Planning a new future for Scottish communities

WHO is currently the most influential architect in the world? One candidate for the top spot is Andrés Duany, a passionate yet urbane Cuban-American with Hollywood looks who has instigated a building revolution in the United States. Never heard of him? You soon will: Duany has a notion to reform the planning system here in Scotland. If he succeeds, the Scottish construction industry will put up statues to him.

Duany is best-known in Britain for being the designer of Seaside, the real town in Florida used as a backdrop for the movie The Truman Show, in which Truman Burbank (played by Jim Carrey) lives his life oblivious to the fact he is the star of a fly-on-the-wall, reality TV programme.

Seaside looks like a Disney-esque version of the archetypal American small town, which may explain why folk are desperate to live there.

Says Duany: "Seaside was all right. The problem is that, while Seaside's 450 dwellings were being built, some two million awful ones in dysfunctional communities were built elsewhere in Florida."

Duany has Scottish blood: his great grandfather was from Edinburgh. The young Andrs Duany left Cuba with his family in 1960 after the rise of Fidel Castro - he still goes back, but, unlike many Cuban-Americans, is critical of the US trade embargo.

He spent the next 13 years growing up in Barcelona, which accounts for his European sensibilities and passion for urban living. He did his architectural training in America only to discover the Europeans would not let him practise without sitting his professional exams all over again. Europe's loss was America's gain. His firm, Duany Plater-Zyberk, has built or remodelled over 250 towns and communities in the US. The secret of Duany's influence is that he has declared war on America's urban sprawl - a war he intends to bring to Scotland, where he is involved in master-planning a new town for 10,000 people at Tornagrain, near Inverness. Tornagrain is being promoted by Moray Estates, who are also developing a 250,000sq m business park at Inverness airport. The population of Inverness has doubled in only 30 years to over 60,000 and is expected to double again. "At least the degree of suburban sprawl that you find in places like Inverness," Duany notes wryly, "well, it's baby sprawl."

Do not be fooled. Duany is neither a disciple of the Prince Charles school of nostalgic architecture nor is he an architectural rock star interested in self-promotion. In fact, Duany now describes himself more as an urban planner than an architect. His mission is to rescue town planning from the professional planners who have given it such a bad name over the past 50 years. As he puts it, "to make planning glamorous again".

Duany and his architect wife, Elizabeth, are the founders of a movement called New Urbanism. This is a fancy name for an old idea, which Duany is happy to credit to a Scot - Patrick Geddes, who is famous for rescuing Edinburgh's Old Town from decay. The idea is that successful urban spaces are human ecologies with a necessary blend of housing, workplaces and communal areas. Modern town planning has destroyed this fragile ecology, separating the interconnected functions into isolated planning zones. Result: the soulless, crime-ridden, concrete deserts we live in.

Duany blames a conspiracy of professional planners and self-interested architects for foisting this "utopia" on a resentful public. "Modern architects recognise 300 masterpieces but ignore the other 30 million buildings that have ruined the world," he says.

The problem is that the general public is so resentful of this state of affairs that they have become opposed to all development. "The whole of society is marshalling itself to stop development, even though society desperately needs it. But New Urbanism can overcome all of these fears. We can turn builders into the good guys."

Duany's unique solution is called the "smart code" - something he wants to bring to Scotland. In America, urban planning is done through codes which have the force of law. These are general regulations which stipulate what types of buildings can be erected in a given area, including density and height, and mandatory design features. Planning consent is automatic if you stay within the code regulations, which makes for faster (and cheaper) development.

In the UK, however, most planning consents are only granted after lengthy individual negotiations with the local authority, frequently followed by even lengthier public inquiries. The whole process can take a decade or more, which explains why we have a housing shortage.

Duany has developed a radical approach to preparing US planning codes. Rather than start from an abstract prescription of what a city should be (the conceit of modern planners) he seeks out examples of existing urban spaces that are popular. He then writes a code to enshrine their successful planning DNA. These can be bought off the shelf by communities who want to regenerate in a humanistic fashion The US development industry is coming round to his way of thinking - the successful communities he clones invariably turn out to be ones where property values are consistently high.

Duany's critics - including Malcolm Fraser, the prominent Edinburgh architect - say this is a copy-cat approach which eliminates creativity. Duany replies: "Amateurs accustomed to emulation made great places. It is the professionals of recent decades that have ruined our cities and landscapes with their inventions."

Will his approach work in Scotland? Duany has been preparing a smart code for his development at Tornagrain. The model he used for a successful, traditional Scottish community is Dunkeld in Perthshire. But not everyone wants Tornagrain, which will be bigger than Nairn, Wick or Thurso. One local councillor claims: "It's just being bulldozed through and with the most vile type of propaganda by Moray Estates."

To succeed, Duany will have to win over the local planners and politicians as well as the usual nimbys. Insiders say he does not suffer fools gladly.