Ombretta delivered the keynote speech entitled “Planning for change. A question of scales, tools and responsibilities” at the IAPS International Network Symposium held in Daegu, Korea, on October 10th 2011.

The year 2011 will see the 50th anniversary of the publication of Jane Jacobs’ seminal work ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities’. This keynote seeks to commemorate the occasion by reflecting on the extent to which Jacobs’ vision for the socially healthy city has been incorporated into contemporary approaches to urban regeneration and design, offering a way forward.

Whilst there is much evidence in the academic literature and in practice guidance of good intentions, embodied in the now widespread acceptance of the ‘liveable cities’ concept, for example, it is equally clear that concerns remain about the social value of what prevailing approaches to urban regeneration and design delivers. Recent discourse in urban design theory highlights that the essence of Jacobs’ sociological aspirations for the built environment have yet to become evident in the mainstream of theory and practice, where urban development too often over-privileges economic interests and rapid delivery over social relevance. Despite significant advances in so called socially responsive urbanism and attempts to place human experience and social functioning at the heart of urban design, there remains no fully coherent approach capable of delivering the kind of urban realm so passionately advocated by Jacobs.

In response, this paper will draw from recent theoretical research which argues that the main obstacle to progress lies with a current emphasis on ‘designing’ without enough linkage to societal processes, resulting in urban environments that compromise, rather than enhance, social sustainability. The paper will then detail ongoing research at the University of Strathclyde1 which has developed a new theoretical and practical approach to urban development in which urban form and space can be more easily reconnected to social organisation and experience. At the basis of this work is an extensive review of urban settlements across time and space, their relation to planning and urban theories of development and in particular the study of physical structures and units of development within these settlements.

The study will be illustrated at different scales: changes in urban structure will be presented at city/town scale, the concept of neighbourhood as geographic entity will be criticised in favour of the more responsive “sanctuary area”, and the commonly intended unit of development, the urban block, will be substituted by the combination street-street/front-plot.

Ultimately, this presentation will illustrate how a plot-based, rather than block-based, approach can more easily accommodate the sociological dimensions of urban form called for by Jacobs. Integral to this are processes of informal participation2, acting as catalysts for local management and adaptation of the urban environment, within the parameters set through planning and formal participation.

This approach to urban development aims to provide the ambitions of responsiveness of current planning practice with appropriate theoretical and practical implementation tools. These tools are derived from an extensive study of urban forms and their robustness over time and take into account the different levels at which a place can be designed and managed, to maximise the strategic and structural long term impact of decisions whilst at the same time delegating small scale organisational and managerial tasks to a thus more empowered, responsible and engaged society.