Arlene: Thank you so much, Natalia, for agreeing to be interviewed today and taking time out of your busy schedule. Can you describe your experience at St Stephen’s and some of your fondest memories of that time?
Natalia: I had a really great time at St. Stephen's but also a lot of sad times. Instead of looking forward to the summer, it was sad to see everyone was leaving. I remember being very sad because there was always someone going to a country far away and I wouldn’t see them for a long time. In terms of the fondest memories, there’s a lot of them. I really enjoyed painting in the art room. I used to go with a friend into the dark room and develop pictures. It was a nice space and Ms. Clink was our art teacher at the time.
It [St. Stephen's] was such a creative space. Meeting people from different backgrounds and all walks of life, that was the main thing that I remember.
What skill sets do you believe are invaluable for someone who wants to work in Urban Design or wants to be an urban designer?
There are a lot of skills necessary for urban design, similar to architecture. It’s one of those careers that requires a bit of creative thinking and design skills but also a lot of technical skills in terms of drawing, doing spreadsheets, and schedules of areas for clients. Also, interpersonal skills are important because you need to be able to communicate your ideas to your clients, the council, the consultant, so a lot of communications skills as well.
I would say what is crucial for the job is a real passion for places. I think this is the foundation. You’re creating a vision for a place that doesn’t exist at the moment and the way to convey that vision is to be really passionate about places that do exist, being passionate about spaces in all their various forms and combining them in a way that is very specific for the site that you’re given. It’s not just about buildings; it’s also about landscape, particularly about uses and activities in spaces. I think that’s the main difference between urban design and architecture. Architects tend to focus on buildings only and urban designers tend to focus on what will bring a space to life. What makes spaces interesting for people are other people.
Can you talk a little about, in layman’s terms, a current project you’re working on? What is unique about it? How does it deal with sustainability, which is an issue many communities are thinking about. Sustainable tourism, if there is such a thing is also a big topic. How we will move about in, particularly urban, spaces as populations continue to grow and resources continue to shrink?
At the moment I’m working on this project called Borne Air Field. http://www.bournairfield.co.uk (This website was created for members of the community to view proposals and comment on them)
It’s a site near Cambridge, England. It’s for three thousand five hundred homes, two primary schools, a secondary school, and a village center. It’s really a town center but we call it a village center. Cambridge is a very desirable place to live, there’s the university, which is a research hub in many fields, especially biomedical, and housing is becoming increasingly unaffordable because of its success. There’s so much demand for housing, particularly affordable housing in and around the Cambridge suburbs. The driving force behind this master plan is a bus route that will allow the residents of this new settlement to be able to get to Cambridge by rapid transit. The bus will have a separate carriageway, ten to fifteen minutes to Cambridge, very fast.
The site itself is an airfield that was used during the Second World War for landing military planes. We’re trying to retain as much of that heritage in the form of green corridors and parks, which will allow residents to reach the Village Center via those green corridors and also provide play areas and green trails, all which promotes a healthy lifestyle. People will be able to walk and bike all around the site and through the site, as there will be a series of greenways and parks. We’re doing our best to make sure residents are connected internally as well, so there will be a local bus that will serve the town.
This is so fascinating to me because when I think of older planned communities in the States, suburbs which were back then probably exurbs, there wasn’t as much thought given to internal movement. Everything was about the residents getting into their cars and driving to New York City or Philadelphia or downtown Los Angeles. So you have these communities where there are no sidewalks, no parks, some have no trees. Today this seems very weird.
You find this in the UK as well but to a lesser extent. There were communities built in the 60s, 70s, and even into the 80s that were really designed around the car. The regulations in terms of road design were very much focused on the car. There were very few regulations on what we call placemakers, the character, and for a lot of these streets, the houses weren’t facing the street. So you feel as if you’re walking in the middle of nowhere. Therefore, people don’t walk. People walk for different reasons, obviously to go to school, to work, to go shopping, etc., but if the place is attractive sometimes you will walk just for the pleasure of walking.
Right, like in Rome. Rome is a very walkable city. I used to live in the historic center and, of course, I had errands and whatnot, but it was an enjoyable walk, maybe not so much at the height of high season, but it was enjoyable because there was a lot a beauty. I’m from New York and I’m used to cities where people walk. In Los Angeles, where I lived for ten years, if I decided to walk to the supermarket that was only five blocks or so from my house and my neighbors saw me, they would roll down their window and ask me if everything was okay and if my car was in the shop.
(Laughter) Yes, I’ve heard of people being stopped by the police in Los Angeles because they’re just walking.
Yes, the police are thinking, “is something wrong here? Why is the person walking?” It makes sense if you’re in downtown Los Angeles or on the Third Street promenade in Santa Monica, which is a planned outdoor mall. But in other non-commercial areas, people find it strange to see someone walking in the middle of the day. They’re perplexed.
That’s due in large part to how the environment was designed. There’s a great Churchill quote, “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.”
