The Financial Times discovers planning history

by Peter Larkham

Social and functional areas being depicted in the London County Plan

Social and functional areas being depicted in the London County Plan

It seems as if the FT’s property correspondent has discovered planning history. On no less than two recent occasions, Kate Allen (2014, 2015) has discussed the contemporary significance of Professor Sir Patrick Abercrombie’s plans for the London region, produced at the invitation of the Ministry for Town Planning in 1943-44 (Forshaw and Abercrombie, 1943; Abercrombie, 1945). Both were full-page features on the front page of the weekend ‘House and Home’ supplement; and the first carried a large full-colour reproduction of the widely-recognised “egg diagram” of social and functional areas in London.

It is very interesting to see such historic documents still being discussed in relation to today’s planning issues, and Kate Allen provides a fascinating argument for why the ‘scale’ and ‘ambition’ of Ambercrombie’s ideas are ripe for re-assessment. On one level, this suggests that planning history can have enduring relevance (or, perhaps, “impact” in today’s academic jargon!). But there are also persistent practical problems with attempting to translate the ideas of Abercrombie and the plans, no matter how well-known, into ‘workable’ solutions. With 70 years of hindsight the plans are flawed, probably inevitably; but quoting Boris Johnson’s “differences with Abercrombie” (Allen, 2014) is not really sufficient. [Read more…]


Can planning’s past tell us about planning’s future?

by Peter J Larkham

Planning has the potential to become a rallying-cry around which people come together to bring diverse and exciting ideas about what their future could be like, and then helps people realise these collective dreams.  But I worry that we have lost the knack of constructively and positively engaging the public in the complex issues of planning.  Perhaps we can look to the past to re-learn a lost art of inspiring enthusiasm and hope through planning.

Routledge is publishing a new series of booksWhen We Build Again book title, reprinting classic texts in town planning with newly-commissioned critical introductions.  My contribution – published on 17 July – focuses on two books about Birmingham: principally the Bournville Village Trust’s When we build again (1941), with Paul Cadbury’s Birmingham – fifty years on (1952).  But why do we revisit these aged texts?  What can we learn from planning history?

It’s commonplace to suggest that we should learn lessons from the past.  On the other hand, perhaps we just make the same mistakes over and over again!  Look at the current furore over the new syllabus for history in secondary schools.  In terms of planning history specifically, the eminent planning historian Tony Sutcliffe said long ago that “does it not reflect [society’s] rejection of a once-proud elite of technocrats, who take refuge in the past from an uncertain present and a gloomy future?” (Sutcliffe, 1981, p. 65).  Sutcliffe’s place for planning history and historians was as “unsettling persons”, evaluating and questioning the past, soberly assessing its “contribution to the long-term development of planning methodology” (Sutcliffe, 1981, p. 67).  Planning history should replace myth in situating ideas within a broad and long-term historical perspective. [Read more…]