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Isn’t that what everyone does?


We make the mistake of assuming the British system is the best or only way to conduct planning at our peril, warns David Rudlin

A few years ago the Academy of Urbanism had a frustrating conversation with Douglas Gordon, a Scot who is Helsinki’s chief planner. We were discussing the redevelopment of the city’s docks and he couldn’t understand why we were asking such stupid questions. “How do you ensure developers follow the plan?” “How do you secure quality?” “How do you make sure that everyone does what they promise to do?”

The answer in Helsinki is that the city draws up the masterplan, puts in the roads, divides the land into plots and then leases them to developers, using leasehold powers to control what happens. Isn’t this what everyone does? The answer, of course, is that in most of the world and throughout most of history, yes – this is how cities are planned.

A similar discussion could be had about planning systems. In France, 60 per cent of planning decisions involve no discretion; the zoning ordinances have the force of law and are not up for debate. The job of planners is to check development against these ordinances. In many places planning is not even a profession.

Again, a French planner would ask: “Isn’t this how everyone does it?” And the answer would be, yes – in most parts of the world and throughout most of history (including the US). It’s just the modern planning system in the UK (and those places that have adopted our model) that is different.

My new book, co-written with Shruti Hemani, Climax City: Masterplanning and the Complexity of Urban Growth explores these issues. It is based on the idea that cities are complex self-organising systems that, left to their own devices, will develop into a ‘climax state’ (just as each part of the world has its climax vegetation).

“We definitely need to plan; the question is how?”

It’s a process has given us some of the world’s most beautiful cities. But it has also given us slums and sprawl. We definitely need to plan; the question is how?

The leasehold controls of Helsinki and the zoning ordinances of France do this by using a small number of rules to set the parameters of the system. Calibrate these rules one way and you get Paris; remove the height restriction and you get Manhattan. The rules create a fixed frame within which a city is able to self-organise.

By contrast, in the British system we are forever drawing up end-state plans, most of which are never built.

Our system focuses on the destination rather than the journey and, at every stage of that journey, we debate and consult on where we are going. Our system is arguably more democratic and inclusive; it is flexible; and it certainly keeps a lot of planners in work.

What cannot be said is that it produces better results. In Climax City we say there is an art to the way that cities have been planned across the world and we need to rediscover something of this to reform the system in the UK.

David Rudlin is a director of urban design cooperative URBED and chair of the Academy of Urbanism

Image credit | Shutterstock




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