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Planning for Future Growth

Using tried-and-tested techniques, Urban Design Associates collaborated with the community, a regional builder and fellow designers to create a contextual, historically sensitive master plan for the town of Ellon in Aberdeenshire, Scotland.

By Margaret M. Connor

After three years of working in the Northeast of Scotland, I think I've finally placed my finger on why I love it there. The air is fresh, the people are kind, and the built environment is every bit as quaint as you would imagine. Despite the construction boom of the past five decades (related to the discovery of oil fields in the North Sea) and the forecasted additional 72,000 houses by 2030, the percentage of shoddily built, poorly designed, cookie-cutter, single-use housing communities have yet to completely consume its small towns and devour its rural landscapes. Substantial vestiges of a sustainable townscape remain intact. But it begs this question for today's design and development professionals: Can we keep it this way?

One strategy is to partner with mission-driven organizations that are dedicated to improving the built environment. We have had the incredible honor of working with regional builders, like Scotia Homes, who are striving to change the paradigm of conventional development, and The Prince's Foundation for the Built Environment (PFBE), who are responsible for drastically improving the standard for master planning in the United Kingdom with the incredible successes at Poundbury.

Together, we are all working to transform the quality of new development physically while affecting change on a national level. Our work started in Ellon, a town just north of Aberdeen, when The Prince's Foundation introduced us to Scotia Homes in 2007. UDA's initial charge was to create a Pattern Book in support of PFBE's Enquiry by Design process to analyze a sustainable growth plan for Ellon. They would guide the visionary planning and UDA would masterplan Scotia's landholdings as well as design a new suite of house and building types to illustrate the core principles of the Pattern Book.

The resulting recommendations for the town include a growth strategy that reintroduces mixed-use development, concentrates growth nearest to the core, and leverages investment for the benefit of the town as a whole. The first of three design and development projects to come out of this effort, Castle Meadow, is a key component of the plan, and its construction makes possible the restoration of, and public access to, the historic Ellon Castle gardens.

It is also an important link from the northern suburban neighborhoods directly to the historic core. This 250-unit plan is currently being reviewed. Subsequent planning efforts will include recommendations for improving the function of the historic town core and a substantially large development plan for Cromleybank, a new urban quarter that will accommodate the bulk of Ellon's anticipated 2,000-unit growth over the next 20 years.

That number is a mere fraction of the projected growth for the area and it serves as a model for how other small towns throughout the region can accommodate this rate of growth without losing their essential qualities. In fact, the best strategy for preserving Scotland's beauty is fairly straightforward: learn from the past, use design as the vocabulary for building consensus, and honor the natural and cultural landscapes.

Learning From the Past
The port city of Aberdeen has been a successful urban center for centuries, long enough that it functions like a time capsule – documenting the cultural, urban design and architectural history of Scotland. The forms that are visible throughout the region are exemplified in the medieval, Georgian, Victorian and modern planning eras of the city.

What is most fascinating is that older neighborhoods, specifically from the Victorian era, have maintained their property values, mix of uses, and occupancy even through this most recent economic crisis. And, in the case of Old Aberdeen, the site of the town's original High Street (which dates much further back), it has found its third or fourth renaissance as centuries-old structures now house the University of Aberdeen. Its streets are filled with college students and purpose. There is a prevailing school of thought that historic places are maintained, beloved and valued only because of the quality of the architecture. As breathtakingly handsome as some buildings are in Scotland, much of the fabric is actually very simple, bordering on ordinary or even mean. In fact, the gray granite of Aberdeen's fame creates what at first seems to be a fairly monotonous palette of details and façades.

The magic does not solely lie in the architecture of the individual houses or buildings, rather in the diversity of street types and spaces, in the very urban design of the place. A single neighborhood can possess a full collection of small residential streets, squares, terraces, wynds and closes (a close is akin to a courtyard, typically with only one point of access). It is this variety of urban spaces that brings richness and character to the architecture and best celebrates the pure forms of buildings. Conventional subdivisions fall short in this comparison, where not only is the architecture contrived, but also the endlessly similar streetscapes lull their occupants into a walking sleep. It is the mix of uses and the variety of spatial types that lend Scottish neighborhoods their interest and walkability. Using this knowledge, we can reverse conventional practices. In Ellon, a town about 16 miles north of Aberdeen, reinstating variety is critical to its survival.

