We challenge the existing,

the conventional, what's been accepted

Agile Planning

30th June 2014

100 years ago – just as the 1st World War was about to start – the Royal Town Planning Institute was founded. I presume those who set up the RTPI and were involved in its first years may have found themselves rather more preoccupied than they’d expected with the present rather than the future, but optimism and striving for a better future have always been central to the whole concept of planning: no future – no point in making plans!

When the Planning Minister, Nic Boles, addressed last week’s RTPI Centenary Convention, I was surprisingly encouraged by some of the things he said. One comment struck a particularly strong chord: Mr Boles said that “Planning is not about control, but about enabling, creating and planning a future we want to bring about”. I presume thoughts and motivations of that sort must have been pretty much at the forefront of the founders of the RTPI as their country spent the next few years locked in a devastating war on a scale never previously experienced. I guess they must have been even more compelling for the politicians and planners who created the first modern Town & Country Planning Act at then end of the 2nd World War – when creating a very much better future was a top priority.

The Minister went on to explain that recent relaxations of planning controls have been intended to free Planners from the burdens of having to consider planning applications for lots of minor changes that really do not have much impact on neighbours or the environment, so that they can invest their time in helping communities to create effective visions for their future. Now, I suspect there may have been a bit of post-rationalisation going on here – even a bit of spin to soften the audience, perhaps. I know that some of my professional colleagues are treating this all with some scepticism and concern – and they may well be right to do so. However, whatever the reality and the motivation behind the words themselves, I actually believe the principle is right.

The role of Planning – the only legitimate reason for its continuation as an interventionary activity – must be to help envision, work towards and bring about a future that is better than the present. The Planning profession’s activities must focus strongly on managing change – not for the sake of interfering, but to guide change in one direction rather than another; to equip us to adapt to the big changes we shall be experiencing; to be resilient to changes that can devastate; and to make changes that create more benefits and more good than harm, and that increase social, economic and environmental well-being and equity in the way that we use our most basic resource – the space we occupy.

We can contribute to this at any scale: individual, local community, national, global – every plan and every planning intervention should be underpinned by the same ethos. And if we are going to make the contributions that are – or should be – expected of us, in a world in which change is occurring and impacting at an ever-accelerating rate, we need to be planning with care, speed and agility.

One of the concerns voiced repeatedly from some at the RTPI Convention was that Planning is too slow. I agree entirely. A plan prepared without urgency over 5 years or more may be no better than a plan prepared with focused urgency and care in just a year – but the one prepared in the shorter time is likely to be more relevant at the time it emerges. The objective should be to prepare vision-based plans thoroughly but quickly, with the communities they are designed to benefit fully engaged in the process (and definitely not bored or alienated by it), and then to monitor, review and adjust them as a continuous process. A good plan is one that identifies a very clear destination, maps a route towards it, and then allows that route to be varied as unforeseen obstacles and changes crop up. Taking too long to prepare the plan just means that we move forward whilst looking down at the ground: when we encounter obstacles we get knocked off course and then don’t know where to go next.

Perhaps we need to heed Winston Churchill’s view that plans are of little importance, but planning is essential. We need good, visionary plans, but focusing on producing a perfect plan can detract from the continuously adaptive processes of good planning that we really need. The outcomes should always be more important than the outputs.

Steve Kemp, Executive Director

A good plan identifies a clear destination, maps a route towards it, and then allows that route to be varied as unforeseen obstacles and changes crop up.

A good plan identifies a clear destination, maps a route towards it, and then allows that route to be varied as unforeseen obstacles and changes crop up.

A Brown and Pleasant Land?

18th June 2014

“CHANCELLOR George Osborne last night revealed “radical” new rules on housing that he said would push local authorities to let developers build on almost all brownfield land – or central government might bypass council controls altogether.

The chancellor said that he expected 90 per cent of appropriate brownfield land to be covered by pre-approved planning permission in six years, freeing up as many as 200,000 new homes across the country.”

[City A.M., 13th June 2014 – www.cityam.com – covering Chancellor of the Exchequer’s Mansion House speech]

 

The Chancellor’s recently announced drive to solve the “housing crisis” by compelling local authorities to short-circuit normal planning procedures so as to bring forward brownfield land for building “up to 200,000 new homes” raises many complex issues, so first thoughts areprobably dangerous – but I’m going to have a go anyway. Here are the first five that have come to mind, in response to the words Mr. Osborne actually spoke at Mansion House.

 

1.    “We need to see a lot more homes being built in Britain. The growing demand for housing has to be met by growing supply.”

Can’t argue with that one. We all know that, but finding agreement about what’s hindering the supply side and how best to boost it is a bit more challenging. But, of course, that’s why the Chancellor was all dressed up and ready to illuminate everyone…

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2. “We’ve already taken big steps to deliver those new homes. We’ve reformed our antiquated planning system.”

