A new movement in planning – Neil Murphy’s The New City lecture


This is a transcript of  Neil Murphy’s The New City lecture given on Monday 11th February 2013 at Cambridge University Department of Architecture. The New City lecture series runs until 5th March, details of upcoming lectures can be found here.

Planning is the process by which societies mediate space.  It determines what can be built where, to what purpose and under what conditions.  As last week’s session explored, the forms that human settlements take have profound implications for our environmental impacts. It is not that lives lived in dense cities are intrinsically sustainable enough or that those lived in suburbia are intrinsically otherwise, but that the propensity of people to consume energy and resources falls as their proximity to one another rises.  Conversely, there seems – up to a point – to be a positive correlation between urban density and scale and people’s propensity to be economically productive and culturally active.  Both these observations are neatly captured in David Engwicht’s observation that “[c]ities are an invention to maximise exchange (culture, goods, friendship, knowledge) and minimise travel.” i

Today I will talk about land-use planning, which is a process and a profession very much to the fore in public policy discourse in this country at present, chiefly owing to the mounting crisis caused by a failure over decades to build enough houses to meet rising demand.  I will review some of the current lines of argument in planning before setting out some ideas on how it might be re-purposed as the midwife of the New City; the former mainly in relation to this country but the latter, I hope, with a wider applicability.

I want to start by suggesting that planning is in a bit of a funk. This is illustrated by the current debate over housing delivery, in which planning is carrying the can for our social failure to build enough new houses so consistently for so long that there are several million households without suitable accommodation and even the most basic starter home is priced out of reach of many people, especially the youngii, and especially in the country’s economic hotspots.  The consensus is that the planning system is primarily, if not wholly, responsible on the grounds of, one way or another, restricting the effective supply of development land.  Beyond this basic premise, however, views diverge into two principal schools of thought.

First is a growing critique coming mainly from economists on the political leftiii.  This holds, in simple terms, that planning is not sufficiently responsive to price signals and does not allow enough development, particularly housing, in the places where market forces left alone would have it.  The result is that property prices are higher than they should be, especially in or close to areas of great economic opportunity, like the commuter belt around London, or here in Cambridge; and that many people are therefore forced to live in places or in circumstances that they do not like or that materially disadvantage them as well as, at a societal scale, stifling economic growth; a phenomenon that may be compounded rather than mitigated by the ploughing of vast public resources into regenerating northern industrial towns in the name of ‘market failure’.  Ethically, the planning system and sacred cows like Green Belt policies are seen as defending the interests of insiders at the expense of outsiders; the preservation of Home Counties landscape and property to the cost of the migratory poor.  From this perspective, the primary challenge to planning is to let more development go where developers want to put it, and to tax the profits for progressive ends.

The critique from the right, given voice by some in the present government, is more focused on the perceived qualitative failings of planning.  Too much emphasis in the planning system on targets for building set nationally or regionally; policy prescription on matters such as development density, social mixing and car parking restraint; and too much “pig ugly” development in the words of the present planning ministeriv have made people resistant to development near where they live.  Localise planning choice, these critics say; allow people more influence over the nature and form of development – and even bribe them with a share of the proceedsv – and consent for building will follow.

There are problems with both these versions of events, but I shall focus briefly on the former because it presents a clearer intellectual challenge to planning and a more direct and, arguably, honest attempt to tackle the underlying problem of supply.  Although I personally think there should be more use of economics in planning, it is important not to over-emphasise planning restraints on land supply as a cause of stunted growth.  We need to consider patterns of land ownership in many parts of the country that make it especially easy and attractive for landowners to seek rents from speculation, aided by an almost non-existent system of property taxation; and the role of the volume housebuilding industry, the dominance by a few big firms and ‘current trader’ business model of which stifles innovation and diversity and make supply much more vulnerable to economic fluctuations than it needs to be – something I shall return to shortly.  Equal concern should attach to our failure to price transport, especially roads, properly such that there is effectively a subsidy to sprawl.  And we need to better understand why the market under-values in the short-term spatial qualities that could add economic value in the long-term, such as compactness and permeability, which planning is, in theory, well-placed to obtain.   In other words, we have to look not just at how to use more land but how to use it more efficiently.