Decades of cul-de-sac development, a Tesco supermarket at the town's edge, and a predominantly Aberdeen-bound workforce threaten the viability of the historic core. The growth strategy for the town, however, strives to inject new life into the center by providing additional housing typologies to attract a broader population, and by creating office spaces to support and attract new businesses to the area. New development is linked together and to the rest of the town through a network of open spaces and quintessentially Scottish spatial types, tying new construction into the best traditions of the past.

A Vocabulary for Building Consensus
Understanding the physical form of a place's past is only a part of perpetuating its magical character. The more substantial spiritual impact of a place is acquired through engagement of the local community in the design process. Allowing participants to teach you about their place, describe the areas that are attractive and direct you to study towns and neighborhoods that are relevant to their vision is critical to understanding why certain places work, or don't.

One of the problems with "cutting edge" design and the elitism associated with it is that it is often unintelligible to non-designers. When everything has to be "different" it is also necessarily difficult to relate to and virtually impossible to describe. To establish a common vocabulary, we must understand the public's perception of the town, and translate that perception into drawings. From these we can develop the tools required to design a sensitive intervention. The designer must remove his ego from the equation and be open to learning from participants and predecessors.

In the case of Ellon, the charrette participants were concerned about development continuing on the opposite side of the River Ythan, even though this location would be most beneficial to the viability of the historic core. Recent interventions had turned their backs on the river and given little consideration to distant views.

When asked to describe what was cherished about their town, residents spoke eloquently of the old bridge, the views of the town along the river, and the initial portions of an aspirational riverfront park. Using these cues, we were able to draw images for the new development that complemented the town's strengths and built consensus about its future.

Cultural Landscapes and Natural Resources
The second you step foot outside of a Northeastern Scottish town, you are in the middle of fertile and beautifully rolling farmlands. Centuries of cultivating the land responsibly have tamed this countryside into the landscape that fairy tales are made from. Dry-stacked granite walls outline individual fields, peppered with fluffy white sheep frolicking along the coast of the North Sea. It is hard to justify decimating this image for a handful of suburban bungalows. But there is a need for additional housing and new development. The whole of Aberdeenshire is anticipating a growth of 72,000 households over the next 20 years, half of which is targeted for the city of Aberdeen itself. Now, more than ever, it is necessary to think strategically about planning these cities, managing this growth, and preserving the valuable landscape.

This needs to happen on two scales. First, cities must be evaluated for reasonable expansion strategies that not only mitigate and attempt to reverse the damage of single-use sprawl, but also plan for alternative means of transportation and provision of community services. Secondly, projects must strive to integrate employment, education, and a mix of commercial and residential uses in order to build complete and self-supporting urban quarters.

When these two scales of strategy are paired with provision for local and community supported farming, strategic planning of well-integrated open space, and the respectful preservation of natural resources like burns and streams, the resulting development enhances, rather than detracts, from the land, and the whole region benefits.

Ultimately, time will judge our successes and failures. But as design professionals, we cannot continue to allow placeless development to overtake our precious cities. We must learn from those who have gone before us, be willing to listen to our neighbors, and value the beauty around us. We should ask what it is that we love about the places in which we work and infuse that magic into our practice every day. And as often as possible...spend some time in Scotland.

Since joining Urban Design Associates in 1998, Margaret M. Connor, LEED AP, principal in charge, has been involved in a variety of downtown master plans, urban revitalization plans, brownfield and infill redevelopment projects, visioning studies, new villages and pattern books. She earned her degree in architecture from the University of Notre Dame and is a member of the Congress for the New Urbanism, the American Planning Association, and the Urban Land Institute. Other UDA people involved in this project include Ray Gindroz, Don Kaliszewski, and Ivette Mongalo-Winston. Also involved for portions of the projects were Ben Weaver, James Brackenhoff, Sebastian Munoz, Bryan Morales, Terry Welsh, Dan Pisaniello, Kirsten Hoelmer and Gintas Civinskas.



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