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 Architects Manchester ¦ North West Construction Professionals ¦ Building Design Team

Methodist Church to Nursery Conversion in Diggle, Oldham. Accomodation for children of all ages, as well as a multi-purpose space. more

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A cost effective refit of a 4th floor office in an old mill in Bolton, providing a range of accommodation between 200 and 1000 square feet.. more


Driving Utopia


(Extract - Isolative Urbanism: An Ecology of Control ISBN 978-0-9562913-0-1)

By G.P. Erskine

Ed. Richard Brook and Nick Dunn


Barrow-in-Furness exhibits features that make it typical of the many other once successful industrial towns in the North of England, and indeed, the port and shipbuilding towns of Scotland and Northern Ireland, or the mining towns of Wales, all carry the same telltale signs of the beginning of the end. The industries that these towns were once built on the back of have all but vanished, leaving behind an infrastructure and population struggling to survive. However it’s not too late to divert these effects. In an ideal world, they could simply be reversed, in a perfect system all actions that have created this position could be undone, but as this is not a pragmatic solution an appropriate strategic trajectory needs to be developed.


A recent report [1] suggested that many towns fall into two main categories; “satellite and stand alone”. A “satellite town” is an urban area which has evolved based on a historic industry which has now ended, but is close enough to a city to be classed as a commuter town. The city can sustain the people of the town with work and therefore maintain an economic stability. In essence, this town will continue, albeit at a reduced level of success. A “stand alone” town is an urban area which like the satellite town has built up on a historic industry which has now ended, but is not close enough to a city to be classed as a commuter town. The town has limited or, indeed no means of sustaining its occupants and will inevitably fail. The report suggested that these areas should be allowed to fail. One politician flippantly recently stated, “everyone in the north should move down south”. However the report failed to highlight one main problem with this proposal. If it can be accepted that a town or city can only maintain a maximum number of occupants, then it is clearly not simply a matter of relocating people from failing towns to those that are not. There are only a finite amount of jobs, resources and facilities in any area, so by moving the people this only serves to relocate the existing problems with them to another area. It therefore follows that the best way forward would be to address the problems in their context. In order to generate suitable strategies to deal with these problems it is important to first understand the effects the have.


Modern society is constantly changing. It is the accelerated nature of business in the post-industrial era/new-modern age that creates a faster rate of change. The world is getting smaller. Global industrial shifts happen at an unprecedented rate. Industries once evolved over a generation, now they can evolve and even disappear in a year. Cities spring up out of deserts, islands erupt from the seas as we enter a transition period that no longer depends on existing models for cohabitation. No single factor is likely to cause such an impact as to create an unbalanced structure, but many factors together compound the effects to a potential tipping point that to be merely reactive would be irresponsible. Current trends appear to indicate a shift in the society dynamic that stems from many causes but in essence fall into three main categories: social, economic and health.


Depending on perspective, there have been numerous effects from the social dynamic change. Increasing rates of migration, longer life spans, and increasing birthrates, coupled with improvements in health care are having notable effects on population. The seemingly imminent effects of global warming will create a shift in the anticipated seasonal weather change, effecting growing seasons and yield rates for food stuffs. This will have a dramatic impact on available resource and potentially create a lack of available affordable food. All of these factors will increase the socioeconomic divide. The financial distance between the “financially struggling” and the “financially comfortable” is increasing. It is becoming more and more difficult to cross between the two and in turn, more and more people are falling into the former category. Combined improvements in mechanisation/reduction in industrialization in the West have reduced the need for labour, causing a shift in employment trends. Furthermore, the free trade linked with cheaper oversees manufacture and staffing coupled with the current global recession has also precipitated greater levels of unemployment. It should be also considered that increasing ill-health has a large impact on a collective’s economy,whether at a local or national level [2]. Perhaps even more so than the othertwo areas, the issues connected to health have the most significant and immediate impact on the status of a society. Moderndietary trends, physical activity levels, increased ill-health in children and a class based structure of health and well being are all major factors in this. Simply put, the health and well being of the individual has serious economic and social effects on the collective. There is a direct correlation between mortality rates and life expectancy with socioeconomic status. Generally if you are “financially struggling” you have a lower life expectancy [3]. Worryingly, although three primarily separate areas, each one influences the other in a reciprocal triangulation of cause and effect, either positively or negatively. In addition, each one has certain characteristics of a repeat system within its self, affording spiral replication of trends.