It’s true. They really do. In a way, urban design has an impact that is way beyond our lifetime. Once you trace a road, it’s going to be there for centuries. Here in Europe and to a lesser extent in America, there were older roads, or right of ways established years ago, or even how a farmer used to herd their sheep, for example, that we still follow. Here a king from one thousand years ago, or even longer, established certain rights of way and there are still legal requirements to maintain those rights. So when you create a road, that is something that shapes the way people move and is here to stay with us for a very long time.
Whereas buildings, you could build one that lasts a very long time, like in Rome there are buildings that have been around for some centuries. However, you can always demolish the building and build something new or a park. But once you design a road it’s very difficult to revert that.
That’s true. I think about the urban planning during the time of Robert Moses. This is a very interesting area of study. As you said, how you plan these roads has an impact, not just once they’re built but for generations. They can have a positive impact or a negative one, which is what we saw in some cities, like Chicago, when freeways were built through neighborhoods that were once vibrant and then fell apart.
These are also cyclical things. I had an opportunity to work in Pittsburgh for three months. I was working for a company that is here in the UK but was also doing a lot of projects in Russia at the time and in the States. It was a very prominent company in the field of urban design in the U.S. and promoted this new idea of urbanism, walkability, etc. Pittsburgh is a very good example of a city that, back in the 80s, was quite run down. Steel manufacturing was declining and that made the city decline as a result. Also during that time, a lot of American cities were demolishing large parts of their downtown areas or city centers and rebuilding them with skyscrapers, which were in fashion at the time. That did not happen in Pittsburgh as they didn’t have the money nor the demand. Ironically, that is one of its strong suits now because they have retained a lot of their heritage and historical buildings from the 20s, and 30s. In fact, Pittsburgh has become a very desirable location for filming. A lot of movies that are set in New York in the 30s, or other period films, are actually filmed there, and it costs a lot less than filming in New York.
Cities, places in general, have a life of their own. We try to plan them (laughter). I think that is what is fascinating about my career as well. Again, I go back to architecture, which can be a big ego boost, “Look at me, me, look at what I’ve done.” Whereas for urban designers it can be more collaborative, working with clients, the consultants, the community, the council, it’s more about being, in a way, in the background and bringing it all together.
What do you enjoy most about what you do?
I think I enjoy the complexity, the bringing together of all these different aspects. There are so many considerations, the client who’s thinking about the market, is he going to sell units, is he going to get his money? The council has its own political agenda making sure that what they propose is acceptable to their communities. Communities, in general, do not want change. Then you have all the technical aspects, the highway engineers, they need to comply with all the regulations, bridges, ecologists, the landscape specialists, they need to make sure you're retaining any existing trees, dealing with any landscaping the site has. It’s about bringing together things that are disparate and uniting them into a coherent whole, creating a strong narrative that people can understand and that you can create consensus around. Yes, it is that, bringing together all these different disciplines.
Obviously, it’s on a different scale, but it’s similar to being a film director. How you have to bring together all these different disciplines and make it cohesive as you tell your story. Everyone has their own concerns. The producer’s concerns are different from the studio’s, distribution, marketing, the actors, the writer, the technical part, your physical crew, your electricians, your carpenters, etc. You put it all together for this particular project, then it’s done and you move on to the next. Every film is different. Even if you were to have the exact same crew, which rarely happens, the project would be different.
Yes, this is also why I enjoy what I do; every project is different. Even if the individuals involved are the same, the place itself is different. Of course, there are certain practices and certain theories, essential ingredients let’s say to how to plan a space. Just like if you make a pizza you have to use certain ingredients but the way you put them together has to be very specific to the site.
The constraints that the site imposes, I see them really as opportunities. For us, the solutions we design must be specific to that space. So I don’t see them as constraints at all. That’s why it would be difficult to design a place around a blank canvas. The topography, the valleys, the rivers, the trees, the roads that run through it, that’s what makes a site interesting and beautiful. It’s about bringing out all those qualities. I’ve also worked on some regeneration strategies, working on existing spaces that are not functioning as well they could and identifying strategies that could make them work better. Those projects tend to be about working closely with the community and working with the council in getting a deep understanding of how it works now. In general, the approach is to see constraints as an opportunity for a creative solution.
What are some of your other passions?
I’m still very passionate about art. It’s something that I enjoy, going to private viewings, galleries, etc. I also enjoy traveling, although mostly I’m going to see family as they’re all very spread about. In my lifestyle, I try to walk the talk a little bit so I bike a lot and try to walk places and not use the car so much. I travel to work by train. I play tennis a lot too.
What are some of the most important lessons from your professional experience you would like to share with the next generation of St Stephen’s graduates?
I return to the last thing that I said: seeing problems as opportunities rather than in a negative way. In reality that’s what a business is about. Whether you’re working for a private corporation or for a public institution, your task is to solve a problem of some sort. The way you do it is all about attitude, whether you see it as something negative that you have to do, or as an opportunity to contribute to an organization, to society, your family that’s that main thing. Also, to be passionate about what you do.