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20×20 Hindsight : Lessons from 100 Years of Professional Planning

13 October 2014

John Walls discusses a recent RTPI Scotland West of Scotland Chapter event celebrating 100 years of planning

On 17th September the West of Scotland Chapter hosted an innovative Glasgow Doors Open Day event in the handsome St Andrews in the Square, Glasgow, to celebrate the Centenary Year of the RTPI. It involved some 9 speakers giving their personal rich and diverse take on Planning in the last 100 years.

2020hindsight event - September 2014Stephen Tucker, (pictured right) RTPI Scottish Convener for 2014 was the Master of Ceremonies for the night. After his humorous and self-effacing introductions, he set the tone for the night by pointing to the Best Places Awards listed on banners on the edge of the hall and threw out the challenge to the assembly saying ‘we need more of them!’

Kevin Murray, Kevin Murray Associates, was the first speaker of the evening and spoke to his pithy title, Two Scotsmen, an Englishman and a Welshman. He was referring to Scots Sir Patrick Geddes – father of British Town Planning, Thomas Adams, first President of the RTPI (as well as the one who inspired the American Planning Association and the Canadian Institute of Planners), Englishman John Burns MP who sponsored the first Housing and Town Planning Act in 1909 and Welshman Robert Owen – the Social Reformer who guided the development of New Lanark.

And, in case you have been worrying about the lack of an Irishman, Kevin mentioned George Bernard Shaw. He was a big supporter of planning, endorsing Ebenezer Howard and the Garden Cities Association, and even investing in Welwyn Garden City personally. Kevin’s talk hit on many of the other big influencers of urban planning in the last century such as Corbusier (took a wrong turn apparently), Jane Jacobs, Francis Tibbalds, Patsy Healy, Sir Robert Grieve and, more recently, Mike Galloway.  Wrapping up Kevin asked ‘Have we lost the placemaking ability to deliver letter places?’. In short, he thinks we still have it and we can do it! So Kevin’s parting shot was to ask ‘Who are the Giants of Tomorrow?’

Pauline Gallagher, Neilston Development Trust provocatively opened by saying that ‘Places are what happen while you’re busy doing other plans’. (I can relate to this given that day to day expedient genuflections to avoid controversy often take our eyes off the bigger picture.)  Pauline provided a brief history of Neilston going back to the days it was a prosperous mill town. She charted the decline after the closure of the mill in the 70s. However, Neilston has proven to be a survivor aided by its rail link to the conurbation, its schools, shops and, crucially, a vibrant civic minded community. In the noughties there has been a resurgence of placemaking cemented by the establishment of the Neilston Development Trust in 2004. Progress has been gradual and pains-taking since this time.

In 2009 the Trust came forward with a Renaissance Charter providing a vision for Neilston’s future. Fundamental to its future success was a proposed windfarm up on the moor behind Neilston. This is now in place and has started to provide a revenue stream for the Trust. Importantly this will enable it to deliver and facilitate local projects. This year the Trust has re-energised the 2009 Charter process and is working towards a master plan. This plan is intended to inform the Local Development Plan and will result in a Supplementary Planning Guidance document to guide the future development of Neilston. The Trust therefore aspires for Neilston to become a truly sustainable place.

Liz Davidson, Strathclyde Building Preservation Trust, started out with a catchy title – Between a Rock and a Hard Place. The Rock proved to be the Dumbarton Rock, the ancient seat of the Strathclyde Kings. Eclectic images followed - of the aftermath of the Clydebank Blitz, of Shawmuir Lodge (Pollok Park), St Andrews in the Square, etc to highlight her points. Liz spoke in military metaphors of scorched earth, capturing the high ground, auld enemies, lost battles, victories and casualties all in relation to fighting the good fight of trying to save and conserve Strathclyde’s built heritage.

Liz proudly noted that Glasgow brought Doors Open day events to the UK (NB This is DOD’s 25th Anniversary Year!). She also observed that Glasgow had ‘Reached for the Sky’, becoming the City of Light focusing on the City’s built heritage and street safety. Of course, the Hard Place is Conservation and the challenges it will have to face in the future. There was plenty of food for thought in Liz’s quirky presentation.

