Life Between buildings vs Localism

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To round off 2010, Neil Murphy reflects on the state of planning for the kind of places that make for good lives.

Life Between buildings vs Localism

 Inspired, as one invariably is, by a short trip to Copenhagen earlier this month – yes, they really do sit under blankets in their masses and sip beer at pavement cafes in the winter sunshine – I’ve been re-reading Jan Gehl’s masterpiece Life Between Buildings.  First published in 1971 and unarguably the original handbook of public realm design and planning, it’s a joy of gin-clear prose and vivid imagery whose purpose, perhaps paradoxically, is to present a series of essentially simple and prosaic general rules on the configuration of public spaces to facilitate opportunities to “meet, see and hear others”.

One of many compelling things about LBB is what it doesn’t feel the need to say explicitly by way of preamble: that the very purpose of cities and towns is to facilitate human contact and exchange, and that the quality and intensity and variety of opportunities for contact – and their democratising and levelling effects on city society – are not just factors marking out the good city from the merely serviceable, but the defining ones.  That vigorous urban public realm signifies civilisation at its most evolved is simply taken as read.  And thus the system of rules – on integrating land uses, on the proportioning of buildings in relation to space, on the dimensions of spaces, on the activation of fronts and the treatment of edges, and on a host of other facets and details of the public realm that are simultaneously intricate and quite uncomplicated – operates as a practical manual for the creation of wonderful and, not incidentally, sustainable cities.  Copenhagen, which has been Gehl’s laboratory for over four decades, bears testament that those rules work.

In Britain, as with many things Gehl’s ideas and rules have been assimilated into planning and design culture and practice, selectively implemented and otherwise co-opted into a narrative of the status quo.  There have been some wonderful ‘projects’, the revitalisation of Grainger Town in Newcastle being a personal favourite, but the systemic thinking about and shaping of relationships between public space and human behaviour at scales from citywide to neighbourhood which Gehl invites and arguably demands has been missing.  Meanwhile, the obligatory commitment to ‘high quality public realm’ has become a mainstay of major development proposals, sometimes with genuine intentions but more often than not value-engineered out of the final product and so resulting in more of the same (i.e. dreck).

On one level this half-heartedness is surprising. British town and country planning does love its rules, and if I’d been running the regeneration show at a big city councils I’d have been tempted to adopt Life Between Buildings in its entirety as a supplementary planning document (non-planners: these make developers do stuff they otherwise wouldn’t).  As a sort-of economist rather than a planner or designer, it’s also a mystery to me that cities seeking to reinvent themselves as sustainable knowledge economies based on high-value industry and creative enterprise haven’t, generally, grasped the absolute centrality of intensive life between buildings to the sparking and exchanging of ideas as well as of goods and services. The physical manifestation of attempted economic progress has more often been the shiny shed in the sculpted parkland – fine for each individual business decamping from the city centre, because rents are cheap and workers are mobile, shuttling in their cars between housing estate and business park and supermarket/retail park/entertainment complex, but not exactly conducive to the inspiration or accident of the urban moment, of even just to dreaming and co-conspiring over a pint after work.  But what’s good for business is good for the economy, right? Well, only up to a point, and in a week in which an influential Tory thinker, Nick Boles, has welcomed the prospect of a period of “chaos” in planning, it’s worth remembering that the co-ordination and mediation of private action for the public good – i.e. deciding what that point is – is fundamentally what urban planning is for.  Life Between Buildings embodies that noble profession in its most refined form.

But on another level, it isn’t surprising at all.  British town planning is getting a kicking at the moment, not least from the government whose Localism Bill constitutes, in my view, an all-out assault on the idea of professionalism and rules in the shaping of space and place and turns it over to, essentially, folk wisdom.  A probable consequence, particularly in those areas of highest demand, of the Bill is that such development as does take place will have to be low on density, high on green space and as close as possible in design to a vernacular arcadia, real or imagined.  At precisely the time when demographic trends, deficit mania, climate crisis and growing realisation of the vulnerability of our mobility-obsessed transport systems argue for a compact, land-efficient, integrated and urbane approach to planning and development we are about to move in precisely the opposite direction.

But, to some extent, British planning as a culture and a profession has only itself to blame.  It has allowed itself to become a sterile, technocratic, rather smug endeavour, as detached from the urgent arguments for planning and re-planning places for sustainability imperatives as it is from popular disgruntlement with the imposition of landfill housing on the Home Counties.  While nimbys just say no and idealists run around with their copies of Gehl, planners continue to allocate ‘employment land’ by the hectare and debate whether 40 per cent is the right amount of green space in an eco-town.  High quality public realm by all means, but only with “realism” about the private car.  Sustainability? We’re all about the Code for Sustainable Homes (and did we mention that greenspace?), but let’s not get too carried away with the bikes and the local food production and the not-having-Tesco.  Urban intensity and life between buildings… well, steady on, Brits don’t want to live like Parisians (who would…) and people in Copenhagen are, like, genetically different…

Of course, I hugely generalise and unfairly caricature, but as a newcomer to the planning world (but a longstanding worker in and on cities), I can’t help but feel that if you planned a new city from scratch today based on the dominant planning mores, you would probably end up with something between Swindon and Milton Keynes, maybe with a little pocket of Manchester in the middle.  That’s not, at least not to everyone, a self-evidently bad outcome, and people living in MK famously love it with their customary passion, but the bottom line is that it reflects the ambitions of neither those advocating place-making that actively shapes human behaviour for environmental sustainability, economic vitality and general social wellbeing, nor those who see development as threat.  And so, rather than being brokers of the classic British muddle and compromise as some would argue, planners are finding out that in the middle of the road, you get knocked over – and in this case it’s Mr Pickles who is exercising his right to the road now that his colleague Mr Hammond has ended the ‘war on the motorist’.

From Life Between Buildings to the Localism Bill: how unseasonably depressing! So, for those of us who believe in the power and importance of planning, what’s to be done? Well, being public-spirited types, in 2011-12 we at Beyond Green will be issuing a series of topic papers setting out some principles and specific policy ideas on the basis of which a future progressive government (or even a local elected mayor?) might enable planning to get on its bike, rediscover its mojo and retake its rightful place as an arbiter between different freedoms in a world facing profound and incontrovertible environmental and socioeconomic challenges.  We haven’t got it all mapped out fully, but we’ll start in Jan/Feb with people-first planning on why and how to plan on the first principle of life between buildings, and follow up with specific pieces on catchment-based land-use planning, the sustainable movement economy, whole-life communities and green infrastructure (what not how much).

We’re lucky enough to be working with Gehl Architects on our proposals for a sustainable urban extension in Broadland north of Norwich, so we’ll try and bring to these pieces some applied and current insights on how to bring life between buildings to new neighbourhoods.  Hopefully these pieces will be useful contributions to a debate on the future of planning which urgently needs to take place.

Happy Christmas. 

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