But these quite different critiques both, in the end, reflect a wider societal scepticism about the value and efficacy of professional planning, and a resurgent faith in the market to do a better job of allocating land resources, with planners cast as the regulators.  Although some would argue that the marketisation of land-use has not yet gone nearly far enough, it has been extended by recent reforms.  When the draft National Planning Policy Framework was published in 2011, the Royal Town Planning Institute, the professional body for planners, complained that it “fail[ed] to set out a vision” and was focused on a “response to market demands rather than… truly sustainable development”vi.  But, for all the professionals’ wailing, it became government policy all the same.

In 1990, Mark Tewdwr-Jones wrote that:

“Planning has been reduced to a bureaucratic regulatory process in which the political has been down played in the interests of organisational efficiency.  The “vision thing”, the concept that gave birth to town planning as a professional activity in the early years of the twentieth century, has been lost, partly as a consequence of legislative fiat, a New Right determination to standardise and commodify planning as a public service, and individual planners’ recalcitrance.  Town planning is no longer a political and professional activity; it is rampant technocracy, shared between public and private sectors.”vii

One can see the current discourse as evidence that a problem described over 20 years ago has reached its apogee.  How did this come to pass? Tewdwr-Jones hints at the role played by a political ideology antipathetic to the very idea of vision, but I would highlight three other factors lying deep in the psyche of planning at play.

First, the fact that town planning as an ideal and a profession first found its voice in advocacy of garden cities and a theorisation of the English romance with villages, small towns and countryside meant that it was always vulnerable to the perversion of its ideals by forces that drew on the folk wisdom of garden cities as idealised environments, and turned what was essentially a truth about collective prosperity into an illusion about personal choice.  One such force was the car, and I will let Bruce deal with that.  Another was the volume housebuilder.  Housebuilders have a highly evolved narrative in which whatever they provide is what the market wants, is aspirational, and any failings are beyond their control.  Take this from Nick Rogers, design director of Taylor Wimpey, in response to the planning ministers Nick Boles’s accusation that developers are “lazy”:

“We build homes that people want to buy and create places that people want to live in… No one sets out to design bad buildings or places, but sometimes things happen to prevent a good outcome. This certainly happened pre-crash when the combination of high demand, lack of developable land and government policy, drove density of development to a level where, sometimes, the result was poor design.”viii

As I have mentioned already, housebuilding has many of the characteristics of an oligopoly: a market dominated by a small number of large firms.  And the truth is that, like all oligopolists, housebuilders do not necessarily build what a truly competitive market would want but what it is expedient to produce.  Except on the odd ‘flagship’ project where they make a show of doing something a bit different, theirs is a mass market model of increasingly standardised designs arranged in identikit inward-looking layouts, usually with an assumption if not an outright requirement of car ownership. Because they typically finance construction with expensive short-term debt, national housebuilders are beholden to the ability to sell what they build quickly to owner-occupiers such that a house becomes ‘product’, not an enduring asset and still less an element of ‘town’.  When, as now, low wages and a shortage of mortgage finance silts up the demand, supply halts.  This process embodies the reduction of human habitat to the tiniest range of possibilities, with the result that nearly a third of people, according to a study by the RIBA, would consider buying a house build in the last ten years only as a last resort.ix

As Sir Peter Hall has put it:

“this is not an argument against suburbs, but against a particularly kind of proto-suburban development loved by the housebuilders: low density houses on the edges of a small town somewhere in southern England, clustered into a cul-de-sac, giving onto a distribution road, which all too easily gets gridlocked, and it does not produce anything like a decent bus service.”x

Yet the appropriation by housebuilders of the language of suburban aspiration, combined with their dominance of the land market, has cowed planners to such an extent that strategic planning in many places has been reduced to refereeing between one ‘stunning development’ in a field on the edge of town, or another.  The way that the planning system understands viability has been skewed to the housebuilder model, with planners under growing pressure to subjugate the long term needs of infrastructure and social housing in their areas in order to bail out the builders’ silted-up model of rapid debt-driven turnover.  What we are seeing is a spatial form of Eisenhower’s “military-industrial complex”, the subjugation of mediation in the public interest to the interests of producers.  (What is profoundly ironic about this, incidentally, is that the modern planning profession and culture for all its rhetoric about placemaking would struggle to allow something as bold and beautiful as Edinburgh New Town or Georgian Bath to be built in the countryside.  It would be seen as overdevelopment, too dense and insufficiently respectful of its ‘setting’, its streets failing to meet adoptable highways standards and its parking provision recklessly out of kilter with the needs of the modern families.)

