The Coalition’s Localism Bill aims to give communities more control of their own physical habitat, letting us write Neighbourhood Plans and expedite popular developments. It aims to create a world where neighbours come together to play a part in the planning system. It will transfer decisions from the professionals at the Municipal Office to the people who actually inhabitant the streets: moving power from the bureaucrats to the community. Developers will be obliged to consult much more extensively on projects – and to put the consultation results into practice.
This empowerment of individuals and communities is on the face of it, a fantastic result, and one consistent with the view of the Coalition as being a radical liberal government.
We’re already getting some optimistic views about where this will lead. Architect Robert Adam has written in the current edition of Planning in London how this could be “the start of a new era of architecture for the people”:
“The new Government looks like it’s going to make the most important reforms to planning since 1947. In the last 50 years an increasingly bureaucratic planning system has grown and grown, backed by advancing legions of civil servants. Somewhere in all this, the people for whom the system was designed was forgotten.
“As it got more and more complicated with more and more regulations, the cohorts of bureaucrats joined hands with the architectural profession. Neither of this deadly duo cared what the public wanted: they were both experts and they both knew better. Overloaded Councillors handed more and more decisions to their bureaucrats, only occasionally fighting a rearguard action for their electorate. Now a Government that understands that all this is for people not officials might take the truly radical step of handing power back to communities.
“Architects might just have to accept that their designs are for people not other architects or their cronies in officialdom.”
The physical condition of our towns and cities is a huge contributor to the good society, so I hope that the optimistic views are proven right in time.
But will Neighbourhood Plans actually produce good neighbourhoods?
There are theoretical models for good design. There is a huge corpus of literature on how you actually go about creating a good place; professional planners spend years at University studying a craft.
One famous work on creating a good urban neighbourhood is Jane Jacobs 1961 classic, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. She suggested four conditions for a well-designed locality:
1. Every city street or district should serve a variety of functions, so that different people, for different purposes, are using the street at different times of day.
2. City blocks must be short; long blocks produce monotony visually and functionally.
3. Buildings should vary in age and condition, recognizing that visual diversity is also associated with variety in economic activity. This mingling of building types should be close-grained, i.e. without large empty spaces between buildings.
4. Concentrations of population should be reasonably dense, from about 75 to 200 people per acre.
This is just one of many models for creating a good place, and the professionals have spent time studying them. Why should mere people know better? After all, whenever the council arboriculturalists prune or pollard, local residents inevitably complain that they have brutally murdered those trees, even though it’s vital for the healthy growth of the tree. A bit of expertise sometimes helps, actually. Is a bit of planning and urban design expertise any different?
Well, are our professionals doing a good job?
The current developments in the East End of London aren’t very inspiring, with very few honourable exceptions. A multitude of ugly, cheap, badly-designed blocks; bleak spaces and blank walls where they meet the street; local character swept away. I was wandering around City Hall one morning this week, and the celebrated More London development is largely a collection of glass and metal canyons, awful bleak landscaping, and no consideration to what the area is like at a human level. The Bad British Architecture blog has done a fantastic job of cataloguing a few crimes against neighbourhoods and taste. Transport planners in particular are doing a horrendously poor job at creating humane roads, prioritising their own metrics of moving taxis about at top speed.
Will community planning make things better? It could hardly make them worse.
In 1961, Jane Jacobs was writing in reaction to the professional planners of her day: “they have gone to great pains to learn what the saints and sages of modern orthodox planning have said about how cities ought to work and what ought to be good for people and business in them. They take this with such devotion that when contradictory reality intrudes, threatening to shatter their dearly won learning, they must shrug reality aside.”
She praised the natural and chaotic as creating something that works for people, against the Le Corbusier tendency of professional planners of building something they consider formally perfect and demanding that the humans alter themselves to fit the machine.
In many ways I think Prince Charles was right in his recent speech that good design is innate: “in a strange way we operate like bees making a hive and ants making a nest or whatever. The universal pattern is within us. I think that if you look at the way we’ve developed our approach over the last hundred years, we have gone against that intuitive process.” The proper human hive is “A traditional town with little tiny passages, streets and shops”.
For the heir apparent, bad design is a result of “going against the natural human intuitive aspect”. I think that’s what Jane Jacobs was getting at too.
So I’m feeling optimistic about giving people more control over their own habitats. Forget the experts, it’s time to trust the people.