Some interesting use of language.

“Big” steps? Perhaps, but the steps taken in the 1950s and 1960s were definitely bigger (incentivised massively by the need to stride ahead after a devastating war, of course). The building peak was reached as long ago as 1968. Home-building rates plummeted pretty dramatically after that and have really remained comparatively unimpressive ever since. What made the difference? Direct public investment in housing provision. The BIG lesson so far seems to be that, whatever we do, the private sector alone simply can’t build all the houses we need fast enough. Politically and economically tricky but, nevertheless, that seems to be what the statistics show. So giving advance planning permission for housing on lots of brownfield sites might be part of a good idea, but its not a panacea by any means.

The other interesting phrase is “our antiquated planning system” As systems go, this one actually seems to have been in a state of constant reform – a sort of perpetual revolution – for a long time now. “Confused”, “confusing”, “contradictory”, “contorted”, “challenging”, yes, I can see varying degrees of justification for each of those adjectives; but “antiquated”? That suggests a degree of stability and constancy that we really have not experienced – and probably rightly so, in many ways. Planning is all about managing change, so change is really the only constant in planning!

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3. “If we want to limit development on important green spaces, we have to remove all the obstacles that remain to development on brown field sites.”

The operative word here is “important”. If we have important green spaces we, presumably, also have less important – even unimportant – green spaces too. To quote economist Dr. Kristian Niemietz, Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs:  “an ex-industrial site that is used as a car park is not really “derelict”, and greenbelt land that is used for high-intensity agriculture is hardly pristine countryside. We should judge land by its actual environmental and amenity value, not by a box-ticking template from the 1940s”

The challenge for planners, politicians, communities and developers is to work together in differentiating between important and less important green spaces, as well as in identifying suitable brownfield sites, and to plan and deliver the development that is really needed in the most beneficial, least damaging ways. Applying a simplistic “green field bad – brown field good” approach when deciding where to build isn’t really likely to lead to the best outcomes (as we’ve seen before). I’m sure that’s not what Mr. Osborne was saying: it’s just that that’s how it sounds. The challenge for government is to prioritise investment and to avoid getting distracted by blame-game solutions.

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4. “Councils will be required to put local development orders on over 90% of brownfield sites that are suitable for housing.”

Another important word that might get lost if we’re not careful – the qualification “suitable”. So, we’re not talking about 90% of all brownfield sites, but 90% of whatever proportion of those sites may be considered suitable to have homes built on them.

That’s fine, but differentiating will involve consideration of a number of quite complex factors, including, for example:

-  location  – is this a good place for people to live?

-  infrastructure - is this place already well-connected and well served? If not can it be, and what are the costs involved?

-  viability - how much will it costs to make this a fit and healthy place for people to live? Will it be possible to meet the costs of restoration and cleaning, build affordable homes and still make an acceptable profit?

 

This will not be a simple task – which is why trying to get the right answers has tended to take time. Shifting the onus away from developers having to carry out the investigations to support planning applications to local authority planners having to do the same work to inform Local Development Orders might not be such an easy answer. It certainly doesn’t go very far towards answering the question “what if the largest concentrations of suitable brownfield land happen to be in the places where demand for housing is low?” NLP’s recent analysis suggests strongly that this is a very real problem.

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5. “This urban planning revolution will mean that in effect development on these sites will be pre-approved – local authorities will be able to specify the type of housing, not whether there is housing.”

 More interesting use of language. I’ve already suggested that the “revolution” is continual. Mr. Osborne might wish to be cast in the dashing role of revolutionary student leader, Marius, in the Mansion House production of Les Miserables, but to play that one out he has to “hear the people sing” and that’s where there seems to be a bit of a problem with all this. The Chancellor says that “local authorities will be able to specify the type of housing, not whether there is housing”.  Really? Won’t it be the local authorities who make that in-principle decision when formulating the LDOs? If not them, who? Who will be deciding whether each brownfield site is “suitable”? Who will be considering the wider implications of building homes on that site? Who will be working out demand and viability issues – looking at whether people will actually come if you build it? Who will be consulting the local people and hearing them sing? Is it really being suggested that central government will have the knowledge and understanding of each place and each community to take those decisions itself?

I really do hope I’ve misunderstood this one!

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There are big steps to be taken between putting a Local Development Order in place for developing a brownfield site and putting houses (or anything else) on a brownfield site to develop a place. Generally, planners do not seem to have been notably averse to the principle of redeveloping these sites – or of prioritising their redevelopment – but the remediation processes often involved can be very costly and making such developments commercially viable (without public financial intervention) has not proved an easy task for developers. Ways of overcoming that deterrent to development need very careful consideration. Just simplifying the procedure for  obtaining planning permission is unlikely to be the answer to the housing crisis, but it might well take us all a further step away from the careful planning of development  and change that is necessary to produce the well-designed and well-integrated places that we need for a healthy future.

