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Farrell's fluid and flexible future

Terry Farrell

Sir Terry Farrell discussed the theme of complex cities, at the recent RTPI Commonwealth Lecture, explains Martin Read.

“We are only just starting to understand the enormous complexity of the city," claimed architect Sir Terry Farrell at the recent RTPI Commonwealth Lecture.

The recent recipient of the RTPI Gold Medal chose an interesting theme: ‘City making: the work of many hands’. And it was the idea that cities are essentially their own developmental eco-systems – prone more to organic growth no matter the dictates of planners – that was very much to the fore.

Among the many nuggets was the claim that greater urbanisation leads not to the destruction of the natural environment but, in fact, quite the opposite.

According to Farrell, the combined green space of London’s back gardens contain more ecological richness than an equivalent size park space outside of the capital. “It’s just not true that urbanising automatically leads to a lack of ecological diversity.” he said.

A good thing too, given the vast amount of urbanisation projected for the remainder of this century.

The sheer scale of urbanisation, he suggested, meant that city building was sizing up to be the “biggest industry in the world” for the forseeable future.

The striking thing was how often Farrell characterised planning, and planners, as enablers rather than prime actors; as a profession that would increasingly require its practitioners to be ‘nimble’ and ‘flexible’, not to mention ‘humble’ in their acceptance that city growth is organic by nature, its continuing development “more an imprint of collective behaviour than the work of master planners”.

Farrell also focused in on technology, and pattern-searching in particular, and its likely effect on planning.

In this regard he was joined last month by incoming RTPI CEO Victoria Hills (profile) who believes that planners will benefit from smart city tech to automate much of the process part of the job, thus reclaiming their rightful place as place shapers first and foremost.

"Planners could be left behind of they do not themselves become experts in the technologies they will be using"

If there is a common thread between Farrell and Hills’ tech world view, it’s that both see the potential administrative and process benefits, and both see a ‘window of opportunity’ for planning to seize the initiative.

Farrell worries that with city-making needing to become more “fluid and reactive”, planners could be left behind if they do not themselves become experts in the technologies they will be using.

Planning is far from the only profession for which a lack of future digital nous is seen as existential threat. But it is one of few I can see for which the benefits of seizing said opportunity are so potentially significant.

The challenges involved in sifting ‘big data’ to address the sheer scale of complexity in 21st century city-making are daunting indeed.

Martin Read is the editor of The Planner

Photo | Richard Gleed


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