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IMCL team makes preparations for landmark gathering in October, “The Ecology of Place: From Understanding to ACTION”


Partnerships are in place with the Prince’s Foundation, the Duchy of Cornwall, INTBAU, the Congress for the New Urbanism, and others to be announced soon


ABOVE: IMCL Board member Peter Elmlund inspects one of the breakout spaces at our main venue, the beautiful Corn Exchange in Dorchester, adjoining Poundbury, UK.


We are excited to report that planning is now in place for a wonderful event in October, our 59th Annual International Making Cities Livable (IMCL) Conference. Executive Director Michael Mehaffy and fellow Board member Peter Elmlund have just returned from a series of meetings and on-site venue inspections.


The plenry hall at the Corn Exchange.

We have firmed up our topic and themes, “The Ecology of Place: From Understanding to ACTION,” with a focus on sharing the important lessons of Poundbury and other groundbreaking projects, as well as new research on livability, urban health and well-being, city ecology, and implementation tools and strategies.


This is a poignant historical moment – the 30th anniversary of Poundbury’s groundbreaking, and the year of accession of its founder. Moreover, it is a time of great challenges, but also important achievements, and promising new resources.


Michael Mehaffy (L) joins old friends Paul Murrain (C) and Ben Bolgar (R) at the Prince's Foundation's splendid renovated Garrison Chapel in Chelsea, London.

The exciting week will begin on Monday (October 9th) with an optional reception and walking tour in London, hosted by our partner INTBAU. Those who opt to attend this event (free but limited tickets) will meet at the beautiful Garrison Chapel, a new facility for the Prince’s Foundation located in Chelsea. (The new king remains the president of the Prince’s Foundation, our key partner for the conference.) We will then enjoy a walking tour of the area.


Tuesday will be a travel day, heading to Dorchester by train (approximately two and a half hours). After checking in and relaxing at the hotel of your choice (most in the main area of Dorchester near the conference hall, see information on the website), we will make our way to Poundbury where we will gather at Jubilee Hall (on Queen Mother Square) for a reception and orientation walking tour. At 8PM, coaches (buses) will take us back to central Dorchester, a little over a mile away. (It's an easy walk, public bus or Uber, but we will use coaches for the first night.)


Wednesday through Friday will be conference days, with morning plenaries at the beautiful Corn Exchange building in central Dorchester. Afternoon breakouts will include additional sessions at the Corn Exchange, as well as tours and sessions at Poundbury.

The beautiful Corn Exchange, our main venue just down the Dorchester high street from Poundbury..

Evening activities are still being finalized, but currently we plan to have a free night on Wednesday, and then an awards dinner on Thursday (available with separate tickets). Friday evening will be our closing party, held at Jubilee Hall on Queen Mother Square.


Saturday will also include a more in-depth post-conference walking tour of Poundbury.


There are also extraordinary opportunities to explore the area around Dorchester and the Jurassic Coast, as well as the Cotswolds, Bath, the Cornwall Coast, and the Duchy and Prince’s Foundation project of Nansledan in Newquay -- and of course, London and the rest of the UK. The weather in October is often very nice, and crowds are generally not a factor. Travel costs are more manageable as well.


Abstracts are accepted for presentations and/or papers through April 30th. The link is here: https://www.imcl.online/call-for-abstracts


So we hope to see many of you for an important and inspiring gathering of old friends and new!


A few more shots of the site and the region:


Poundbury's Queen Mother Square.

Jubilee Hall at Queen Mother Square.

The "Jurassic Coast," ten miles from Poundbury.

Portland -- UK, not Oregon or Maine! -- on the Jurassic Coast, approx. 15 miles south of Poundbury. The delightful port town of Weymouth is also nearby.

The beautiful countryside of Dorset.

A typical town in Dorset.

Newquay on the Cornish coast, site of the Nansledan project by the Duchy of Cornwall and the Prince's Foundation.

Nansledan plan.

An area of Nansledan.

Beautiful Bath, about 60 miles from Dorchester.

The Cotswolds, about 100 miles north of Dorchester.