Duncan Maclennan, St Andrew’s University, talked to his theme Building Scotland Better.  Duncan was up front about not being a planner but said he ‘respected what planners do’. (And, yes you’ve guessed it, setting us up to knock us down!!) Duncan noted ‘Few Councils have planners sitting at the top table’, ‘Transformation is good but it can’t come from the top down’, ‘Governments have no coherent view of planning’ and much more. All substantially true but unpleasant to hear, while we as planners are working hard to make what positive differences we can. In terms of the Scottish economy, he said there were absurdities in national priorities such as pensioners travelling free on the bus alongside students paying the full fare.

In his reflections on the State, the Market and the Built Environment and the need to re-think land and planning matters, Duncan said consideration has to be given to more bottom up planning. In his view not enough discussion has taken place on the subject. He says when managing land and buildings, it is fundamental to have planning. Asking us to look back at our often disappointing post war large scale housing projects and redevelopment schemes, he asked rhetorically ‘How did we do?’ Duncan’s ruminations lead him to conclude that the lack of planning is contributing to inequality.

With the national wealth and resources we have, Duncan would like to see more programmes and action for change. To get it better he believes we need to think in both metropolitan and local terms. Duncan advocates establishing a Renewal Agency to deliver Action. Allied to this is the need to create skills and encourage a willingness to use Compulsory Purchase Orders (to overcome the fear of use instilled during the Thatcher government). As a country we need a better sense of infrastructure, contrasting, tongue in cheek, the time taken to build the Canadian Pacific Railroad versus the Edinburgh Tram.  Then Duncan set the planning professionals back up again by concluding ‘Scotland has to take planning seriously!’

David Page of Page & Park Architects focussed on the Gorbals.  David used the Crown Street Project and allied developments to illustrate his points. He interestingly started with the use of Geddesian imagery to set the scene asking if the second regeneration of the Gorbals involved ‘heroes’ or users of ‘conservative surgery’?*  David showed a map of Glasgow in the 1860s and observed that the City was made up of compact and dense cells which provided urban continuity. With redevelopment coming along in the 1960s, he described the intervention was akin to amputation! The City became ‘corpse like’ and less legible as a place to live. A resonance back to Duncan Maclennan’s point about the ‘success’ (ie lack of) of our post war housing and redevelopment projects.

Then using the Crown Street Master Plan as the starting point for present day Gorbals, David started to explain the efforts to re-create cells and re-stitch the new developments back into the fabric of the City. He illustrated this with the refurbishment of St Francis Church, now a community centre, and the blending of development in and around it. This wasn’t achieved overnight but in a process of re-crafting urban cells - and the spaces between the cells - over a period of 25 years. Arguably an example of conservative surgery winning over heroic grid iron planning.

*Footnote : Geddes championed a mode of planning that sought to consider "primary human needs" in every intervention, engaging in "constructive and conservative surgery” rather than the "heroic, all of a piece schemes; (ie gridiron developments”) popular in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. (Source : Wikipedia)

Petra Biberbach, Chief Executive of Planning Aid Scotland introduced her talk with Geddesian note misquoting the familiar words (to all planners) – ‘Place, Work…...Folk?’ She went on to describe the activities of PAS stressing that their key asset is the volunteers who, by talking in the language of ordinary folk rather than jargon, generate trust in the communities where they work. In this way she made it clear to the audience that ‘Folk’ figured largely in her priorities.

PAS is also involved with young people by targeting primary and secondary schools introducing to the planning system and the challenges of planning. This work is aided by EU funds. More Geddesian phrases appeared – ‘diagnosis before treatment’ and ‘survey before plan’. So at least the younger generation are getting introduced to tried and tested common sense.  Here Petra stressed that PAS work involves inter-generational engagement, valuable in working with communities. Their work also involves international engagement which elegantly led to her final message ‘Think Global, Act Local!.’