Putting the “Play” in Placecheck

31st March 2014

Working to produce a “Community Plan” for a large area in the south of Barbados, we recently spent a thought-provoking week leading Placechecks. Essentially, a Placecheck is a conversation – an hour or so’s discussion whilst walking around a place with the people who live and breathe it. By listening to our local hosts’ answers to the three basic Placecheck questions (What do you like about this place? What do you dislike about it? What changes would you like to see?) we learned, in just a few hours, much more about the real lives, concerns and hopes of ‘normal’ people in this part of Barbados than any literature reviews or data searches could have told us on their own.

For two of these Placechecks, the people who showed us round and chatted with us were young: children from a junior school, and teenagers and young adults from a youth group.  Seeing their place through their eyes was an assumption-challenging privilege.

Trees create shade, making it cooler to walk around

“We like tree-lined streets – the shade makes it cooler to walk around”

We are still considering the Placecheck “results”, so it’s too early to talk about the way they are affecting our thinking about the emerging plan. However, some of the comments we’d heard in our conversations with young Barbadians connected with something mentioned in an interesting article I read just after the last of the Placechecks. The article, by David Maddox, looks at the potential for using “simulation modeling” in community engagement and has been published on the Sustainable Cities Collective website: http://tinyurl.com/lvazlym

What caught my mind initially was the author’s expressed excitement about “engagement exercises that use simulation models as tools to get people talking not just about their opinions, but about the consequences of their opinions”. This is a crucial part of the planning process that is often given insufficient time and attention. Using simple, but well-considered techniques, it is already possible to involve people in identifying the consequences of plans and changes – up to a point – but it seems that the technology that has so excited David Maddox could make the process more accessible, deeper, quicker and probably more fun. By helping – encouraging – ordinary people to participate more directly and actively in the process of making difficult decisions, it should be possible to produce plans that have greater acceptance and are better understood.  With the technology that David Maddox describes “Individuals can try out their designs and social ideas using the model as context, and have the model give some feedback about the how their ideas would work on the ground. Their ideas are taken out of the realm of unverified opinion and placed in a context in which their function, output, and outcomes can be compared. You might still prefer one type of design to another, but its performance could now be part of the decision mix“.

This is a really exciting development in engagement practice and the sort of thing that I can see could soon become real in a technologically advanced place like New York, where one of the models is evolving. But in Barbados or other small developing states? – way too ambitious, surely? But then I thought about a couple of things that we had learned whilst Placechecking…

On the Monday, we had been beckoned over to a small village “rum shop” with the unforgettable name “Bump Fart”s Variety” by a group of youths who were whiling away the morning chatting and drinking a beer or two (it turned out that Bump Fart has been the owner’s nickname since he was a small boy – he didn’t explain why, but we imagined a scenario!)  They were friendly and offered some genuinely helpful insights in to the life of their community.  We’d wondered, though about the circumstances that led them to be sitting in the rum shop at that time of a weekday – and we’d thought it interesting that, despite apparently being jobless, they were “playing” (our guess) on nice, up-to-date tablets and smartphones.Bump Fart Variety

Hanging out at Bump Fart's

Hanging out at Bump Fart’s

The second thing that came back to me was our chats with the junior school children (who were, of course, all much more technologically competent than me) and then with the older youth group, all of whom had easy access to the internet via laptops, tablets and other good mobile devices. Asked whether the neighbourhood shops, bars and rum shops were important meeting places for the community, they said they were – but mostly for older people rather than them. “So, what’s the equivalent for young people like you?” we asked. The immediate answer from one of the older members of the group: “PlayStation!”. Now, obviously, he was only partly correct – this was a youth group that meets regularly, so there’s at least one face-to-face community activity they share! – but it was an interesting response and it was not said entirely facetiously. What else is there to do as a young person in a remote village with poor transport links and little money?  Are we unthinkingly forcing our young people behind their screens – and then blaming them?

Interestingly, all of the youth group members said they would like more opportunities and facilities for meeting together and they all placed high value on community cohesion. They also placed great value on allowing for expression of individual identity and providing space for everyone to grow fruit and vegetables – kitchen gardens are a strong feature of Bajan homes and one that the young people were both proud and protective of. It is far too easy (and lazy) to dismiss young people as only being interested in communicating through screens: mostly, their social and community interests do not stop there, but the actions and inactions of adult society sometimes force them to disconnect more than they might choose! Too often, adults feel they need to speak for teenagers rather than simply allowing them to engage actively in making choices and plans – when this is the case, how can we expect them to take responsibility for – and play an active role in – a community that doesn’t reflect their needs? Wouldn’t it be great if we used modern technology to engage young people in shaping their communities and their environments, rather than using it as an excuse for shutting them out?