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Updated: Jan 7

As the former Prince of Wales moves into a new and more circumscribed role, many people are reassessing his legacy for planning and design – but some are still missing a key point.

Poundbury. Photo courtesy of the Duchy of Cornwall.

Michael Mehaffy, Ph.D.

Executive Director, IMCL


I was on my way to Poundbury, the model town planned by the former Prince of Wales in the southwest of England, when I got the news of the death of Queen Elizabeth. I was headed there to meet with representatives of the Duchy of Cornwall, and to plan a possible next conference of the International Making Cities Livable series there. That conference is now set to happen in early October 2023, but at the time there was much to sort out (including the fact that there is a new Duke of Cornwall and Prince of Wales).


There is also much to assess at Poundbury just now, as it enters the 30th anniversary of the start of its construction (and the year of its founder's coronation). The town has achieved remarkable successes, and it also offers important lessons learned. To their credit, the Duchy staff seem more than willing to share both. That has also long been the stated intention of the former prince.


This is also a historical moment when many critics and commentators seem ready to reassess their past attacks on the town. As with many of the new king’s other previously dismissed, even ridiculed passions – ecology, health, sustainability, climate – his work in urban planning and design has in recent years been getting a more thoughtful and often more appreciative reevaluation.


Oliver Wainwright, architecture critic for The Guardian – a publication that is no fan of the Monarchy, or often of the former Prince of Wales – wrote a typically revisionist article in 2016 titled “A royal revolution: is Prince Charles's model village having the last laugh?” In it he assessed Poundbury’s accomplishments and concluded that “a growing and diverse community suggests it’s getting a lot of things right.” Witold Rybczynski of Architect magazine rebutted his fellow critics when he found, in 2018, that “the place is neither anachronistic, nor utopian, nor elitist. Nor is it a middle-class ghetto. In fact, Poundbury embodies social, economic, and planning innovations that can only be called radical.” This past May, Matt Oliver of The Telegraph wrote yet another sober reassessment titled “Inside Poundbury: Why Prince Charles's 'Disney-esque' model village is proving critics wrong.”


These and other revisionist critics usually point to Poundbury’s impressive statistics: 35% permanent affordable housing – “pepper-potted” indistinguishably across the town, and not clustered into identifiable “projects”; mixed use zoning, with 207 businesses integrated into the town, and providing over 2,300 jobs for its population of 3,800; ample provisions for walking, cycling and transit; and a number of innovative ecological features. Among the latter are a net zero emissions biomethane generator that provides fuel for up to 59,000 homes; “solar slate” roof systems; electric charging stations throughout the town (installed long before they became common elsewhere); high-insulation homes using cavity wall construction with high thermal mass; and a shift away from plastics and other problematic substances toward natural and renewable materials.


However, there is one Poundbury principle that the critics on the whole still don’t celebrate: what the Duchy reports is “Architecture of place: creating beauty and reflecting local character and identity.” For Poundbury, that takes the form of an eclectic mix of vernacular and Classical architecture, not unlike what one would find in many parts of nearby Bristol or London.


This is the characteristic that seems to drive many architects and critics into apoplexy, and prompts them to hurl the architectural equivalent of curse words: “mock,” “twee,” “faux,” and perhaps worst of all, “Disneyland.” At best, the critics seem to hold their noses at the architectural character, as Clive Aslet did in a 2016 article in The Times: “The real point of Poundbury is not how it looks but how it works.”


But as an architectural scholar, I see a problem with this idea. Part of how a place works is how it looks – whether people are attracted to it, want to be there, want to linger and interact, perhaps to walk and cycle. If they hate it, or find it disturbing, perhaps they won’t; but in fact, at Poundbury they clearly do.


In turn, how a place works shapes how it looks too: whether there is a lively mixing of ingredients, or whether its elements are rigidly segregated into a purist functional scheme of the kind that Jane Jacobs memorably called “decontaminated sortings.” The modern world is full of such places, and as Jacobs noted, they are (and look) dreary and lifeless.


