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…]


Good plan: Birmingham built environment research climbs University league tables

rufopolyResearch from the Birmingham School of the Built Environment (BSBE) at Birmingham City University has made significant progress in University rankings published today.

Academics who were submitted to the Architecture, Built Environment and Planning panel have moved from the bottom quartile to the middle rank of planning schools in the UK, according to results published today as part of the Government’s Research Excellence Framework (REF), which is used to distribute funding to the best Universities. The group increased the number of publications graded as internationally significant or leading (3 or 4 out of 4 stars) rose from from 25% in the last assessment to 65% today.

One of the highlights of the School’s submission was a 3 star impact case study about the creation of new markets to enable companies to pay for restoring damaged peat bogs in return for the carbon that is saved. The Government launched a pilot UK Peatland Code last year based on this work in collaboration with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, and water companies now regularly restore peat bogs to reduce water treatment costs. Also featured in the submission was a board game called “Rufopoly”, designed to raise awareness and support decisions in rural areas under pressure from housing development around cities. The training game has just received additional funding from the Government’s Economic and Social Research Council, and has now been played by policy-makers, businesses, voluntary bodies and schools across the UK, Sweden and the USA. Professors Mark Reed and Alister Scott who led the development of these case studies, also played a major role in the follow-up to the Government’s National Ecosystem Assessment, providing policy-makers and practitioners with tools to better take account of nature in their decisions, including the cultural values that communities share for the natural environment. Prof David Edwards from BSBE was also part of a highly scoring submission from the Business School, which included a 3-4 star impact case study based on his work on improving the health and safety of vibrating plant machinery.

Professor Peter Larkham, the School’s Associate Head (Research), welcomed this clear and externally-accredited evidence of the high quality and impact of their research in planning and the environment:

“This is a tremendous endorsement of our achievements in producing high-quality research which not only influences national and local government policy, and helps other agencies and property developers, but it demonstrates that our undergraduate and Masters courses are up-to-date, underpinned by the best research”.


National Planning Policy Framework School Report: 48% – Could do much better

by Alister Scott

Quote for Blog 24The media is alive with the sound of planning policy again as the Communities and Local Government Select Committee publishes its report looking into the operation and impact of the National Policy Planning Framework. Using some of the key headlines from the report, I offer my preliminary assessment.

We should ensure that the same weight is given to the environmental and social as to the economic dimension

Economic considerations continue to trump environmental and social matters in decision making through our fetish for economic growth. In particular, the assessment of viability in the NPPF has been too heavily weighted in the developer interest. The lack of transparency in these assessments is a matter of concern as brownfield-first policies and affordability housing quotas can easily be bypassed. It is also equally important to consider environmental and social limits in such decisions where the concepts of natural and social capital provide useful tools for decision making. [Read more…]


Planning Processes for Sustainable Urban Form

by Peter Larkham

I am writing from a small but international and interdisciplinary meeting at the Swedish School of Planning, part of the Blekinge Tekniska Hogskola, in Karlskrona.  Sustainable urban form is, of course, a contemporary professional and political ideal: but what is it and how do we achieve it, especially in existing settlements?  This event draws together eminent keynote speakers, PhD students and new researchers, and the School’s Advisory Board.

Quote Blog 16The first keynote was from Simin Davoudi (University of Newcastle, UK): on ‘cities and energy consumption: rational or habitual?’  An important point because without sustainable cities there will be no sustainable world; but cities are such a plural, variable, phenomenon.  Urban form determines sustainability to a great extent, for example levels of transport-related greenhouse emissions, and building energy efficiency is also significant.  So how do we change users’ behaviour; indeed what constitutes ‘behaviour’?  Compare Atlanta and Barcelona, two cities of the same population but covering 4280 km2 and 162 km2 respectively, with per capita CO2 emissions 10x greater in the former in part because of the need to travel owing to the low-density urban form.  A US model of ‘sprawl’ is still being followed, especially in Asia.  China’s building rate is frightening in terms of sustainability: it builds the equivalent of Rome every 2 weeks. Simin explores how decisions are ACTUALLY made with respect to urban form and use.  Remember that the rational economic model hardly matches the messy and irrational decision-making of real life.  So for more sustainable cities, technical and structural change is important but insufficient.  She argues that behaviour change, perhaps radical, is also needed, at the level of individuals and institutions.

[Read more…]