Making City Planning Cool

British cities are in crisis, but it is of an unusual and distinctly 21st-century form. Thirty years ago, the populations of London, Manchester and Glasgow were all in decline as city leaders struggled with deindustrialisation and inner city no-go areas. Economists wondered what the purpose of a city actually was.

Today, the UK seems to be facing almost the opposite problem. Global powerhouses in finance and business services, the world’s major cities are suffering not from a deficit but an abundance of private capital, speculative development and foreign investment in property.

For all the thrill of visiting or doing business in such cities, the experience of actually living in them has become increasingly bleak. In the maelstrom of global capital, even the middle classes are beginning to feel vulnerable. Conservative politicians mull over taxes on foreign property owners, while broadsheet newspapers fret over how young professionals have become priced out of urban living. And, while much of the attention focuses on London and its extraordinary levels of overseas investment, it is by no means alone as Asian capital floods into property across the United Kingdom.

Housing associations and charities repeatedly call for more social housing. Local campaign groups focus on the loss of green spaces, pubs, independent retailers, cultural venues and studio workspace. Such civic energy and enthusiasm is heartening, but it also begs the question: where are the town planners in all this?

Arguably, it is not British cities that are in crisis so much as its planning system and planners. Just as they are needed more than ever, the status of planners and city administrators has never been lower. Certain mayors might be enjoying great visibility, but for the officers they preside over, it is a very different story. The recent death of Sir Peter Hall, the country’s most distinguished academic town planner, serves as a reminder of how the status of the town planner rose and fell over the course of his 50-year career.

Sir Peter Hall, planning guru, geographer and urbanist, who died in August, aged 82. Photograph: Graham Turner/Guardian.
Sir Peter Hall, planning guru, geographer and urbanist, who died in August, aged 82. Photograph: Graham Turner/Guardian.

Local government funding cuts, pay freezes and redundancies of the last few years have wrought their work, but a deeper malaise has set in. The status of public servants in general has suffered over the last 30 years, but in the case of town planners, it has been particularly pronounced. In an age in which business is championed and the entrepreneur venerated, it sometimes seems that there are few professions more shameful than the local town planner.

Announcing a series of reforms intended to boost growth in the autumn of 2012, David Cameron promised that his government was “determined to cut through the bureaucracy that holds us back – and that starts with getting the planners off our backs”. Meanwhile Policy Exchange, often regarded as the most influential Coalition think tank, has published extensively on the controlling and interfering instincts of planners.

Clearly, we have come a long way from the 1940s, when the Pelican edition of Thomas Sharp’s Town Planning sold about 250,000 copies. It is no wonder that Hall, reflecting on a lifetime in town planning in his final article, concluded that “planning and planners have thus steadily become residualised, returning to their marginal status”.

One might expect town planners to be derisory figures for the libertarian rightwing. It is striking, though, how far such attitudes have become absorbed into popular culture. While the cult of the star architect has soared over the decades and property developers have displaced bankers as the new super-rich, the figure of the local town planner has become comic shorthand for a certain kind of faceless, under-whelming dullard.

Town planning was a policy priority in earlier decades. Here, housing minister Julian Amery views residential plans for south London in 1971. Photograph: PA.
Town planning was a policy priority in earlier decades. Here, housing minister Julian Amery views residential plans for south London in 1971. Photograph: PA.

Representations of planners in literature and film are few, but when they do appear it is invariably unflattering. A fairly typical recent instance was James Corden and Matthew Baynton’s BBC comedy drama The Wrong Mans, in which one of the central characters, embroiled in a web of suspense and danger for which he is laughably ill-suited, is a nerdish town planner employed by Bracknell Council.

Centred on a town planner in a London borough, my novel The Planner was a recent effort to address this; to move beyond the caricature and explore the conflicting values and ambitions of those working to improve our cities. The public perception of town planners as uncharismatic pedants may be useful for comedians, but according to David Knight, academic, writer and director of the architecture practice DK-CM, this schism between planning and people has become deeply damaging.

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“There are obviously good practising planners, but they are no longer seen by society as being important or visionary,” Knight says. “Planning has become unpopular, disconnected from the public and increasingly beholden to the developer rather than the people it is meant to serve.”

Part of the problem lies in who becomes a town planner and how they are educated and trained. Urbanism may have displaced cultural theory as the favoured subject of the academic hipster, but talented young men and women rarely consider becoming town planners. The hero of my novel is male and has a degree from one of the dozen-or-so university courses approved by the Royal Town Planning Institute. As such, he is much like every other town planner currently working in the UK: local-authority planning departments have become less multi-disciplinary and more reliant on a small number of generalist officers, skilled not so much in the art of urban design but in managing processes.

Professor Andy Pratt, an economic geographer at City University, thinks there are real problems in the way planning is being taught. “Like many others I know, I actually started out intending to be a town planner. But I soon realised that all the interesting conversations about cities, regeneration, architecture and urban development weren’t happening in the planning faculty. They were being had by people studying economics, urban studies and culture.”

Part of the £1.5bn Spinningfields quarter in Manchester, one of the few large-scale UK urban planning projects of recent times, which was mostly completed in the 2000s. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/Guardian.
Part of the £1.5bn Spinningfields quarter in Manchester, one of the few large-scale UK urban planning projects of recent times, which was mostly completed in the 2000s. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/Guardian.