If computer gaming technology can really be adapted into interactive planning “tools”, our young Placecheckers  – and other young people living in this part of Barbados (and across the Caribbean) – will probably have the technology, the aptitude and the willingness to get much more deeply involved in planning the future of their places.  They had plenty to say about the things they like, don’t like and would like to see change in their places – and their attitudes were, in fact, overwhelmingly positive. If we could get them more directly involved in generating and testing options – their contribution could be even more valuable. The challenge is actually not really to them, it’s to the senior members of the current generation of planning professionals – people like me – who need to see the potential of this and empower our younger colleagues – and young planners who don’t even know that they’re planners – to use their PlayStation skills to the full. And that takes me to a final connection. The Placecheck contributions made by the young man who told us that PlayStation is the new rum shop, made us all feel that he’d make a great planner. It turned out, however, that he is currently studying IT at university: but maybe that’s the perfect combination for developing the “PlaceStation” we clearly need!

"We think development should allow for individuality"

“We think development should allow for individuality”

Magical Mystery Tour

23rd January 2014

Just before Christmas, close friends kindly treated my wife and me to a weekend break. We had no idea where they were taking us and if they’d asked me to guess, I’m pretty sure I’d have given up long before hitting on the correct answer: Liverpool.

With hindsight, I’m ashamed, as a planner, to admit that there was a gap of about 36 years between my only two visits to Liverpool (so far). On the first occasion, as a student driving a lorry for a vacation job, I’d naively asked a policeman in the city centre where I could safely park up for the night: “St Helen’s” he helpfully advised – another town entirely! My lasting impression as I headed out from Liverpool’s then very run down docks was of a shabby city centre ringed by miles of concentric dereliction.

So returning after more than three decades, I could not have been more shocked to see what a fantastic city Liverpool has become (probably always was). Such an exciting mixture of modern and historic buildings and townscapes in what must be one of the best, most vibrant city centres England has to offer. Interestingly, my previous memories had not been entirely dispelled as we drove in past several run down and largely abandoned peripheral “retail parks”.  However, the vibrancy of the city centre gave me hope that this might, perhaps, actually be a good sign – a symptom of a strong city centre competing successfully by offering the breadth, depth and quality of experience that no out-of-centre shopping mall can even start to match: a model for other towns and cites to emulate.

The thrill of discovering this wonderful – and, to me, new – place made me want to just walk and explore and take it all in, so the thought of the next part of our surprise weekend really didn’t thrill me at all: a “Magical Mystery Tour” on a coach, looking at Beatles stuff! Now, I have no problem with the Beatles; I like most of the songs – well the few I can remember – but I’m hardly a fan, and the thought of trailing round looking at every place with a possible Beatles connection didn’t seem like a great use of an afternoon.

I really couldn’t have got it more wrong. It was a fascinating and totally absorbing trip and – strangely – one that I’d recommend to everyone who’s interested in the way cities work and the way they shape, and are shaped by, people’s lives. There’s so much urban social history wrapped up in the whole Penny Lane thing – but I’ll leave it for the tour operators to reveal the details!

Of course, our tour was accompanied by music – carefully selected by our guide from his iPhone – and this led to another rediscovery: a song I’d forgotten but one that just got to me as soon as I heard it again:

There are places I remember all my life
Though some have changed
Some forever, not for better
Some have gone and some remain
All these places have their moments
Of lovers and friends
I still can recall
Some are dead and some are living
In my life I loved them all.

Surely, that song – “In My Life” – should be a hot contender for adoption as the planners’ and urban designers’ anthem. Perhaps you don’t have to fall in love with a place – and its people – to plan it, but in my experience it helps enormously if you do, and you’ll almost certainly do a better job.  To love is to understand the whole picture – strengths and weaknesses, beauty and blemishes; learning with an open mind, accepting and being inspired.  Planning places should be approached in the same open-minded way – part of the rationale behind our new name, OpenPlan.

I’ve fallen in love with quite a few places during my career so far. They’ve certainly not all been conventionally beautiful. Hull, Hartlepool and Bethnal Green come to mind as some of the more “characterful” English examples. Further from home, Trinidad’s edgy capital city, Port of Spain, is another. Then there’s St Vincent and the Grenadines – initially the lovely, quirky island of Bequia and, more recently, the nation’s vibrant capital city, Kingstown.  I’ve learned from my relationship with each place and my professional practice has been shaped by all of them.

In ‘OpenPlan’ we feel that we have a name that truly reflects our ethos: to use the knowledge and experience we accumulate, whilst making sure our minds are always open to new insights and understanding, and to apply this to the task of helping build better places so that people can enjoy better lives.  Because really, plans have to reflect and respond to the lives of the people who will live them.  As John Lennon said, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans’.