Karen Anderson, Chair of Architecture + Design Scotland, opened by observing that planning is very complicated. It operates from the national level down to the local level. These different scales create a challenge in getting a ‘vision’ right.  Using a photograph of Cumbernauld Town Centre Karen made the point that the architects can struggle to get it right. Similarly, showing a slide of a grade separated motorway interchange within Glasgow City, she illustrated that the transport engineers were struggling to get it right too.

Crucially ‘Where are the people?’ ‘Where is the charm?’ were her questions? It appears these have been lost in favour of ‘professional priorities’.  Karen made a plea for a move away from large scale single developments and to re-establish a more holistic, human scale approach. She would like to see professionals getting close up and be more engaged in a ‘hands on’ fashion. Karen feels that Manchester, by having a more hands on approach, has outstripped Glasgow.  As a society we are facing the big challenges of Climate Change, centralization, globalization, etc. This is desensitizing us and resulting in dysfunctional places. In the past we used to be able to create good places. So we need to re-focus our children, our professions – architecture, planning, engineering. She says this can’t wait – politics and money need to catch up for the need for distinctive places to happen. Karen exhorted it’s time to think – ‘Cool City’, ‘Mayors’, etc – we need a Big Vision. Her lingering final question was – ‘Who are our Champions?’

Alistair MacDonald, Immediate Past Head of Planning in Glasgow City Council gave a talk that was inspired by the Heritage Trust. His key point being that the successful delivery of projects and programmes is about partnership working.  On this theme Alistair ran through a series of slides with different projects, each outstanding in its own field. Each of these images had their own story and the projects were the outcome of team working and partnerships. The slides included the Buchanan Street Pedestrianisation, the Royal Concert Hall, John Street/ Italian Centre, the Broomielaw IFSD, the City Centre Public Realm, the Royal Exchange Exchange Square ‘Ceiling of Light’, St Patrick Cathedral and Extension, the City Centre 1:500 wooden model and finally the Renaissance Lighting Festival of 1997 which was nationally acclaimed.

Of course, there was one final, final, slide which contained a group photograph of the Planning Staff on the stairs in the City Chambers. A tangible recognition of Alistair’s pride in his team’s work!

Jude Barber, Architect, Director at Collective Architecture in Glasgow outlined the progression of her career using the photographs as reference points in her talk. She explained that she had a rural upbringing and the move to the City – the skyline of Glasgow – had caused a major shift in her perspective. The next image was of an ultrasound picture of a baby, making her reflect on the limited movement opportunities a baby had as it increasingly fills the womb. A crowd scene helped to demonstrate that we have an aging population and while the former predominance of working men is in decline, it is estimated that architecture needs 10,000 more women in the UK.

Some negative images were also picked up by Jude including the increasingly ubiquitous Stop and Take Care Warnings which often plague our movements around the City Centre and elsewhere. (In my view, Health and Safety Officers trying to earn their keep.) There was a quirky photo of a building in Alabama showing that its plan form is in the shape of a Swastika – quite a subliminal message! This was followed by a photo of Gartloch House, a former asylum, which is lying derelict. The last of the negative images was one of a slave ship, a reminder that the City’s wealth was built on the trade from the New World. During the Commonwealth Games a number of activists, including Jude set up the Empire Café which explored Scotland’s relationship with the North Atlantic slave trade through tobacco, coffee, sugar, tea and cotton.

Jude’s slides then moved on to positive images including, one on Geology, a new Urban Park (including an illustration of Geddes Valley Transect, 1909, which appear to be never far from a ‘sustainable professional’s’ ppt kit!) and New Lanark with its social achievements and produce of goods. Through this wide ranging selection of images, Jude’s key point is that we need to be continuously finding new ways of looking at things which we might otherwise take for granted.

So there you have it, nine diverse experiences reflecting on the 100 years since town planning established itself as a profession. For the speakers this was a challenging task. However, the event gave the audience an eclectic overview of a wide range of opinions, each with their own unique reference point. So it proved to be an evening which enlightened, informed and entertained.

For me the overarching message of the event was Duncan Maclennan’s punch line and is worthwhile repeating :

‘Scotland has to take planning seriously!’