8. Still Seeking an Urban Renaissance

So New Labour goes on, as, one assumes, will the Sustainable Communities agenda, the reformed planning system, the Academy for Sustainable Communities (national skills centre), the liveability agenda, and CABE.  All of these have changed and/or are changing the way the built environment is shaped in England.  As election issues, however, the concerns they represent largely failed to register on the national consciousness.

So is everything rosy in the garden?  Clearly not if the regular polling of MORI is to be believed, which consistently identifies dissatisfaction with the local environment as high amongst the issues that most vex local communities.  Lord Rogers also clearly has his doubts if rumours are correct that he is attempting to re-form the Urban Task Force to consider how to move the urban renaissance agenda on once more.

With this in mind, here is a pre-emptive strike to try and establish what alternatives exist to help place the delivery of urban quality centre-stage across the range of processes that continue to shape our built environment, and that will be central to delivering an urban renaissance:

  1. Start with urbanism: Beginning with how we educate our built environment professionals, a critique that many have voiced is why do we start the education process by indoctrinating students in the narrow pre-occupations and biases of their future deep specialisms – architecture, planning, property, and so forth. Other professions do it differently; lawyers are trained to understand the basis of tort and common law before specialising in, for example, criminal or matrimonial law. For their part, doctors need to understand the basics of physiology and bio-chemistry before embarking on a specialisation – GPs to brain surgeons.  So why within the built environment is the bit that unites us all – the urbanism – so often taught as an afterthought, a postgraduate specialism, or not at all.  Such an approach shuts the door once the horse has bolted.  If we are to understand how we all contribute to a greater whole, we need to radically rethink and reverse our educational process.
  1. Focus on the public realm: Our education only exacerbates the blinkered approach that we take from then on to the built environment, focussing on elements of the built environment and rarely on the connective tissue between them. The impact is felt most acutely in the parts of the built environment in which we all have a stake, but for which everyone and no one is responsible – the range of public spaces that constitute the public realm. Better education may (in time) help professionals to consider how their individual interventions have an impact beyond the scale of the individual site, what Christopher Alexander long ago described as ‘healing the city’.  Unfortunately, the way that local government is structured frequently only acts to exacerbate the problems, with responsibility for different parts of the environment split between different departments (i.e. parks and leisure, street management, and environmental health), or even between different tiers of local government (i.e. transport & highways and spatial planning).  All intervention in the built environment should be coordinated by one authority – the Public Space Authority – with a holistic responsibility for all parts of the public realm.  Such an authority could be given a clear statutory duty; namely, through all its functions to enhance the quality and liveability of public space and encourage sustainable patterns of life.
  1. Instigate systematic urban design review: One key responsibility of such an authority might be for urban design review. Increasingly design has featured as a serious and significant dimension of the planning remit – at least in national policy. Yet planning authorities are rarely equipped to deal satisfactorily with design and invariably other short-term objectives come to dominate decision-making.  The answer might be found in the introduction of urban design review panels in all local authorities, independent of, but feeding into the deliberations of planning committees.  Many American communities have opted for such a system, often with powers and responsibilities that exist quite separate from those of the planning authority; essentially to guide, review and approve (or not) the quality of design in development proposals.  The key benefit is that design quality is automatically and consistently prioritised for all development proposals – everywhere – and the process is, by necessity, appropriately skilled (often utilising external advisors) in order to deliver informed and consistent decisions on design.  In the UK, the design decision-making infrastructure needs a radical injection of legitimacy.  With a particular focus on urban design, and incorporating all public investment and highways matters within its remit, as well as private development, this may provide a way.
  1. Rethink our approach to conservation: It is legitimate to ask why conservation areas get a first class service, and everywhere else (and those who live there) get a second class one? Conservation has effectively developed into a regulatory system of its own that overlays the system of planning.  In an environment where government guidance tells us that high quality, contextually sensitive design is – or should be – prioritised ‘everywhere’, why do we need so many conservation areas, with all the inequalities that their use implies?  Inevitably there will be the exceptional places that require preservation in their entirety; protection akin to that given to listed buildings.  But with these exceptions aside, everywhere else – down at heal 1970s council estate to Victorian suburb or town centre – deserves the same high quality design borne out of a careful understanding of, and response to, the strengths and weaknesses of the existing context.  Abandoning the vast majority of conservation areas, and the system that goes with them, will have the added benefit that the highly skilled conservation officers who currently dedicate their time to the preservation of these already high quality areas, could be freed up to help fill the skills and quality gap elsewhere; perhaps even through urban design review.
