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01/03/2014

What would architect planner Abercrombie do today?

 Blitz aftermath 1941 © National Archives and Records Administration

Sir Patrick Abercrombie is celebrated for his radical plans that transformed post-Second World War London. Kate Dobinson listens in to how his lessons can be applied in the 
21st century

What would Abercrombie do in 2014? It was the question that an expert panel picked apart in the basement of the New London Architecture Building Centre in February. 
 
Published in 1944, Abercrombie’s Greater London Plan set out a vision for London’s future development, espousing the benefits of a planned city to deal with its growing population. 
 
Stuart Murray, GLA assistant director for planning, reminded us that by 2030 London could become Europe’s first Mega City, and it hit home that strategic planning is just as relevant now as 1944.
 
Abercrombie would suggest that you need an even bigger, bolder plan, reckoned Sir Peter Hall, professor of planning and urban design at The Bartlett School of Planning. 
 
But he would not cope well with the reality that another 1.5 million people are expected in London in the next 20 years, said Hall. 
 
“He wouldn’t have understood what was happening to London because he followed the principle that the density had to be kept controlled in order to maintain the kind of traditional city that London had always been – a low-density city."
 
But the vision behind the Olympic City – an integrated “lifetime neighbourhood”, has improved on standard of housing densities, said Kathryn Firth, chief of design for the Olympic Legacy Company.
 
Lea Valley, one of Abercrombie’s original "green wedges", was his greatest legacy as it gave people the access to nature he had envisioned, said Steven Wilkinson, head of planning and strategic partnerships for the Lee Valley Regional Park Authority.
 
In fact, Abercrombie would think that the first thing we should do is environment, whatever guise that takes, said Marc Stringa, principal at AECOM Design and Planning. “If we’re not considering the context what is the outcome of what we do? Plans need to clearly conceptualise context of the city.” 
 
John Letherland, a Farrells partner, spoke on behalf of Sir Terry Farrell. “I didn’t realise I was coming to the Abercrombie fan club evening so I might offer a slightly different view,” he quipped. Abercrombie did, after all, advocate the idea of an eight-lane Camden motorway, he added. 
 
But big problems need big solutions, said Letherland, and he was keen to preview Farrell and Partners’ latest vision for London – incremental extensions of the city around regional “transport corridors” separated by “green lungs”.
But what was it about Abercrombie himself that made his plans special? The essence of the Abercrombie vision depended on his abilities as an architect planner and “that was part of his brilliance”, said Bartlett. 
 
“This is a trait that we have very largely lost in this country and to our detriment,” he said. 

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