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Planning and Pandemics

By Charles Goode, doctoral researcher in urban and regional planning at the University of Birmingham.

This is a guest blog post – the views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the RTPI. The RTPI is currently working on a paper on this issue which will be published soon.

​As I write from my office, which is my shed in the garden to make the most of the lovely spring weather, the government’s and the public’s attention is rightly focused on reducing the infection and death rate from the virus. However, in the same way that Abercrombie and others sought to plan post-war Britain in the midst of WWII, it is important to consider how both planning policy and the profession could change post-coronavirus. This blog offers some potential insights which perhaps raise more questions than answers but these are still pressing and poignant issues to consider. One thing is clear, planners and the planning profession (should) remain vital in a post-coronavirus world.

Planning and Pandemics: History

Although it is difficult to establish direct causation between progress in planning and pandemics, especially tracing the impacts of the Black Death when there was hardly any state control over the built environment, the Great Plague of London in 1665 followed by the Great Fire in 1666 clearly had an important impact on the more spacious rebuilding of the city as designed by Christopher Wren and others (Hall, 1998; Ogborn, 1998). Likewise, WWI and the ‘Spanish’ Flu of 1918-19, clearly informed Tudor Walter’s Report (1918) and subsequent Addison Act of 1919, which resulted in much more spacious space standards for new social and private housing (Hall, 2014).

The fascinating question is whether there may be a similar paradigm shift within planning post-coronavirus? However, it is important to stress that these shifts often result from a ‘conjunctional’ crises or combination of events, like the Great Fire alongside the Plague, and WWI which prompted a desire to build ‘homes fit for heroes’ alongside Spanish Flu (Peck and Tickell, 2012, p. 245; Inch and Shepherd, 2019, p. 1). In other words, change is not always inevitable, linear or teleological (one directional) although the culture in which shifts take place is very important.

Immediate changes: Planning policy and permitted development

Permitted development rights have already been introduced for the NHS and there maybe wider temporary rights introduced relating to vital institutions and industries, such as care homes, undertakers and key factories (e.g. those producing ventilators), especially if the virus persists with a second wave.

Short(er) term changes to planning and prosperity: Housing and high streets

Another priority, as the lockdown begins to lift, is the completion of existing development sites although it remains to be seen how strongly the housebuilding industry recovers. One thing is clear, there is still a housing crisis and housing will probably remain a political priority. In terms of the High Street, there has clearly been a huge (further) shift to online retail and, with the social distancing measures likely to continue for some months, it is unlikely that there will be a swift retail revival, especially for pubs, restaurants and cafes, therefore exacerbating the High Street’s decline. This means that planning for recovery and economic prosperity will probably become more important.

Indeed, with widespread job losses resulting from coronavirus and the lockdown, there will be more pressure on local authorities to allocate and approve the expansion of businesses and employment where the demand arises (as seen in Worcester City Council’s approval at a virtual planning committee I recently listened to (Barnett, 2020b) of a new Lidl store). Spatially, given the shift of the economy towards online (and maybe an increase in industrial production due to the disruption to international trade), this may result in warehouses and factories expanding, which are often located on the periphery of conurbations and at strategic transport locations. Alongside the speed and scale of the recovery of the housebuilding industry, these economic changes will have an important impact on the planning consultancy industry but, during this crisis, it has become apparent that public sector planners are ‘essential’ and may get enhanced powers to plan for economic recovery.

Medium and longer term: Planners, property and place

The further we look into the future, the more difficult it is to predict but coronavirus may have important implications for space standards for housing and greenspace, despite the pressing housing crisis. Firstly, the lockdown has demonstrated the necessity for each household to have enough domestic space, natural light and personal outdoor space, such as a balcony. Secondly, although the notion of ‘homeworking’ has been critiqued conceptually as restricted to professional workers compared to the millions of manual workers, the virus may have an impact on the spatial configuration of homes, especially flats. Indeed, the preference has been for ‘open plan’ but demand for a discrete space, like an office/living room often seen in Victorian homes, may increase. Thirdly, having a garden or nearby greenspace has emerged as extremely important, as has been widely acknowledged by experts for many years (Salazar and Menéndez, 2007; Gidlow and Ellis, 2011), especially when the parks were threatened with closure during the lockdown. This could all have important ramifications for Permitted Development Rights for office buildings.

Reflecting on these changes in my own area of research, Green Belts clearly rely on urban densification on existing urban land accusations of ‘people or town cramming’ now have to be seriously acknowledged (For example: Evans, 1991; Madeddu et al., 2015), especially as the already strong societal preference for homes with gardens may increase through the growth in homeworking and worries about another lockdown. If space standards are introduced, it maybe that the scale and density of urban development is also reduced potentially putting more pressure on the Green Belt. Conversely, as cities have been most affected by the virus, the popularity of urban living, combined with more flexible homeworking, may reduce development pressure in cities. Indeed, if the daily ‘tidal flow’ of commuters is reduced, the ‘leapfrogging’ of development also becomes less problematic, but this, in turn, could have important implications for the traditional ‘CBD’, including demand for office space, retail and ancillary services. More broadly, this could have ramifications for cities benefiting from ‘agglomeration’ economics - the co-location of people and  industry - and their role as the engines of the global economy (Glaeser, 2011).

Finally, in terms of the planning profession, the trend towards homeworking, which has been more widely adopted in the public sector, may accelerate and become more widespread in the private sector. The planning process is clearly becoming more digitised, including the consultation and planning  committee process and, if the Civic Voice review finds these changes are successful (Edgar, 2020), this may lead to permanent changes in planning process. Although I missed ‘seeing’ the councillors at Worcester’s planning committee, I thought the virtual format worked very well and this was echoed by positive commentary in the local press (Barnett, 2020a).

Conclusion: ‘Make no little plans’

Of course, this blog is just my personal views on how things may change. However, perhaps we all need to return more to the vision and ambition of the founding fathers of the planning system, like Howard and Unwin. Hopefully, one result will be that we have more ambitious, strategic plans, like Abercrombie’s Greater London Plan and that we follow Daniel Burnham’s advice to make ‘no little plans’ (UK 2070 Commission, 2020, p. 1)!

Many of the ideas for this blog came from a discussion with other planners doing PhDs including Lubaina Mirza, Charlotte Morphet, Victoria Pinoncély, Deborah Bloomfield, Catherine Queen and Simon Shtebunaev. Charles greatly appreciated the discussion, which inspired him to write the blog and gratefully acknowledges both the range and depth of ideas discussed.

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