Knight, who is helping to design a new planning and urban design course at Kingston University School of Architecture and Landscape, agrees: “Planners have become simultaneously under-respected and over-professionalised. Their training and practice too often leaves them able to communicate effectively only with other planners and professionals, working in an abstract language that alienates them from people. People are occasionally allowed into the professional planner’s world, but in highly mediated terms dictated by the profession.”

The teaching of architecture and planning appears to have gone in opposite directions. Architecture students are frequently mocked for letting their imaginations run wild, and losing sight of the function of the buildings they design. By contrast, those on town-planning courses are narrowly instructed in current planning procedures, practice and regulations, with little scope to question the discipline, explore its history or critique its political underpinnings.

According to Pratt, the result is not only that young people are discouraged from studying town planning, but also that qualified planners don’t have the skills they need. “Town planners are taught along the lines of a technical profession,” he says. “But in fact the best educational training is probably something like politics, along with expertise in the softer skills of negotiation, partnership building and group decision making.”

Private capital might be shaping our cities, as local authorities struggle with budget cuts and with town planners ill-equipped for the challenges they face, but new approaches and solutions are emerging. Central to these, as even Policy Exchange recognises, is the need for a much greater role for people in planning.

Public involvement in planning decisions is not, of course, a new idea. Since 1968, it has been a legal requirement for authorities to consult the public on their local plans. But such consultations have become a standardised part of the development process and, as such, deeply disheartening.

For junior planning officers, a large proportion of their working lives will be spent sitting in libraries and shopping centres with a pile of unfilled questionnaires, as the local population streams past uninterested. Given the abstract legalese in which planning strategies are written, the meaningless babble crafted by developers and their communications agencies as they promise “affordable, luxury, sustainable homes” – and the suspicion that the council will do what it wants regardless – it is little wonder that people fail to participate. With the further weakening of planning authorities, and the scope for developers to subsequently overturn decisions and conditions through legal appeal, there is less reason than ever for people to engage.

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Construction cranes at work on a new city centre development. Critics say private capital is now shaping our urban environment because local authorities have been sidelined. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/Guardian.
Construction cranes at work on a new city centre development. Critics say private capital is now shaping our urban environment because local authorities have been sidelined. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/Guardian.

And yet, people do still care about the cities they live in. When I was writing The Planner, the standard response from friends was bemusement that anyone would want to write a novel about a town planner – followed by a wide-ranging discussion on the built environment and neighbourhood in which they live. As Knight says, the problem is that people care a great deal about planning, but rarely in a way which informs planning policy.

“As a result of how the planning system has presented itself over the years, people tend to be focused on binary issues, whether it’s a new tower block or the loss of a local pub,” Knight says. “We need people to become more engaged in planning when policy is being written, and to be able to access clear knowledge about how to work with the planning system.”

As a way to promote this, Knight and a team of collaborators have set up Building Rights, a “repository of planning knowledge; a user-generated forum where the rules of what is built and what is not are shared”. Described by Knight as a “Mumsnet for planning”, its explicit ambition is to make planning popular, and to build a wider community of expertise and interest in planning beyond the profession itself. Through the site, people ask and answer questions and post information – from individual queries on rear extensions through to discussions around conservation areas and how to form community opposition to new developments.

Knight is quick to point out that his project is supportive, rather than undermining of the skills of professional planners: “The Big Society’s dismissal of planning as a barrier to growth is a recipe for disaster. Rather, it’s a case of helping everyone become better informed – having the knowledge and confidence to have more say on planning decisions, and to demand planning officers and planning committees work on their behalf.”

Dialogue between professional planners and people must be a two-way process. Partly as a response to this, Knight’s colleague at the Royal College of Art, Finn Williams, has helped set up Novus, a collective of public planners wanting to inject more radical thinking into their profession. Established with the support of the Planning Officers Society, Finn describes Novus as a “platform for planners to think more provocatively about what they can achieve”.

While aiming to raise the status of planners in society and persuading government that “planning can be positive and bold”, Novus is by no means unaware of the need for planners to raise their game too – particularly in how they work and communicate with the public. As Williams says: “The planning system has a tendency to lead to waffle and to produce over-long documents. Public planners must become more precise and clearer, and make more efforts to be understood.”

With their different approaches, the work of Building Rights and Novus suggests that, after a long period of stagnation, town planning may finally be making a comeback as a relevant and politically purposeful discipline. It is certainly needed. Successful cities require far-sighted politicians, strong communities, active citizens, innovative developers and much else besides. And they will always need bureaucrats, too: planners and city administrators skilled in the arts of urban design, economic analysis, negotiation, communication and consensual decision making.

If cities such as London are going to thrive from globalisation, channelling funds into affordable housing, public infrastructure and civic spaces, it is planners who must go into battle on our behalf – democratically empowered; confident in their ability to negotiate firmly with private capital.

In today’s world, the idea of a quarter of a million people going out to buy a book on town planning seems unlikely, to say the least. But if we care for our cities, it’s surely time to take more interest in what it is planners actually do.


This article originally appeared in 100 Resilient Cities.

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