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.

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