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Report of the 13th Biennial of European Towns and Town Planners

11 October 2019 Author: Janet Askew

Janet AskewPlymouth is a splendid city in which to hold a biennial of the town planners of Europe. It is well-known for its maritime history, not least for the many mariners who have sailed into and out of Plymouth, including the most renowned seaman of the sixteenth century, Frances Drake, and most recently, Greta Thunberg, the young climate change activist. It also has a long and auspicious history of good planning, most recently being the only place in the UK to have won the Royal Town Planning Institute’s esteemed Silver Cup three times.  As a result, Plymouth had much to offer the 13th biennial of the ECTP-CEU where nearly 200 planners and a propitious set of keynote speakers and other contributors arrived to exchange knowledge and ideas about planning.

The theme of the Plymouth Biennial was ‘planning on the edge’. Undoubtedly a good subject for study in 2019, it covered not just marine and coastal edges, but the edge of society, the edge of cities and the precipice of climate change upon which we hang. In addition, cities like Plymouth are a long way from the centre of their country, coping with issues of poor connectivity and deprivation. Over two days, contributors from all over Europe spoke about and engaged in debate about these important matters. 

The organisers and sponsors of the conference - Plymouth City Council, Destination Plymouth, University of Plymouth and the Royal Town Planning Institute - had a rich backdrop from which to draw the content of the biennial.  The start of the conference, a welcome by the Lord Mayor of Plymouth, demonstrated the commitment of the city to good planning. When politicians support planning and resource it properly, success will follow. The Lord Mayor’s house overlooks the world-famous Plymouth Hoe with its spectacular setting of seascape, islands and harbours, giving the maritime context to the city. Unfortunately, the city of Plymouth was largely destroyed during the 1940s, resulting in its comprehensive planning and re-building afterwards and ever since. The first post-war plan by the famous town planner, Sir Patrick Abercrombie, was ambitious, with a grand city centre built on the lines of a grid with impressive boulevards. The layout of Abercrombie’s city remains today, but poverty and economic decline, particularly due to dereliction and de-industrialisation in coastal areas, have taken their toll and much needs to be done to reinstate Plymouth’s former glory.

After hearing about the philosophy of the modern planners, delegates from around Europe shared their experiences of ‘living on the edge’. Regional planning has a big role to play, and stories from Hong Kong and Guangdong, France, Spain and Ireland reinforced the importance of cross-border working. The large number of presentations relating to the urban-rural fringe, the urban edge and places in-between demonstrated how important this issue is across the whole of Europe. Planners from Germany, England, Slovenia, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, Italy, and Spain talked about their research into various ways of treating the edge of the city and how to contain urban sprawl, along with the challenges in planning for urban expansion and housing.

Appropriately for Plymouth, which was designated as the first National Marine Park on the weekend of the conference, there were several papers about marine planning. From Scotland, England and Northern Ireland, planners spoke about the emergent plans for the sea and the increasing and competing demands from windfarms, fisheries and fishing, shipping, conservation, as well as how the new legislation for statutory marine spatial plans would work. Coastal, river and waterfront areas were prominent subjects for the conference, especially as many coastal areas are taking the brunt of the climate crisis.  Famously, the Dutch have devised clever ways of keeping the sea at bay, whilst Norway demonstrated their plans for the harshest climatic conditions.   

Alongside the main biennial was a young planners’ workshop. Young planners from all over Europe submitted their ideas around the central theme and were welcomed into the body of the conference to explain their views and expand their knowledge. This aspect of the ECTP-CEU might be one of its most important roles, since young planners are the policymakers of the future. They will learn from each other in the global world – what works and what does not work. An impressive and enthusiastic array of young planners from Europe engaged with the biennial, eager to present their ideas.

No report can do justice to the breadth and extent of knowledge exchanged, nor to the hundreds of independent conversations at the ECTP-CEU Biennial. Each reinforces our desire and fervour for town planning and the means by which we can persuade communities, governments, politicians and other professionals that without planning the future is bleak. But with the enthusiasm and zest for knowledge and ideas demonstrated at the Plymouth Biennial, the future for planners and planning across Europe will be sustained.  

It was an honour for Plymouth to be selected for the biennial and it was a great success.  The RTPI in London played an important role in assisting with the bid to the ECTP-CEU, as well as helping with the organisation. Particular thanks must also go to the South-West RTPI for its support for the conference. Feedback from delegates indicates that it was enjoyed by all, many saying that the scale of the conference lent itself to good conversations with other planners and after a few days, there is no doubt that delegates had enjoyed and benefitted from such an interesting and stimulating event. 

Janet Askew

Janet Askew

Janet Askew MRTPI is a past president of the RTPI, chair of the RTPI International Committee and vice-president of the European Council of Spatial Planners (ECTP-CEU) for 2019-2021.