Why is Britain so bad at planning cities?
From cul-de-sacs to retail parks, Britain’s planning rules cause environments that are bewildering, illogical and ugly. We have forgotten that urban areas are grown
Here is something you might try if you live in Britain. Go to your favourite urban place, whether it be the centre of a large city or a small market town. Close your eyes, turn around three times and walk in that direction for 15 minutes (or an hour if you’re in London). I can predict with a reasonable degree of confidence that the place where you end up will be crap.
You may be stuck in the no-man’s-land around the ring road, or in a brutally functional industrial estate, or among the endless rows of parked cars in a retail park, or lost in a tangle of suburban cul-de-sacs. Wherever you are, the environment will generally be bewildering, illogical and ugly.
Planning has gone too far. It has dissolved the pattern of the traditional town
It is likely that your favourite place, where you started, was built before 1947 – quite possibly long before – and the place you ended up has been created since. This is not an argument against modern architecture. I love modern architecture and, with the possible exception of the council estate, it can’t be blamed for the problems of the place where you are now standing.
Town planning is a different story. My reason for choosing 1947 is that it was the date our modern planning system was conceived, the result of the Town and Country Planning Act – part of a raft of postwar legislation to, among other things, establish the NHS, set up the welfare state and tackle the problems of our cities: chiefly congestion, slums and pollution. It is a sad indictment of this system that most of the places it has created have been a disappointment. They may be healthier, safer and more efficient – but they lack the character, diversity and human scale of a city street, market town or village.
We can’t blame designers for this, because the reality is that most of these suburban estates, retail parks and highways schemes were never really designed at all. They are the unwitting result of a set of planning rules that have led to a result no one foresaw.
Most of the rules were well-intentioned. They were designed to stop us getting killed by cars while allowing traffic to flow, to improve the quality of our environment and give us access to green space, to separate housing from polluting industry, to make business more efficient, to encourage light and healthy housing, and to give places for our children to play. All worthy aspirations, and all the responsibility of different professionals who have likely done a good job in their particular area of responsibility. It is just that no one has been looking at the bigger picture, at what sort of environment is created by the combined effect of all of these well-meaning rules.
Take the late 20th-century housing estates which encircle most of our towns and cities, and of which the sprawling Bradley Stoke district of Bristol is perhaps the most infamous example. These were largely the result of rules set out in the innocuous-sounding Design Bulletin 32 from 1977. Design Bulletin 32 stipulated, for example, that all new estates should have a hierarchy of roads, or that houses could only front on to the most minor roads. Mix in rules about every house having two off-street parking spaces, privacy distances between windows and the complex arrangements for ongoing maintenance, and hey presto: you get the cul-de-sac.
In the early 2000s, government did try to reform Design Bulletin 32, first publishing a companion guide called Places, Streets and Movement, and then a new version called Manual for Streets in 2007. But research last year by the Urban Design Group showed that fewer than 20% of highways authorities had updated their guidance.
I don’t deny that many people like suburbs. But it is undeniable that the UK suburb – a tree with cul-de-sacs branching off the stem, unconnected to each other – is confusing, makes walking inconvenient and unpleasant, suffocates local shops and makes public transport unviable.
Contrast this to that favourite urban place of yours, where we started. Its spaces are likely to be human in scale, with walkable streets that connect to each other and make it easy to get around. It is probably quite busy, supporting all manner of shops, bars and restaurants. It is made up of lots of different buildings, many of which are not particularly interesting in themselves but frame streets and spaces that are a pleasure to be in. Some of this may have been “designed”, but there are many attractive urban places that never were. The Academy of Urbanism gives out awards for these good urban spaces each year: last year, the shortlist included places as diverse as Barnsley, Chelmsford, Paisley, Kelham Island in Sheffield and Hackney Wick in London. These are not pretty or quaint, but they have a satisfying, self-organised urbanity that we humans used to be pretty good at.
In Britain, any piece of land left undisturbed will first be colonised by small plants, then shrubs and then trees. After a hundred or so years, it will become mature broadleaf woodland – and, having reached that steady state, will remain that way for ever – a state known as “climax vegetation”.
Do human societies go through a similar process when building cities? People come together to live in a particular place, negotiate their relationship to each other, build homes and businesses that combine to create streets and squares that are just the right size to accommodate urban life. We might call this climax urbanism.
In the 1960s the great urbanist Edmund Bacon, describing the Umbria hill town of Todi in Italy, wrote:
The collective mind of the citizens … must have conceived the space volumes of the two squares as abstract entities, and then brought them into being by the construction of individual buildings over many years.
It is a process that can be seen at work in Syrian refugee camps in Jordan, as documented by Husam Alwaer at Dundee University. In the Zaatari camp, residents have invented a contraption with wheels that allows them to rearrange their UN-provided cabins. What started as regimented rows of cabins has gradually been reconfigured into family groupings, with those cabins on the “main street” turned into shops, so the result is not unlike a traditional Syrian town. The same process can be seen in Indian slums, which, despite their often dreadful living conditions, could be seen as a form of proto-urbanism: they may be built out of corrugated sheeting and tarpaulin, but their function and form is not so different from a historic Indian city such as Jodhpur.
Read more at the main source now – THE GUARDIAN