Second, when visionary planning returned to our great cities in the postwar period it did so at a difficult time.  In my own home city of Newcastle upon Tyne the great period of visionary planning in the 20th century under T. Dan Smith coincided with the relatively brief period in which the Corbusian ideal of the ville radieuse gained popular traction over municipal housing design and the progressive planning wisdom became that cities must be comprehensively re-planned to accommodate the motor vehicle in the city, through the building of urban motorways and the segregation of people and traffic.  The mythology, not to mention the grim legacy infrastructure, of that era bears a heavy responsibility for the antipathy of many people today to ‘visionary’ municipal leadership and their scorn and cynicism towards planning as a social institution.  People forget that, in the same city, it was the incredibly bold collaboration – some might say collusion – between city planners and the single-minded developer Richard Grainger that created the Georgian wonder that is Grainger town and arguably England’s finest neoclassical street. Oh, for some of that particular kind of planning arrogance today.

Third, planning always had a problem managing the innate complexity of urbanism, so, over time, became accustomed to managing it out.  This was Jane Jacobs’s great criticism of planning: well-founded concerns about sanitary conditions in late 19th Century industrial cities that became misdirected as an assault on the qualities of density and intricate mixes of uses that made cities engines of economic output and social life, to be replaced by the “marvels of dullness”xi she saw the rise of zoning and a preoccupation with landscape bringing to bear.  Jacobs’s Death and Life of Great American Cities remains a revered text among planners, but the spatial expression of economic intent in our cities today is not the mixed-use neighbourhood with its close-grained interplay of activity but the landscaped business park: gleaming sheds in fields of car parking.   At the very least, these strange forms reflect the triumph in planning of short-term cost-driven business interests over long-term value-based economic ones: today’s wish for cheap rents, compliant workers and easy commutes made possible at the cost of tomorrow’s dense interplay of urban life, its ability to sustain ‘different freedoms’ and its propensity to innovate in the space between buildings.  But one might go further and agree with Tom McDonagh, who writes that

“modern capitalism, the bureaucratic society of consumption, is here and there beginning to shape its own setting. This society… is building the terrain that accurately represents it, combining the conditions most suitable for its proper functioning, while at the same time translating in space, in the clear language of organization of everyday life, its fundamental principle of alienation and constraint.”xii

So where do we go from here?

What seems clear is that planning has confused ends and means: mediation of space has become the objective, without any clear sense of the ends that mediation is trying to achieve. In the middle of the road, you get knocked over.  The logical outcome of this malaise is a continued shift towards ever more market-led approaches to land use that might eventually fix our housing shortage but which will under-provide cogent settlement patterns and discount too heavily the factors that will make places competitive, sustainable and socially just in the long-run.

Instead, I’d like to suggest a different scenario, one that gives planning its mojo back and invites a new era of planning visionaries to step up and confront the needs of the New City.  (I know that arguing for more power for planners in a room full of architects is unlikely to go down well, but bear with me.)

First, we need more and smarter planning, not less.  We need to vex less about the shortage of land and more about the shortage of good urban places that foster exchange, human contact and create long-term economic and social possibilities rather than restricting development to a narrow interpretation of present day needs and norms.

Specifically, we need to plan and re-plan our settlements in coherent units of compact, walkable, mixed-use urbanism.  Paul Murrain is likely to discuss this in detail next week, so rather than going into what these units are let me instead focus on the planning implications.  Chiefly, it means that we will no longer think of meeting housing needs in terms of fifty or a hundred homes in the next field, but in how we create and support well-resolved, well-served and well-connected mixed-use neighbourhoods of two thousand or more homes.  The precise spatial, connective and urbanistic strategy will depend on the situation, but this is a principle that works equally well in dense urban contexts, the outward growth of existing settlements and brand new places whether urban or suburban.  The rules that attach to these places will not be governing minimum car parking and the separation of uses but such things as the permeability of space, the accessibility of everyday human needs and the importance of street, block and plot to urban coherence and adaptability.