How best therefore to address these problems? Upon first inspection it may seem too broad a topic but potential solutions may lie in the interdependent nature of the issues. It is not the singular intervention of a government or authority to any one of these factors which will improve society, but a coherent all encompassing approach that calls to mind the notion of utopia.First penned by Thomas More (1516) in a text of the same name, the meaning of the word plays on the Greek compounds eu-topos (a happy or fortunate place) and ou-topos (no place). Utopia cannot be constructed, or at least cannot be constructed and populated, it can only be conceived and from conception, evolve. The ideology for Utopia often employs ‘equality’ as a ‘parti’. Marxism, socialism, communism, feminism etc are all used as core ideologies in the theory towards creating Utopia. However, in the context of this discourse, it would appear that the solution might be manifest in a “lesser capitalism” – a reduced dependency on monetary exchange. By developing a freedom from dependence on earning and spending, a semi-socio-autarkism on an urban level may evolve. Many theologians in the past have discussed how to build a Utopia, as a new physical construction, carved into grids, sectors, quarters, arcs, boulevards, avenues, districts with hierarchical spaces and programmed zoning. In More’s Utopia (1516), the capital city ‘Amaurot’ of the 54 cities in the ‘civitas’ (city state) is subdivided into four equal districts, with streets twenty feet apart, and quarters with regular houses and gardens. Although More does not go into great detail on the design, he does stress the social structure, with great concern relating to control, regulation and modes of surveillance. It is these that he believes are paramount in maintaining harmony in the ideal state.


The modern Utopia will not be this, cannot be this, for humanity would not allow it. The personality of the individual/group/mass/population varies so much from person to person and is the very beauty of modern society. The variety within the collective and the freedom of the individual are pivotal constructs in contemporary urban conditions. The modern Utopia must not only allow this variety, but proactively nurture it. It must create communities in which opportunity is afforded to all to be who they are, to worship who they will, to live as they wish. The future of the successful town is not necessarily a restructuring of the town, but a restructuring of the image of the town. Is it therefore possible to re-imagine the town at both an individual and collective level and thus re-address how the town is used? This naturally leads to the underlying preposition – is it possible to create a formula for a new type urbanism on an existing framework?


It is the understanding that a society is created from individuals in a space that is the rationale for the beginnings of Utopia. It is no longer the need to create a ‘pure’, enclosed and controlled realm, but simply an opportunity for the society to achieve contentment in a place. Seperation of space and society is not a pragmatic option, as the two have mutuality in creating this contentment in relation to three critical success factors: Health, Wealth and Happiness Innovative solutions would implicate that speculations must go beyond the normative assumptions and project a balanced future of sustainable ideals and practical implementation. One direction in which this can evolve is in correlation to previous incidents that have resulted in immediate and volatile economic trends – perhaps most noticeably the peak oil crisis of 1973. The continuing depletion of resources contextualised further by global economic slump may suggest the end of the age of the car. If this is taken to an extreme scenario it may be presupposed that within the next 50 years, the individual would not own a car and that an alternative would be needed. The removal of the car leads to interesting implications for society, many of which could be highly beneficial in the medium and long term.


Having previously studied and concluded that ‘Barrow is typical’, and not only typical, but a typical standalone town facing the same problems as many other standalone towns, it became apparent that an opportunity to address the problems of these towns had arisen. It was the geography, size and density of Barrow that made it the perfect test bed for intervention. At the tip of a peninsula, with only 2 approaches, and of relatively high density with around 70,000 people, it would be the perfect place to test the idea of removing private motorised transport. By considering the modern dependence on the car, and its impact on society, I came to the conclusion that the primary factors fell into four interlinked socio-related categories: health, social, environmental and financial. Each category had several negative factors, as well as many cross category ones i.e. the financial implications of poor health, the social implications of poverty etc. It would not be the answer to a failing towns problems, only the intervention that instigates change and thus afford not only a restructuring, but a restructuring of the image of the town.


Central to the reconfiguration of urban condition is that gradual change occurs, allowing people to develop independency from private mobilisation. In the first stage of applying this template the reliance on cars needs to be significantly reduced, so if people could keep their car, but not bring it into town, a facility would be required on the periphery to house it. In the early design, a surface car-park, stretching like a band along the town edge, creating instead of a green belt, a grey belt, a development limit seemed a good approach. But, with more and more design consideration, it became apparent that to remove private motorised transport had potentially huge consequences. Delivery vans, builders vans, skip lorries, ice cream vans would all have to go. Also, petrol stations, mechanics, car sales, car valets, MOT centres all had to be re-located. Some form of public transport network running within the town would be required, an electro-bus or monorail, even though the emphasis was on walking and cycling everywhere, it is understood that this is not necessarily possible for all members of the community. All these additional factors indicated that a large surface car-park would not meet the needs of the facility, and that what would be required is a centralised facility, one location, where all these programmes overlap. A ‘Gateway to Utopia’.


The inherent irony of this proposal is apparent, that in order to create a reduced dependence on the car, the initial requirement would be for a 25,000 space car-park. However if the behavioural logic prevailed, people would get rid of their car altogether, and use hire cars in place of, or at the very least carpool with others. Therefore the success of this theory in essence was the demise of the original intervention. For that reason, several future proofing design factors need to be included into the facility to allow future change of use. The form itself has to afford sophisticated zoning, to allow phased adaptation of areas. The floor to floor height has to be greater than a traditional car-park in order to allow inhabitation and services at a later date. Structurally some of the elements need to be over-specified to accommodate change. To summarise, a temporary car-park facility is housed within a permanent structure with a future programme not yet defined but affording change.



[1]JFR Report on English Towns 2008.

[2]Authors comment. Dental postcode lottery in UK

[3]National Statistics. Oct 2007. “Variations persist in life expectancy by social class



Isolative Urbanism: An Ecology of Control is available to buy here.

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