2nd September 2015
Good evening. It is an honour to have been asked to speak this evening and I’m grateful to Lady Sondes, Sir David Melville and Chris Wright for their invitation. As I prepared for this evening I wondered if I had ever given a talk on the water. I thought I hadn’t and then I remembered I once spoke at a conference on board a cruise ship between Genoa and Marseille. I’m pleased to say I’d trade the crystal waters of the Côte D’Azur for the muds of the Côte de North Kent any day.
We are lucky to be here and lucky to be part of Faversham. Simon Foster mentioned the work I’m involved in that’s looking at the UK 50 years from now. This may seem like a long time but it’s a drop in the ocean/Creek for Faversham. Here we have at least 9,000 years of continuous human habitation. There aren’t many other places in the UK that can claim this. In fact we don’t yet know of any that can.
And why did people first come here and then stick around for so long? It’s the Creek. First for the hunting: its game, its fish and its fowl. Then for its waterborne trade. We are one tide from London, where merchants could poise offshore, like greyhounds in the trap, waiting for fire signals from London to tell them their stock prices were high enough to catch the next tide in.
This place is important. This water is important. Many of us feel this viscerally. Others still need persuading. How can we do that?
I have seven thoughts.
My first thought is perhaps the most challenging one. It’s about change – and many of us resist change. Yet the only constant for Faversham over the last 9,000 years has been change. Nothing ever stays the same.
I have the benefit of seeing change every day in the work I do. For example I’ve seen the Transformation of London’s South Bank over the past twenty five years. It’s one of the great urban success stories. From deserted emptiness to vibrant arts, culture and industry.
Change takes time – it happens piece by piece – and the process is often difficult but the product can be transformational: places to work, to play, to live.
Change involves some loss but it must also provide lots of gain. The gain has to offset the loss. So we need to set our standards high.
And Faversham has seen transformational change: Abbey Street – from red light district to a place of graceful beauty; Tanners Street (where I live) – where the residents were burning their floorboards for firewood and today we’re gardening the verges and cleaning the Westbrook stream behind our houses. These stories – the red light district and the burning floorboards – are not the stuff of mythical legend but stories in living memory. How can we create the transformational stories of the future? How will our grandchildren describe our actions to their grandchildren?
My second thought is about risk. Nothing is without risk. Especially when it’s historic. A bit like when we go under the knife for an operation. What the surgeon expects to fix isn’t necessarily what they end up fixing. We must expect the unexpected.
Yet risk can be mitigated, and this is the subject of my next three themes, which I will pass over briefly.
Thought three is about evidence. Data, records, maps, analytics. My work for the Government Office for Science is demonstrating just how much valuable data exists and yet how often so very little is used to inform the creation of urban policy. Today, more than ever before, science is on the side of urban planners – not the science that prevailed in the twentieth century, a science that was all about creating a brave, new world of steel and glass – but a science that is demonstrating the value of building places where we can walk and cycle in comfort; of streets and public spaces, not raised walkways and concrete jungles. New data and analytics are highlighting the commercial benefits of mixed use places where people live, work and take leisure together rather than in separate precincts; and also the social benefits: that all of this is good for our bodies and our spirits. A science that, I believe, suggests the towns and cities of tomorrow should look and feel more like the towns and cities we had before they were ruined by cars.
4. Visioning the future
My fourth thought is about visioning the future. When we think of the future we often talk about forecasting. We have a weather forecast that extrapolates the situation as best we know it. It tells us about how the weather will be. We have no choice in the matter. But we all know when it comes to design – whether it’s our kitchens or our gardens – there’s more than one way of doing anything. And so it is with towns and cities. The wonderful thing about urban planning is you can imagine how you would like things to be and then work backwards to see what you need to do to get there. Create a desired scenario and then back-cast.
But how do you arrive at a “perfect” scenario? And who decides? In the past this has been the job of the masterplanner – in municipal photographs you typically see a lone, overcoated man, smoking a pipe, wearing a hat and waving down from a hilltop onto the poor unsuspecting future council estate below. Unsurprisingly we’ve discovered in many a failed New Town that this approach doesn’t work. Instead, you need many people to come together to talk about different possible outcomes first, to create more than one scenario and then to discuss them in the round. Discussion is my fifth thought. And I mean genuine discussion, not tokenistic consultation. It’s my personal view – but I know it’s one shared by many – that the quality of the conversation in Faversham has to improve on all sides.
My sixth thought is about aspiration – how we need to aim high. I believe all of us here take it for granted that we must leave Faversham better than we found it. Our duty is to future generations. We must therefore aim for more of what makes Faversham already great. For me it is straightforward: craft, culture and industry first. Housing second.
And of course the Creek is central to this future. The once and future heart of Faversham.
The Creek must be more than a place for housing. Craft, culture and industry first. Housing second.
When Bilbao in northern Spain looked to regenerate its waterside and invigorate its urban centre it didn’t just build housing. It hired Frank Gehry who created a new Guggenheim museum and instantly put the place on the world map.
We must look not for the average but, I believe, the best. The best buildings and the best uses for those buildings – built with the best materials and serviced with the best connections.
When Bazalgette built London’s Victorian sewer network to sort out London’s pressing needs, he asked the best brains to tell him how big the pipes needed to be. They told him and his response wasn’t to value engineer them in an effort to save money. He said, “Make them twice as big”. That is great leadership. And, in my experience, when great leadership is married with great vision, the money follows.
John Ruskin said:
“There is scarcely anything in the world that some man cannot make a little worse, and sell a little more cheaply. The person who buys on price alone is this man’s lawful prey.”
How can Faversham respond to this challenge?
The opening bridge is the essential start.
More industry? Absolutely. Faversham needs jobs and, on a lighter note, there’s nothing all those people down from London like more than to watch other people engaged in honest graft!
More culture? Certainly. A museum, a gallery, on the waterfront: like Bilbao, like Copenhagen, like Helsinki, like Newcastle, like London, like Bristol, like anywhere that has taken its future by the horns.
How can we not only celebrate Faversham’s historic treasure-trove of listed buildings – one of the most concentrated collections anywhere – but also, and here is the challenge to the patrons and their architects, how can we create the listed buildings of the future?
My last theme is on the power of networks – how, when the right plan is in place, the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts.
Let’s start with the humble brick – another of Faversham’s great industries. We see the beautiful bricks yet it’s the mortar between them that makes the building stand up. In the same way, it is the space between buildings that is the glue that binds a town together. Faversham needs great new public spaces as well as great new buildings to complement the sublime stock of urban design and architecture that history has given us. And the solution is all around us: the Creek, and especially the Upper Basin, can be the new signature public space of the regenerated town centre.
And ultimately, what makes public space great is when it’s used by people. People are the ultimate network. It’s people who enjoy our towns, and people who bring them into being through their collective efforts.
Robert Browning said:
“Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what’s a heaven for?”
That same sense of striving for a greater purpose is what I believe characterises the efforts of the Faversham Creek Trust to date and should guide our collective efforts going forwards.
My final thought. There are many phrases that spring to mind when we discuss bridges: “A bridge too far” or “A bridge over troubled waters”. Let’s not use any of those, please. I’d like to leave you with my offering, that I hope summarises the seven themes of this talk and that speaks of the hard work ahead for us:
To bridge well is to begin well.