  1. A massive investment in skills: Rethinking conservation could help to deliver design skills into other areas of the public sector, particularly planning, but the pool of such people is small, and an injection of new skills is required of an order that the Academy for Sustainable Communities has its work cut out to deliver. As the market seems to be failing to attract enough people of the right calibre into the built environment professions, the investment may instead need to come from Central Government, and over a sustained period of time. The latter will allow the providers of education to develop their capacity secure in the knowledge that the investment is not just a short-term bubble.  The Planning Delivery Grant represents a case-in-point.  This valuable and very welcome initiative has greatly increased demand for postgraduate planning education, but the providers in some parts of the country do not currently have the capacity to meet the demand.  Such capacity is difficult to turn on and off like a tap, but is essential if the skills gap is to be closed in a manner that is sustainable.  The built environment is a fundamental ‘public good’.  Just like it has been doing for schools or the health service, the Government needs to invest in the skills that are required to guarantee its future quality.
  1. Support research and development: A related necessity that will also help to cross-fund the educational capacity required in the universities, but which addresses another profound imperative, is the need to invest in developing a serious research and development capacity for the sector. CABE’s report ‘The Real Budget for Research’ dramatically revealed that in a sector worth somewhere between 5 to 10% of UK GDP annually, the combined investment in research and development from the top ten funders is a pitiful £50-55 million, most of which in one form or another is focused on the construction process and technology, rather than on wider development processes or built environment outcomes. The implications are huge and include a construction sector that has barely moved out of the dark ages (with unsustainable building technologies to match), but perhaps more importantly, a policy and practice landscape driven too often by fashion and unsubstantiated hearsay, with little serious evidential base.  Long-term well-funded research programmes are required, funded both by industry and by Government.  A dedicated built environment research council may be one means to overcome the eternal problem that built environment research too often falls between the gaps.  Given the universal impact of the built environment on health, wealth and wellbeing, it is astounding how little we actually understand it and the processes through which it is shaped.
  1. Give spatial planning a chance – but subsume community strategies: This point supports what has already been happening in England, namely the introduction of effectively a new system of plan-making. However, given the time it took to bed the last system of plan-making down (at least a decade), one can not help worrying that the patience of Ministers will quickly wear thin. This is doubly so given constant rumours that the implications of a more holistic ‘spatial’ approach to planning that ties up different policy fields through a spatial overlay is poorly understood at the coalface and continues to be under-resourced.  Nevertheless, in its essence, the system of spatial planning tries to deliver exactly the sort of integrated approach to the built environment that the rest of this article is advocating – long may that last.  The other side of the coin is that – if done properly – spatial planning should deliver the sort of joined-up community visioning process that Community Strategies have been put in place to deliver; although in this case with a clear spatial overlay and statutory process of delivery.  Perhaps it is time to abandon the community strategy process, and instead to direct the freed up resources and energies of the Local Strategic Partnerships that have been put in place to deliver them, into the new spatial planning process.  The latter desperately needs it if it is to deliver (particularly on the Government’s community engagement aspirations), whilst the former have largely failed to ignite either vision or widespread community commitment to the process.
  1. Abandon development control: The system of development control, on the other hand, has been hardly touched by the planning reforms, and a further radical review may be required in order to move beyond the discredited regulatory mindset. The RTPI (amongst others) has argued the case for ‘development management’, through which planners would provide a more enabling, rather than controlling service. This would require planners to look beyond planning permission as their only lever with which to influence development, and instead to utilise the full range of local government powers to guide, incentivise, and (only then) control development.  Such a system might finally move planning back towards the public sector activity that sixty years ago it was originally intended to be – a system of delivery and investment (public and private), and not just of regulation and control.  Involving Local Strategic Partnerships fully in the spatial planning process, and utilising local government’s new ‘Well-being’ powers to the full, might provide the tools and resources to make this possible.  Planning reform is still unfinished business.  A fundamental reform of development control of a type that we have seen for development plans, should be an early Government priority.
  1. Merge our professional institutes: Returning to where these proposals began – with the theme of urbanism – our failure to create high quality urban environments has often been put down to what others have characterised ‘the great alibi’, or the carving up of responsibility for the built environment into a series of self-contained specialist professions; each blaming each other when our individual efforts fail to come together into a greater whole. Perhaps it is time to abandon our professional closed shops altogether in favour of one Institute of Urbanism. Such an institute could have a simple objective at its heart; not the protection of its members interests, but the delivery of a high quality, sustainable, built environment.  Members would be viewed as urbanists first and foremost, some of which would just happen to specialise in buildings, some in landscapes, some in highways, and so forth.  We all need to talk to and understand each other far more and condemn each other far less.  This might set the context for such a dialogue.

Looking at the landscape for urban quality today, one can’t help concluding that this government has made all the right noises, and in recent years, many of the right moves.  In so doing, it has decisively moved the built environment agenda forward.  Equally, there is still a long way to go, and some more radical thinking may be required in this third New Labour term.  Unfortunately, none of the above will deliver quick wins, but instead will require long-term political commitment if we are to stop seeking and over time deliver the much vaunted design-led urban renaissance.

Matthew Carmona

Professor of Planning & Urban Design

The Bartlett School of Planning, UCL


June 2005