Sunday, 30 January 2011

Debate Review - Creating Tomorrow's Liveable Cities

The Musing Urbanist was fortunate to be in attendance at The Economist's recent conference, Creating Tomorrow's Liveable Cities - Urban Planning in a Cold Climate. Whilst the conference title suggests the role of planning in the Arctic North, the focus was actually on how cities could and should develop without having any money!

In the first discussion group I was most impressed by Sir Jeremy Beecham, Labour member in the House of Lords. Sir Jeremy identified how the forthcoming Localism Bill will remove strategic leadership with the dissolution of
regional planning. In the drive towards localism, he argued that parochial interests could dominate and fail to reflect the national interest. Renewable energy is a good case in point. Few local communities are choosing to support wind farms, but there is an overriding national demand for them. In the context of cities, Sir Jeremy raised concerns over how a vision for the whole city could develop under the new localism. If power is to be devolved to the neighbourhood level, as proposed in the Localism Bill, it will be a mammoth task joining up the varying interests to create a city vision.

The Chief Executive for the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA) struggled to justify localism and was left relying on general cliches surrounding the garden city movement. I can't help feeling that skills and resources are not available at the neighbourhood and community to deliver the utopian ideas presented by the TCPA. In addition, if cities are to grow in a cold climate, extra layers of bureaucracy cannot be helpful.

Keynote speaker and Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles MP put in a performance heavy on anecdotes but light on detail. If localism really is the guiding force for the Conservative Party, it is alarming that Pickles, as key enforcer, still talks in such generalities. The speech was polished and would no doubt please the Tory faithful, but it failed to get too many at the conference excited. Pickles made constant reference to establishing a 'Chamberlain Plus' system. This referred to Joseph Chamberlain who as Mayor of Birmingham in the 1870s was able to use public and private money to introduce libraries, swimming pools, schools and other civic buildings to the city. Pickles has the notion that once you free cities from central control they will gain new energy. But too much of his speech just assumed that by rolling back the state, growth will appear in its place. He talked about the planning system being a drag anchor on growth, but failed to articulate how planning has the power to create a vision for a city or city-region, such as Birmingham.

When questioned on cycling and architecture, Pickles cleverly danced around the questions with reference to neighbourhood planning in Germany and the Netherlands. If it can work there, then surely it can work here? But this argument fails to account for the differing tax raising powers, and the lack of locally-based taxation in the UK (a point made by Centre for Cities here). The cities of today will only be able to follow the path of 'Chamberlain Plus' if they can back it up with the relevant economic powers.

The Economist saved the best until last with the closing keynote given by Jan Gehl, the Danish architect. Gehl travels the world espousing the benefits of public space and why cities should 'be sweet to homo sapiens'. Whilst Pickles looked to the distant past for lessons on urban life, Gehl is refreshingly current. In the space of 20 minutes he was able to tease out lessons from Barcelona, Lyon, Vejle, New York and, most importantly, Copenhagen. Gehl's presentation can be seen here and is inspirational for anybody working within the development sector. Whilst many architects talk about a 'human form' of development, Gehl has put this into practice with his research reports for a number of international cities. Being from Copenhagen, he focused mainly on cycling and the additional benefits it can bring to a city. For every 1km cycled the economy benefits by 30p, but if that same 1km is travelled by car the economy will lose 20p. Food for thought - though not for Eric Pickles who had left by this time!

Saturday, 22 January 2011

A Time for Reflection?

It is sometimes easy to think that planning stops with the issuing of a permission. Job done. Case closed. After that the drawings are handed over to the construction team and we move onto the next job. But the recent publicity of how the Shard is sitting behind St Paul's Cathedral demonstrates that more reflection is required on what was promised during planning compared to what gets built.

Londoners could not have failed to notice the speed at which the Shard is redefining London Bridge and the wider skyline. The development will finally reach 72 storeys and provide a mix of apartments, restaurants, offices and a hotel. Yet it made news in last weeks Evening Standard following criticisms by English Heritage, a vocal objector at the time of the planning application. The Mayor of London has a range of strategic planning powers and most notably he issues directions on which views require protection (outlined here). Of all the viewing corridors he has established, St Paul’s Cathedral has the most historic interest. Up until 1962 St Paul's was the tallest building in London and its iconic silhouette famously stood untouched during the Blitz. Undoubtedly, St Paul’s has great historic and cultural value to the city.

The problem is that during the planning process, a great deal of imagination is required. Architectural sketches and 3D models can only go so far in presenting a mock-up of how the tall building will sit in the skyline. There is even a question as to how accurate these techniques are. I’ve not seen the plans submitted on the Shard so can’t comment on how they compare to what has been built – in particular the relationship with St Paul’s. But what it does make me realise is the need for greater reflection in planning. Research should be undertaken comparing the photo montages submitted during planning and the actual photos of the completed scheme. This can act as a sense check and give greater confidence to decision-makers, especially on high profile sites such as the Shard.

But this shouldn’t end with visual assessments. Whilst planning is awash with guidance, it is poorly served by simple data on how development schemes have been used in practice. This could relate to demography (how many people live in a certain type of building, what age ranges etc), socio-economics (how many jobs were created during construction) and public space (how do people physically move around the streets and spaces). Currently the profession relies too much on generic formulas that fail to take account of various building types and uses or Census data which is dated and inflexible. Clearly, at a time of public sector budget cuts it is hard to see how local planning departments will have the time and resources to commission this research. So I propose that universities step in and play a greater role in analysing how finished development schemes compare to the assumptions made pre-planning. This would provide excellent training and know-how to graduates and be of huge benefit to the profession as a whole.

In order to move forward perhaps we need to look back just a little.