Wednesday, 23 January 2013

The future of cities

To the Gallery at Cowcross Street for an evening of thought-provoking talks, organised by Farrar Huxley Associates, on ‘The future of cities’. 

They brought home just how useless we are at ‘planning’ (in the sense found in the dictionary, rather than the rather different sense we all use when we are down at the council planning department).

Ken Webster of the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, Kayla Friedman, and ‘rational optimist’ Kelvin Campbell of the Smart Urbanism Alliance presented a series of challenges at difference scales of time and space that all posed questions of ‘top down vs. bottom up’ in planning for the future of the city.

Two contrasting big topics that stuck in the memory after the event were:

·         Global energy supplies will run out and no one is getting to grips with it (the scary scenarios are presented in David Mackay’s Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air).  The Ellen MacArthur Foundation promotes the Circular Economy as one way out.

·         Big urban design /masterplanning is dead and incremental, bottom up intervention is the answer for the age of austerity.  

While I might just buy buy Kelvin Campbell’s examples of self-organising squatter settlements as good bottom-up models (though Prince Charles’ support for them makes me suspicious), I don’t buy the extension of this line of thought closer to home to suggest that the unplanned, unregulated ‘beds in sheds’ bottom-of-garden homes that have sprung up in tens of thousands in outer London locations far from the chattering classes such as Barking and Southall, might be just as admirable a model.

Planning in its origins was meant to address basic needs and problems – public health, sanitation, decent homes, not living next to a glue factory or a car breakers etc.  Once those basic problems were more or less sorted, we got mission creep, and ended up with a system that opines on what your windows will look like.  Similarly, since no one knocks down nice old buildings any more, conservationists move on to stopping people building new things near nice old buildings.

The effort put in to ‘planning’ (starting with the Government, who are the really important planning authority) is inversely proportional to how much things actually matter. Very little effort into securing future energy supplies so that our grandchildren do not end up like extras in ‘The Road’; middling effort into checking whether people are being housed in homes fit to live in; and lots of effort into stopping developers building (at a time of housing shortage) new homes that are a few metres higher than the neighbours would like to see.

I did, however, very much buy Kelvin Campbell’s maxim ‘incentivise the fine grain’ – that really would be a useful task for the planners.