We challenge the existing,

the conventional, what's been accepted

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’.