Where to begin, designing a new town?

SO, where to begin, designing the layout to a new town? When it comes to making that first mark on a piece of paper, there is an argument that it should be a public square, with streets (narrow ones?) spinning off.

For inspiration, there can be few more relevant sources than ‘A Pattern Language’ (here), by Christopher Alexander and colleagues. It’s a mighty and comprehensive tome ranging across any place design topic you can care to think of, including bus stops, heating and even the marital bed.

Chapter 61 (of 253!) sees the authors write: “A town needs public squares; they are the largest, most public rooms that the town has. But when they are too large, they look and feel deserted.”

They add: “Make a public square much smaller than you would at first imagine; usually, no more than 45 to 60 feet across, never more than 70 feet across. This applies only to its width in the shortest direction. In the long direction, it can certainly be longer.”

An illustration can be found in an article published by The Critic magazine (here), featuring a square in Bridport, Dorset. It isn’t even a fully-formed square; what you don’t see to the picture’s left is a two-lane road, rather than buildings. But you get the drift.

The advice is supported by the distance required to recognise a person’s facial expressions, a point echoed by that other giant of town planning, Jan Gehl, (on page 34 of his Cities for People (here)). Between 22 and 25 metres, suggests Gehl.

Both Alexander and Gehl are cited by academic, Dina Bacvic, in The Conversation (here), who is struck by those intimate squares to be found in countries such as Italy, with its proliferation of medieval town centres.

She writes: “Plazas are a visual and psychological marker within the street network. They help us navigate the [town] and contribute to the identity of an area.”

If the medieval town is therefore an inspiration – and why not? – for the new town of the future, perhaps it isn’t a square that kicks off the whole design process. Maybe those first marks are not a square but, instead, a road and subsequent shortcuts, with homes built organically in the spaces in-between.

This is the approach of ‘fantasy’ gamer, ‘Questing Beast’, on the video sharing site, YouTube, here.

It’s an alternative approach perhaps worth considering.

Mike Wilson is a member of the Place Design Scotland team

Pictured: Bologna, Italy, Picture credit: Place Design Scotland

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