It also matters whether the place is structured as a kind of gigantic abstract sculpture, which might be awe-inspiring initially, and later for brief moments. But we don’t consciously experience our environments as works of art for most of a given day. We shape them, as Churchill pointed out, and then they shape us, and the quality of our lives, often unconsciously. And perhaps Thoreau was right when he said “the greatest art is to shape the quality of the day.”


If such gigantic abstract sculptures happen to be not very nice places to live – as they often aren’t – then the designers haven’t done a responsible job of creating good-quality, enduring human habitat. Unfortunately, the world is full of these kinds of places too: often exciting on arrival but with perishable appeal, and too often, regrettable eyesores and candidates for demolition. This is hardly a strategy for sustainable building.


Nor is the look of a place like Poundbury merely a matter of “what we happen to like.” A growing body of research shows that the aesthetic characteristics of our environments have direct impacts on economic vitality, on the activation of public spaces, on the likelihood that people will interact and socialize, on rates of walking and exercise, on more ecological lifestyles, and even on health and well-being.


A growing body of research also shows a disconnect between what most architects design and what most users actually prefer. This preference does not seem to vary much by identity or ideology, but is remarkably well-distributed across non-professional populations. It seems to be mostly architects and critics who are in the minority when it comes to what people regard as beautiful and desirable in their neighborhoods (emphasis on “their”).


For all these reasons, Poundbury dares to recycle some of the aesthetic characteristics that have proven themselves enduring, successful, and attractive over decades and centuries. One can debate how skillfully it does so, or whether it could have incorporated more innovative forms along with the “straight-ahead” traditional forms and patterns.


But for the harshest architects and critics, the problem is much more basic. Poundbury simply commits an unforgiveable offense against the most sacred rule of today’s architectural orthodoxy: we must not “copy the past.” Ewww.


But wait a minute. Where did we get that poorly examined doctrine, bordering on cult-like meme, that revival architecture is somehow wrong, false, offensive? Historically speaking, this is actually a quite recent bias, and on the evidence, quite a peculiar one.


Revival across 1,800 years: Jeffersonian, Palladian, Vitruvian. Image assembled by Dino Marcantonio.

When Thomas Jefferson based his designs on Andrea Palladio’s work two hundred years earlier, no one sneered at it as “mock” or “pastiche” or “imitation.” When Palladio based his design on Vitruvius over a thousand years earlier, no one was scandalized or traumatized. When Vitruvius based his work on the work of Greek architects…


You get the idea. The history of architecture has always been – up until only very recently – a kind of fugue, a weaving of the old with the new, innovation with revival, renaissance with change. Around the globe, this practice has produced some of the most durable and well-loved places in human history.



These are places that are successful, they are loved, and they are sustainable – because they have sustained. And we must never, ever build anything like them again!


What?


Where did this idea, bizarre on its face, come from? We have convinced ourselves that we must be “modern,” and our modern self-image seems to demand that we must be wholly different from the past. Our buildings must somehow stand apart, they must be daring works of artistic novelty, and they must show a total break from everything that came before. We must “start from zero,” in the words of modernist pioneer Walter Gropius.


It is of course true that our time is different in many ways – not all of them sources of pride. But all periods of time have their differences, and yet all have their commonalities. We are all still biological creatures, with the same shared evolutionary history and evolved preferences. We are still affected in largely similar ways by our environments, as the evidence shows. We still find certain natural forms comfortable, attractive, and beautiful.


Yet we are in the grip of a reigning theory of modernity that is almost a century old now – and in that sense, quite an un-modern one. In light of the new insights from evolutionary biology, mathematics, physics, and other fields, it is this “modernist” theory of architecture that is looking quite out of date.


It is this orthodoxy – stuck in crisis, failing to respond to the challenges of our time – that the former Prince dared to challenge. In its place, he dared to advance a new understanding, illuminated by recent science and perennial philosophy, as a hopeful way forward. For he is not a person who is “anti-science” – whatever the merits or weaknesses one may find in his ideas and beliefs, and surely they are fair game for debate – but rather, he is anti-scientism: opposed to excessive reductionism, appalled at the ecological destruction it has wrought, and passionate about finding new ways forward. On a personal note, and speaking as one who also did graduate study in philosophy with a focus on the philosophy of science and 20th century philosophers, I find it particularly troubling that the man’s real depth of thought is so poorly understood, and so slanderously caricatured. For too many critics, this is simply intellectual laziness.


