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22/04/2020

Small is beautiful: Planning for a post-Covid world

Words: Nick Corbett
Green neighbourhood

Is the ‘20-minute neighbourhood’ the solution to the impacts that the coronavirus epidemic is having on our lives? Nick Corbett puts the case for urban villages as a route out of the oppression of lockdown

In the midst of the economic slow-down and dreadful loss of life resulting from coronavirus, we are also seeing nitrogen dioxide clouds lifting; the air smells sweeter, birdsong is louder and rivers look cleaner. 

During this global economic pause, I stood beside a river and watched four otters playing for ten minutes, as close as ten metres from where I stood. I felt alive to the responsibility we have to be good stewards of our environment. 

I also reflected that cultural change follows war or disease and wondered what the implications of the coronavirus crisis might be for planning, design, the natural world and how we live in the future.

Change wrought by crisis

Medieval craftsmanship and the guilds movement flourished after the Black Death pandemic in the 14th century, because workers with skills became highly valued, giving rise to Renaissance art, the pursuit of beauty and urbanism.  

The Arts and Crafts movement and the pursuit of beauty that developed in response to the ravages of industrialisation during the Victorian period influenced the creation of the National Trust and underpinned the aims of the 1909 Planning Act, which sought “… to secure the home healthy, the house beautiful, the town pleasant, the city dignified and the suburb salubrious”. 

It was in response to the horrors of the First World War which started five years later that Lloyd George’s government introduced the 1919 Housing and Town Planning Act, which created Homes for Heroes. The nation’s first council estates were strongly influenced by the Garden City Movement and many of them are still providing decent homes a century on. 

In 1961, at the height of the Cold War and threat of nuclear annihilation, Jane Jacobs, the American economist, published The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which challenged the top-down approach to slum clearance and dispersal of communities, and introduced new principles for city planning with a people-based approach. 

“Jacobs initiated a new urban design movement by explaining how short urban blocks promote walking, a strong sense of place and the growth of small businesses”

Jacobs initiated a new urban design movement by explaining how short urban blocks promote walking, a strong sense of place and the growth of small businesses. She established the idea of an urban village that avoids dullness, regimentation, and segregation – in all its forms - and provides everything you need for life within walking distance. 

Jacobs’ vision was based on her study of Boston’s North End waterfront slum district, in the first half of the twentieth century; a place where the children of immigrants played in the streets and people lived in old, high-density, overcrowded tenements, cheek-by-jowl with industry. 

When she visited the area again in 1959 she was surprised to find it had become prosperous. The overcrowded tenements were converted back to family homes, and the old buildings accommodated many small businesses. It was considered the best place to live in Boston and Jacobs argues it was the built form, old buildings, short blocks and a mix of uses that helped facilitate this.

At the same time as Jacobs was writing, plans were being prepared for the wholesale clearance of the old back-to-back ‘slum’ districts in English cities, including Birmingham and Coventry, to make way for ring roads, segregated traffic routes and segregated land-uses. Inner-city residents were moved to large, suburban housing estates occupied by people of the same social class, where parents were separated from their ‘latch-key’ kids due to the need to commute long distances. 

Following the assassination of US President, John F. Kennedy, in 1963, the US involvement in the Vietnam War escalated and, in all, about 10 million US military personnel were deployed to Asia. In response, many Americans joined the counterculture movement, which started in the US and spread around the Western world. There was growing dissatisfaction with standardisation, globalisation, urban sprawl and the loss of identity.

Post-coronavirus planning policy

The current lockdown has accentuated the benefits of having everything within walking distance of home, and when this does exist, it adds to quality of life. It is historically the lifestyle that villages offered, but could modern housing estates, town centres, office blocks, and even railway stations be retrofitted to provide this, and how might planning policy facilitate it?

 

“The current lockdown has accentuated the benefits of having everything within walking distance of home, and when this does exist, it adds to quality of life”

 

 

 

One solution could be for a new, post-coronavirus, National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) to reflect the vision of Sustrans for 20-minute neighbourhoods, where schools, shops, recreation and work are on your doorstep, streets prioritise people rather than cars, and air pollution becomes a thing of the past.

Sustrans suggests that the government’s £1.7 billion Transforming Cities Fund could assist delivery, together with a ‘use it or lose it’ approach to brownfield land, giving local authorities an option to buy vacant sites at existing use value when this would boost the creation of a 20-minute neighbourhood.

The popular support behind climate crisis response and Extinction Rebellion indicates that many people consider the status quo is no longer sustainable, in a similar way to the counterculture movement of the 1960s. But the desire for change is now mainstream: it includes government and big business. 

Bill Ford, executive chairman of the Ford Motor Company, and great-grandson of Henry Ford, is championing the rebirth of Detroit, ‘Motor City’, by creating a new technology campus - not in an out-of-town business park, but in Michigan Central, one of the greatest railways stations in the United States, built in 1913, in the Beaux Arts style. This massive historic building was derelict after being empty for thirty years but is now being lovingly restored and will be at the heart of a regenerated urban neighbourhood.

The language of the UK government has also changed, with ‘beauty’ becoming the new buzzword, guiding its approach to the built environment as it did a century ago after the First World War.

The final report from the government-appointed Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, entitled Living with Beauty, makes reference to the work of Jane Jacobs, written sixty years ago, and proposes that ‘beautiful placemaking’ be legally enshrined as an aim of the planning system, embedded into the NPPF alongside the concept of sustainable development. 

Beauty remains a difficult word for public policy because it is vague and imprecise, but it has been intentionally chosen to try to grasp something that we have lost, especially in relation to our built environment.

 

"The popular support behind climate crisis response and Extinction Rebellion indicates that many people consider the status quo is no longer sustainable"

 

 

 

During the coronavirus crisis, families have been together, and lonely pensioners have applauded the NHS and key workers with neighbours they last spoke to several years ago. Roads that were barriers have become play spaces and some people have discovered a new sense of community and a reconnection with nature that they don’t want to lose. 

The buildings we already have represent a massive carbon store and investing in them and adapting them, and recognising their potential beauty, rather than wholesale clearance, will be essential if carbon emissions are to reach net zero by 2050. 

The genie is out of the bottle. The situation we currently find ourselves in means we have learnt to use homeworking technology and can see the benefit of having everything within walking distance. 

Out of this coronavirus crisis may come a new approach to planning which is more considerate to our children, nature, our heritage of existing buildings, and to how people really want to live. It is something we should embrace with open arms and minds.

Nick Corbett is associate director at WSP | Indigo, specialising in heritage and placemaking

Images | iStock, Shutterstock

 

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