How are women changing our cities?

Lucy Bullivant, curator of the exhibition Urbanistas: women innovators in architecture, urban and landscape design, on how women are changing our cities.

Urbanistas: women innovators in architecture, urban and landscape design runs at Roca London Gallery 06/03/2015 to 27/06/2015

Cities are crucibles of complex challenges, but the tragedy is that the logic of top down planning and design applied by the 'master' architects of the 20th century, including zoning, is still everywhere to be observed. Growth models based on a narrow notion of competition sacrifice far too much in the process of implementation, when it is the process of building social assets that urban design can more actively support across neighbourhoods.

Privatisation and narrow developmental logics of commercial gain running roughshod are at odds with adaptive design strategies to bring about urban renewal. Many urban environments are fractured. Mono-cultural impositions only serve to exacerbate today's sense of unrootedness. There are a lack of cyclical strategies for the deployment of the concentrated resources needed to survive and thrive in cities.

With fast growing urbanisation slowly but inexorably, transforming every single facet of cities and the wider biosphere, a lot of creative people want to change this status quo. We are living not only with a lot of outdated legislation, but also a back catalogue of failed urban models that do not serve contemporary cities as diverse communities - in terms of cultures, ethnicities, ages and overall needs.


Ruskin Square, East Croydonm, an ongoing project by Muf Architecture

Urbanistas: women innovators in architecture, urban and landscape design, puts the work of five practitioners based in, or working in, the UK today, under a spotlight illuminating the many commonalities among women architects, urban designers and landscape architects who want things to change for the better.

The ethical challenges lying at the feet of the multi-disciplinary specialists working together in teams, across neighbourhoods, towns, cities and continents are those which, emphatically, both genders are facing. Operating as multi-disciplinary teams, women and men in the design professions are actively working alongside each other, as never before, given the numbers of young women graduates entering the field.

Bath Riverside housing visualisation, Alison Brooks Architects

Bath Riverside housing visualisation, Alison Brooks Architects

Their respective grasp of their art of processes in urban design make them uniquely qualified to design a more, responsive, ground-up approach to urban environments and their legacies. Central to this is negotiating, through nimble means, all the contestations over values that contemporary urbanisation brings. No gender has a monopoly on these sensibilities. The alternative strategies both are deeply capable of are to be given greater attention, and more of them are needed, to help steer urban environments in the right direction.

So why, then, make an exhibition about five women practitioners? The airtime is for what they have to offer. Rather than adopting the rose-tinted default that is a retrospective approach to city making, and imagining that low-density late 19th century 'garden city' models, or perpetuating historical fabric set in aspic will do, the five Urbanistas want to make a public realm of social value. Should that be so hard? In London, where over 300 different languages are spoken, the population is growing and high quality public green spaces are one of its chief assets, they embrace that cultural reality, using tactics that draw on both the arts and the natural sciences.

Tower Works, Bauman Lyons

Tower Works, Bauman Lyons

Sylviculture and the science of soils, biophilic design, seasonal changes, convivial spaces for everyone - "the soft stuff is the hard stuff", is a common refrain that local boroughs, community groups and some enlightened developers are increasingly adopting as a practical philosophy. Johanna Gibbons and Liza Fior and Katherine Clarke, founders of muf architecture/art, in Hackney, and Irena Bauman, working in Leeds and around Yorkshire, have sat with them around the table, encouraging them to think differently, along with Eleanor Fawcett and Kathryn Firth, originally based at the LDA and LSE Cities respectively, and now Heads of Design and Architecture, at the London Legacy Development Corporation, for example.

Instead of wasting urban land, or denuding it of its resources, Urbanistas focus on drawing out the potential of land through new cyclical processes of soft planning - dealing with climate, ecological issues, mixed and seasonal uses - rather than only the hardware of infrastructure. While urban design's stock-in-trade has traditionally revolved around hard morphologies and monuments of city identity and orientation - big moves, fixed visions - the exhibitors carry out placemaking in ways that rehumanise even the most degraded post-industrial sites, and to foster legacies.

Strategies like Alessandra Cianchetta's of AWP for its masterplan for La Défense in Paris open up closed infrastructures and knit together districts. Alison Brooks' award-winning housing design - Newhall Be at Harlow, Essex, and at Bath Western Riverside - asserts new geometries and greater permeability to nature for high-density living spaces. Not orthogonal, but through a more versatile organic, the designs include future adaptation potential as part of their concepts.

Working within a construction industry obsessed with short-term profit, this commitment to long-term value is hard to uphold and pursue, but the Urbanistas will not settle for atomized results. From micro to the macro-scale of the city and its region, they draw out responsive, cohesive solutions. The role of architect is under pressure, everyday at risk of being pushed aside by value engineering, but the Urbanistas know that architecture is one of the very few generalist professions - like the medical profession - and if you cannot assert your personal values, you give up the architect's duty of care, and you might as well leave the career that you love. A poet, an author or a playright can concoct a narrative of place, but only an architect can create a narrative of place and give the city new physical resources with stories and languages that everyone can share and enjoy.

Fortunately, in seeing the potential in alternative urban design visions, the Urbanistas have many allies. So, instead of tearing down a late 1950s modernist masterplanned space, why not re-socialise it, and the clients agree. The garden suburb - how can it be retrofitted without perpetuating more costly sprawl? This urban design mentality embraces the potentials of diverse densities, of live-work and mixed use. Green landscapes serve as beneficially active tissues of placemaking. Park and riverside landscapes, older historical and archaeological sites, and infrastructures become integrated community assets with the support of clients from both the private and the public sectors, who see the sense in collaborating.

Each city and town has its own DNA, but urban centres need more support from integrated plans in which people from across the whole community can play an active part as stakeholders. They can feel a greater sense of involvement with the adaptive use of local resources, land, waste, renewable energy, injecting a greater biophilic sensibility than spaces have had lately. The Urbanistas have seen this happen, and know that it is possible.

Park Up Hill, Dollis Valley, ABA,

Park Up Hill, Dollis Valley, ABA.

While each has a unique approach, as the video interviews I commissioned, the models, drawings and photographs show, their kinship thrives on identifying and cultivating urban assets. This means potentials of neighbourhoods are drawn out, and solutions for long-term renewal created. With localism now strongly on the political agenda, but needing direction, involving a web of community networks was vital for Bauman's Dewsbury Strategic Framework, for muf's Making Space in Dalston, for example.

Urbanistas work closely with innovative local government to create new frameworks, legislation and land uses, participate with communities, collaborate with developers prepared to go out on a limb on design concepts relating widely to contemporary lifestyles. Urbanistas' purpose is to renew the city and its landscape in ways that are liveable, loveable and legacy-directed.

Lucy Bullivant

Lucy Bullivant Hon FRIBA is a curator, author and critic, Editor-in-chief of the webzine,, and Adjunct Professor, urban design history and theory, Syracuse University in London. Her book, Masterplanning Futures (Routledge, 2012), won Book of the Year at the Urban Design Awards, 2014, and in June 2015, Recoded City: Co-creating urban futures, co-authored with Thomas Ermacora, is published by Routledge.


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