When I was working at The Prince’s Foundation, we thought it was important to try to re-frame all the tiresome ideological arguments, in light of the refreshingly trans-ideological picture emerging from the sciences. We wanted to move past the facile stereotypes of bowtie-wearing Tory Classicists, and focus instead on broader challenges: more durable and sustainable places, more renewable and regenerative technologies, and more ecological forms of settlement. (That’s one reason we decided we needed a different kind of CEO, and we recruited Hank Dittmar – at the time Chair of the Congress for the New Urbanism, and he did provide a more pragmatic big-tent focus.)


In one case, we organized a conference titled “New Science, New Architecture, New Urbanism,” and we invited architectural luminaries like Charles Jencks, Bill Hillier, and RIBA President George Ferguson, to meet with biologists, physicists and mathematicians, and debate the meaning of the new “complexity sciences” for the rather stagnant discourse in architecture. The discussion certainly offered a different perspective on the emerging challenges of settlement, and for many (myself included), a refreshing one.


We also invited Christopher Alexander to that event, and like Jacobs, his work in this area had been seminal. He was also a close advisor to the former Prince of Wales, and his collaboration is one more example of the diversity and complexity of the new king’s thinking. (Unknown to most architects, Alexander’s work has had major impacts far beyond the built environment, into the worlds of software, wiki, open-source systems, biology, sociology, and many other fields.)


The author (L) gently grilling the architectural theorist Charles Jencks (with microphone), while (L-R) Bill Hillier, Brian Goodwin and Philip Ball look on.

To be sure, this dawning understanding of the interconnected and complex nature of human environments is new only by historical standards. Jane Jacobs was famous for the last chapter of her 1961 masterwork The Death and Life of Great American Cities, wherein she described the transformative work of the sciences (even then) and the dawning understanding of “organized complexity” in cities. This understanding was critical, she argued, in working effectively with “the kind of problem a city is,” as she titled her last chapter.


But the old memes die hard, and one can still read lazy articles about Poundbury’s “mock” this and “twee” that. It is as if we have settled into a stagnant duality, wherein the only fresh and respectable architecture is “avant-garde” – which is actually a code word for quintessentially reactionary architecture, employing gigantic sculptures supplied as corporate branding by amoral artists – and anything that is “traditional” is not respected as a form of complex evolutionary structure, but on the contrary, reviled (or merely tolerated, at best) as a reflection of the lamentably vulgar tastes of the masses, and the powerlessness of markets to resist schlock. But that fails to grasp the important ecological and biological insights about traditional design: its still-useful collective intelligence, embodied in centuries of traditional evolution and refinement.


Perhaps, at this moment of reflection, it will gradually be understood how important Poundbury’s incorporation of revival architecture actually is: like much of the new king’s other work, how transformative, how truly radical, and how promising as a way forward.


NOTE: A version of this post ran on the CNU Public Square journal. Our thanks to them. https://www.cnu.org/publicsquare/2022/10/31/how-charles-was-right-its-probably-not-what-you-think


Notes:

  1. Here is a guide to Poundbury: https://poundbury.co.uk/

  2. The Duchy of Cornwall also has another website with useful (and impressive) Poundbury statistics: https://duchyofcornwall.org/poundbury.html

  3. See http://katarxis3.com/ for a transcript of the 2004 Prince's Foundation conference, interviews, essays, photo galleries, and other materials.

  4. See "The Big Rethink," by architectural critic Peter Buchanan, for a wide-ranging and thoughtful reassessment of the needed direction for architecture.



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Updated: May 29, 2022

Le Plessis-Robinson, our host venue, offered many delights – and many inspiring and thought-provoking lessons


A full set of videos will be available of all the plenary sessions soon -- but meanwhile, here is a short 8-minute highlights reel! (Click on the image to start.)


