Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Post-Olympics Planning - Lessons from Vancouver

With concerns having already been raised about the post-Olympics planning in London (here), it is prudent to look at the example of Vancouver and the current problems with their Olympic Village. Vancouver hosted the 2010 Winter Olympics and by all accounts was judged to have done an excellent job, despite some early reservations (here). The Olympic Village is part of an area known as South East False Creek and follows a long line of large planned mixed use neighbourhoods close to Downtown. The Millennium Water's sustainability credentials have been much trumpeted and is talked of as a 'model of sustainability'. But here is the problem. Whilst 257 of the lower end apartments have been sold, there are still 480 unsold! The remaining apartments were built to high end specifications with the latest fixtures and fittings and were expected to sell at close to $2,000 per sqft. But so far no buyers.

The City Council are in a tough postition as they lent the developer $731 million, of which only $200 million has been recouped. With sales flagging it looks as though apartments may be sold at a fire sale price in order for the City Council to try and recoup some value. So what was once seen as the jewel crown of the Olympics legacy is now threatening the political careers of many involved. There are some excellent articles on which focus on the past politiking surrounding the village and the current troubles with how best to progress the scheme.

Any lessons for London? Vancouver couldn't have predicted the apartments would go onto the market at a time of economic downturn, but this argument falls down because prices appear to have remained strong across the wider city despite global financial troubles. A key lesson is the level of affordable housing. Whilst initial policy referred to a 60% provision of affordable units, the final figure appears closer to 10% in Vancouver. For a city with problems of affordability and homelessness this is particularly disappointing. With two years to go, London is promising 50% affordable units for the athletes village - it will be interesting to see how this develops post-2012.

Monday, 20 September 2010

A World Without Planning?

With the approaching Party Conference season and the impending Government Spending Review it is hard to think beyond the planned budget cuts. With most Government departments being told to trim their budgets by at least 25% in the short term, it is interesting to muse on how radical the area of planning could be altered in light of the proposed cuts. Planning is without doubt the clearest policy area where Government, at all tiers, has the strongest direct influence. So if the Coalition Government are to truly 'roll back the State', then what if urban planning were to disappear as a public function?

This is not so outlandish as one might think as the city of Houston demonstrates. In this Texan city of over 2 million people the traditional free market philosophy is subscribed to, with public sector planning (in the form of US 'zoning') seen as a violation of private property rights and individual freedoms. One can imagine public sector planning being termed 'too socialist' in these parts! Qian (2008) provides an excellent study of how Houston has developed as a city with no zoning and the role played by the private sector, as well as neighbourhood residents groups.

In short, the only public sector intervention comes through the planning of infrastructure (such as utilities and transport) and minimum standards on issues including plot size and parking requirements. The onus therefore falls on private covenants which dictate the type of land use and mimick zoning policy to a degree. But not all covenants are enforced and this therefore fails to provide as strong a steer as a city zoning map.

Despite this, Qian finds that Houston displays little difference to a comparative city such as Dallas which is traditionally zoned for land uses. In fact Houston is characterised by a urban form that could easily have been the result of state planning. Whilst not perfect, and still dominated by car-dependency and urban sprawl, the city demonstrates that other bodies and actors can step into the void left by the public sector. Most interestingly, neighbourhood organisations play a strong role in the types and character of land uses in the city.

But unfortunately planning is more than just land use policy - as the current move towards spatial planning demonstrates. The danger is that with a lack of state planning 'joined-up' thinking is overlooked and planning fails to engage with a wide range of parties, especially those vulnerable groups that have little representation or power in the private sector.

So lessons for the UK? Perhaps not. Despite it's radical overtones regarding the 'age of austerity', I cannot imagine the Coalition Government wholly disbanding the planning system. Houston relies heavily on the covenant system, whereas in the UK covenants are less prevalent. But the idea of communities taking a more proactive role in the planning of a neighbourhood is appealing and has been alluded to by DCLG in the move towards the 'Big Society'.

Qian (2008) World Cities and Urban Form. Routledge: London.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Can planners switch countries?

Whilst planning is many things to many people, in essence it is the management of people and places. It requires a strong understanding of place – whether this is the street, the neighbourhood, the city or the country. Professional planners must therefore always work within the rules, regulations and legal framework of a specific country (even if the regulations then diverge between regions and cities). This raises the question of whether planners can easily switch between countries to practice in. Architects commonly have international commissions and open offices in a range of countries. But if a planners’ strength is his/her knowledge of the local ‘planning system’ then how can this be transferred to a new country with alien processes? Whilst some planning systems share similarities in environmental regulation and ‘best practice’, many systems are rooted in the specifics of that locality. Can a UK planner ease into a similar job in France or the USA?

When picking up the phone to a London Planning Department there is a good chance you’ll be met with a broad Antipodean accent – suggesting the move is possible. But this might be something specific to the relationship between the British and Australian planning systems. Urban planning, like many professions in the built environment sector, aims to formulate ‘best practice’ (a horrible term I must admit!) in key areas and these should be transferable between cities of different nations. The promotion of active frontages on the ground floor of buildings is a good idea whether it be Madrid or Manchester.

I think the extent to which planners can switch between countries depends hugely on their specific role within planning. If one is talking about a planner who just provides dry advice on the specifics of the planning system and what is required to obtain planning permission, then perhaps that role is country specific. But if one thinks of a planner as an active agent of change that brings stakeholders together, then this should be a skill that can cross borders. But I fear that planning in Britain is becoming too dominated by the processes and the role of the planner is seen in bureaucratic terms, meaning that the possibilities for cross-border learning are narrowing.

Now, where was my passport…………