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Blog – Masterplanning: the elephant in the room

Connected Places Catapult held a fringe event for London Festival of Architecture on 13 June 2019 to reveal the thoughts behind Masterplanner, a digital prototype created in conjunction with Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates (KPF) Architects. Read blog by our Senior Urbanist Justin Kliger revealing key takeaways from the discussion and to find out how we can get rid of the elephant in the room and make progressive steps to innovate the masterplanning process.

When I look at a new masterplan, I often feel the presence of a big, roaring elephant right there in the room with me. With their carefully considered uses, idyllic pedestrian spaces and generous modern buildings, masterplans essentially usually present themselves as final visions for a place. But that elephant is right there, huffing and puffing and blowing its trunk, reminding me that these masterplanned components have in fact all been already considered before, often in more than one iteration. Some of the country’s most famous sites such as Greenwich Peninsula, the Great West Road and Ebbsfleet have all been masterplanned, over and over and over. By my reckoning, there isn’t much by way of mastery in a plan that has been reconceived, time and time again, iterating its way piecemeal into actuality over years and sometimes even decades.

As part of the London Festival of Architecture, Connected Places Catapult’s Digital Planning Unit hosted a morning breakfast panel that focussed on the future of masterplanning. We were joined by Cobus Bothma from Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates, Lara Kinnear from New London Architecture, Roberto Bottazzi from UCL and Kat Hanna from Lend Lease.

At the end of 2018 we worked with Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates on Masterplanner, a speculative prototype that front-loads the masterplanning process by allowing users to drag and drop real developments into what is effectively an Amazon-style “shopping cart”, and in so doing demonstrate the impact these sorts of developments would have on various urban networks, such as school places, traffic and utility infrastructure. The morning session focussed less on the Masterplanner tool per se but more on, as Cobus Bothma suggested, the fact that urban design has been less progressive in its adoption of digital technologies and use of data.

Part of the reason this is happening is because of that damn elephant. Not only are we seeing masterplans that replace other masterplans, that replaced other masterplans; but they aren’t learning from one another – in the 26 years between 1988 and 2014 Greenwich Peninsula saw six masterplans for the area, each one, a complete remake of the former. We always start from scratch, mining new baseline data.

Another part of the problem is the time it takes to deliver one of these plans. The profession can’t keep up with the economic, social, cultural, political, technological and, reality-check, climatic changes. So by the time they’re produced, they’re almost certainly out of date. Lara Kinnear keenly observed that our readiness to adopt digital tools in our day-to-day lives is struggling to translate into an equitable readiness to adopt them in our profession activities.

So, why aren’t we talking more about the elephant in the room? Might it be that professionals worry the future of masterplanning might entail levels of task automation that would make their roles obsolete? If that’s the case then I would argue that it’s a self-defeating fear – the future isn’t about cutting out the humans, it’s about establishing new tools for the humans to do their jobs better and, more than that, actually starting to deliver masterplans that are fit for purpose and, ideally, masterful.

Another thing to bear in mind though if we are to try and escort the elephant from the room – the use and collection of data. This will be integral to any advancement of masterplanning practice, but we haven’t considered how the way we collect data about a place might inform a digital masterplanning process.

Kat Hanna reminded us that data isn’t neutral – not all data is equal in power and in value – and we need to consider what data is actually collected. One quick example of this is the measurement of footfall: are we simply measuring footfall volume, or do we go deeper and also measure the impact and texture of that footfall –who is using the space, what does use mean to them, and what is the impact on their life or the community? This is critical for us to think about now because when we talk about introducing data collection to the built environment the problem is, unlike say Facebook, where, if users feel uncomfortable, they can log out of that virtual space – with the city, they can’t log out of their reality. So if this is to be done, it needs to be done right, and the interests and of citizens need to be protected rigorously, and their concerns must always be heard.

You can watch the debate here and play with the speculative prototype at this link. We want to know what you think about the different tools; are they feasible, desirable or helpful to your business, so feel free to get in touch.

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