The 58th International Making Cities Livable conference, just completed, was an unforgettable gathering of 150 mayors, senior planners, researchers, practitioners, NGO heads and citizens, all sharing the latest lessons and ideas for today’s urban challenges. The jam-packed content included six plenary sessions, eighteen breakout sessions, two “speed presentation sessions,” eight “networking coffees,” two tours, two receptions, an awards dinner, and plenty of time for great conversation over great meals.


The town of Le Plessis-Robinson, our host venue, was also a delightful place to explore and discuss, with many lessons about how to achieve greater walkability, mix of uses, diversity of populations and incomes, ecological practices, and many other goals of a “new urban agenda” – a key theme of the conference.

Laura Petrella.


Laura Petrella of UN-Habitat gave a plenary address on progress on the New Urban Agenda – the outcome document of the Habitat III conference that was later adopted by acclamation by 193 countries. Its language on the importance of public space also mirrors that of the Sustainable Development Goals.


Other plenary speakers included Carlos Moreno, developer of Paris’ “15-minute city” concept (now being applied to many other cities) and George Ferguson, Past President of the Royal Institute of British Architects as well as the first elected mayor of Bristol, UK.


Another key theme (raised by Ferguson and others) was how architecture could transcend object-building, and contribute to supporting a vibrant public realm by defining the edges of human-scale, walkable, connected public space networks. (The conference was titled: Architecture and the Edges of Public Space: Tools and Strategies for a New Urban Agenda." Business-as-usual “object-building” architecture came in for some harsh criticism at the conference, as did tall buildings, whose claimed benefits from boosters received a rigorous (and rather damning) examination in light of the actual research evidence.


The city of Le Plessis-Robinson offered a case in point of the actual benefits that are possible. A former “dormitory banlieue” with many vacancies and social problems, its relentlessly repetitive, stripped-down building and urban design was a textbook example of the failures of 20th century methods. The city saw drastic – and very impressive – reforms, creating a mixed-income, mixed-use, walkable, ecological (and compact) neighborhood that wasn’t afraid to use the best ideas from the Parisian past. The results show, with an active public realm enjoyed by all.


Feedback from the conference was overwhelmingly positive and enthuiastic. A few of the comments we received:


“What a wonderful event! Bravo! It was inspiring and educational.”

- Alex Fisch, City Council Member, Culver City, Calidfornia


“Congrats on a tremendous event!”

- Rick Cole, Executive Director, Congress for the New Urbanism


“Thanks for doing so much to carry forward the Lennard legacy and offering to all of us these amazing experiences. I am forever thankful and grateful!!!”

- David Woltering, Owner, Woltering Community Planning


“You and Peter have set a high bar for subsequent conferences!”

- Christopher Leinberger, Emeritus Professor, George Washington University


“Thank you again for a wonderful conference. It was an eye-opening experience!”

- Josh Arcurio, Architect, David M. Schwarz Architects


“It was a great Conference! Congratulations!”

- Julio Cesar Perez, Associate Professor, University of Notre Dame


“I want to say thank you directly to you, Morgane, Ryan and the rest of the team for a great conference. Not only was Plessis-Robinson a truly worthwhile experience, but there were some great presentations, some new friends and delightful time with lovely people that I already value so much as great friends and colleagues!”

- Stephen Goldie, City Planning Advisor, City of Abu Dhabi


We look forward to more productive and enjoyable events together in the future!


Rick Cole, Executive Director of the Congress for the New Urbanism.

Jim Brainard, mayor of Carmel, Indiana USA, leads a plenary discussion with Philippe Pemezec, former mayor of Le Plessis-Robinson, Nada and Marc Breitman, architects of a phase of Le Plessis-Robinson, and Henry Mestetsky, Redevelopment Director for the City of Carmel.

David Brain presents findings from a new database on public space research.

Ben Bolgar, Senior Director of the Prince's Foundation, discusses the structure of streets, blocks and neighborhoods in human-centered cities.




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