have been involved in the project in various roles since 2002, including providing support on Townscape, Landscape & Visual Impact Assessment back in the earliest days of the project, to undertaking public realm design at various stations including Tottenham Court Road and Farringdon. In 2015 we also produced a report called 'Underground Urbanism' which looked at the opportunities for repurposing the grout shafts that were installed for the duration of the tunnelling. This document was the genesis for a hardback book by the same name, which has been written by Urben Director Liz Reynolds and which is due to be published in 2018 by Routledge.
We hope you have enjoyed reading our review of the year, and we hope that 2018 will bring the opportunity to work on more exciting and interesting projects. If you would like to work with us or find out more about what we do, then please get in touch.