The planning white paper could be just what our towns have been waiting for

Copenhagen

A return to pro-active planning would be welcome, writes Roger Evans. But it won’t be quick or cheap

Towns have always been planned to some extent, from the medieval burgage plots in market towns to L’Enfant’s Parisian boulevards. Town planning emerged as a profession in England in the early 20th century partly due to lobbying by architects and environmentalists to better plan the built environment. Initiatives such as the new towns were concerned with spatial planning and how physical form could improve social and economic life-chances for everyone.

Responsibility for planning was taken by local authorities where the custodian for the physical fabric of towns and city quarters was often the city architect or planner. That post has largely disappeared but is still a key appointment in some of the most attractive world cities such as Copenhagen, where the post of “city architect” continues, and Melbourne where architect and urban designer Rob Adams has over several decades guided a renaissance as director of city design.

Here, town planning via the production of local development plans has become a spreadsheet-driven exercise where a “call for sites” leads to blobs on the local plan where there are fewest objections and design considerations are largely postponed to the planning application stage. Unfortunately, the most important design decisions are unwittingly taken by this process. Many such sites are poorly connected and rely on the use of private cars as highlighted in research by Transport for New Homes. The resulting layouts hold little prospect for such estates to grow into themselves as thriving urban areas. Matthew Carmona at UCL published research last January which found that new housing design in England is overwhelmingly “mediocre” or “poor”.

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