Within this there is certainly a place for substantial new settlements in areas of high aggregate demand.  It is simply not tenable to think that the housing needs of the London megaregion, for example, can be met wholly within existing urban boundaries or in the relatively few places where there is neither profound social and political antipathy to development nor planning-imposed constraints like green belt.  What matters is that, where such settlements are planned, they justify their existence by replacing cherished landscape with efficient, well-functioning and beautiful townscape.

But we need a differentiated approach for places whose long-run trajectory is more stable or declining, bearing in mind that a radical increase in supply in areas such as the greater south-east is likely to exacerbate the fragility of population trends in these areas.  In our former industrial towns and cities there is, it seems to me, a long-term strategic choice to be made. On the one hand there is compactness, proximity and the reuse of land and infrastructure; the urban footprint managed to best create the productive urban conditions that come with density and urban connectivity in the hope that our cities can create from their own bases of knowledge and creativity the self-sustaining, value-driven economy – the ideopolis – of the future. On the other, more of our present civic diffidence perpetuating the market-driven flight to the periphery and locking our cities further into a model of cost-driven competition.

Second, to support this spatially-driven model we need a new understanding of the physical forms and typologies that can produce superb, highly-functioning urbanism while meeting the needs and expectations of households and businesses, transforming the present antagonism between public and private interests and realms into symbiosis.  What are the housing forms that can deliver spacious family homes and a desire for a garden at 50, 60 dwellings to the hectare or more while making wonderful townscape? How do we integrate workplaces large and small and reconcile the outward-facing needs of companies in an urbanism that values face-to-face contact and exchange as the basis of long-term economic wellbeing? Over to you architects…

Third, as a logical corollary of this truly spatial approach to planning I personally think – and I emphasise these views are mine and not those of my employer – we need a revolution in the way that land is treated, one that sees it primarily not as a private asset but as a common and wholly finite resource, discourages speculative rent-seeking by landowners, helps to break the short-termist housebuilder model’s stranglehold on supply and enables development to go in the right place rather than where the field boundary happens to be.  In simple terms, planning authorities, not landowners, should decide what land is required to achieve cogent units of urbanism and have the right to acquire that land for compensation equivalent to no more than its current use value.  And they should become progressive town-builders, the Richard Graingers of our age, their curation of the land in the public interest giving them an in-built incentive to demand a whole-life, whole society approach to the use of land and to orchestrate urban designers, architects, engineers and the multiplicity of statutory agencies and interest groups that operate in urban space to produce urbanism capable of adapting to changing economic and social forces and getting better with age.

Finally, we need our planners to rediscover a role as educators and promoters of a social understanding of space.  Indeed, if none of the other possibilities come to pass – and who would bet on any political leader showing the vision and leadership to tackle vested interests in land dating back to the Domesday book? – we need this more than anything.  Planners have to be the ones who will point out to people who want an eighth of an acre for their house or endless free parking outside their office what would happen to our cities, our lives, our planet if everyone wanted that and got it.  Land, space and wonderful environments are collective goods – and that is why the New City needs a new movement in planning.

i Engwicht, Towards an Eco-City

ii See for example National Housing Federation, Home Truths 2011

iii See for example Cheshire, Urban Containment, Housing Affordability and Price Stability – Irreconcilable Goals, SERC 2009

iv “Boles criticises ‘pig ugly’ housing scheme”, www.planningresource.co.uk, accessed 10th February 2013

v “Communities to be given cash to back development”, www.insidehousing.co.uk, accessed 10th February 2013

vi “Draft NPPF a ‘missed opportunity’ says RTPI”, www.planningresource.co.uk, accessed 9th February 2012

vii Mark Tewdwr-Jones, 1999, quoted in Peter Hall, Cities of Tomorrow.

viii Via www.taylorwimpey.co.uk, accessed 9th February 2013

ix RIBA The Case for Space.  31% of people would not consider buying a home built in the last ten years, or would only consider it as a last resort.

x Sir Peter Hall, lecture to AiH Estate of the Nation conference, 24th May 2000

xi Jacobs, Death and Life of Great American Cities

xii McDonagh, Situationists and the City

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