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Making a lasting difference

16 July 2014

It is heartening to read Sam Jacob and Wouter Vanstiphout in their Guardian article asserting that “Britain should be proud of its planners” (03.06.14), particularly in the centenary year for the planning profession. As they note, this sentiment runs “contrary to popular myth” but they are helpfully reasserting a message that many people that have grown up in planned communities are now articulating.  Natalie Elphicke, who is leading a current review of ways that local authorities might play a bigger housing role, commented in a Guardian interview (25.06.13) "Growing up in the 1970s in Stevenage, it was a fantastically forward-looking place. It fostered a can-do attitude. It was a buzzing new town, rich in public assets …. It was a place where everyone felt they could do well for themselves”.

"Growing up in the 1970s in Stevenage, it was a fantastically forward-looking place. It fostered a can-do attitude. It was a buzzing new town, rich in public assets …. It was a place where everyone felt they could do well for themselves”

Restoration Man George Clarke has said about his upbringing in Washington: “It was a new town, a new build, a new way of living. It was an amazing place to grow up”. And Architect Mark Dytham very pointedly said back in 2007 when celebrating the 40th birthday of Milton Keynes (bd, 6.08.2007) and what had been achieved, fair play to those that “have some balls and do something that will make a lasting difference”.

The Wolfson Economics Prize 2014

Inviting ideas on how best to deliver a new garden city - is giving encouragement to those that might dare to plan big and plan imaginatively. Given that it is an ‘Economics Prize’ it is no surprise to find that the mechanics of financing and popularising rather pre-occupy the shortlisted proposals. The ‘garden city’ expectation is clearly designed to disarm some of the concreting-over concerns – and the verdant Garden Towns that the previously styled New Towns have become (see ‘Garden Towns are thriving, and still learning’) show that such aspirations are not misplaced. But doubtless all of the finalists will rise to the further challenge in the final round of ensuring not only that their ‘garden city’ is feasible but also that it will result in a strong statement (for which Milton Keynes in particular has been applauded) and a distinct place. Only one shortlisted entry is based in a declared location – the one from Shelter – but each needs to show that, in urban design terms, a place or places of the 21st century is/are being created.

Intriguingly, the last great programme of place-making, the UK designated New Towns, perhaps had their priorities in reverse order. In the era of post-war reconstruction, Parliament and the community at large waved them a pretty clear run on funding and gaining public support. But the Festival of Britain spirit imbued the New Towns with such a positive eye to a new and different future that some aspects still look radical today. Jacob’s & Vanstiphout’s example of Cumbernauld’s central area with its progressive linear expansion certainly provides one answer to the centre-first vs out-of-centre debates that have dominated the retail field in recent decades. The 50 year old dedicated bus-ways of Runcorn New Town have since been re-invented as the guided busway of Cambridgeshire. The walkability – and with adaptation the cycleability – of virtually all the New Towns might be presented as a demonstration project for the ‘planning & health’ debates that have come along with higher living standards. And who would have thought that the multi-storey-car-park-surrounded covered shopping area of Cwmbran was destined to become one of the top shopping destinations for South Wales. Whilst the concept for the Central Lancashire New Town, the bringing together of Preston, Leyland and Chorley, showed a heady co-operative ambition which, whilst not all ideas were realised, has been remarkably resilient to this day.

The Government’s Garden City Prospectus

So where is that same spirit of adventure in post-recession England? Any enthusiasm for new places seems to have been replaced by a not wholly misjudged perception that any such task will be undertaken half-heartedly, under-funded and as a consequence of poor quality, unequal in its benefits since affordable housing has slid off the agenda, and under-loved since green-and-pleasant land will be consumed as a consequence. The Government’s Garden City Prospectus was positive but somehow muted, as if there was a presumption in favour of alternatives. Perhaps we have to look to the forthcoming review by Sir Michael Lyons for the Labour Party to move up-beat. We surely need everyone to expect and require something above the mundane. We need to highlight the ‘opportunity’ for new thinking in place of the persistent ‘threat’ of sheer numbers to be delivered.

The new Prime Minister of India has said his country will create 100 new cities, “equipped with world class amenities”. This commitment is said to have taken a lead from China where the skills of British planners are being harnessed in the creation of a whole array of planned eco-cities (Guardian 14.04.14). Of the Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-city one of the new residents says: “it’s chasing an ideal. It’s the kind of place where people can come to pursue their dreams”. Now that sounds familiar? There are many proud British planners who would relish the challenge to ‘make that lasting difference’ in their own country.

Andrew Matheson is an RTPI Policy & Networks Manager who has been leading on the Centenary project around mature planned communities. Prior to the RTPI he worked in the field of housing for both housing associations and local authorities.