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02/04/2020

Valuing values should be the talk of the town

What can Judy Garland teach us about good planning? Louise Brooke-Smith explains...

My mum told me about a show she and dad saw just before I was born. It was Judy Garland at London’s Talk of the Town. She went on to say how sad it was to see her clearly struggling and at the end of her career. That stuck with me.

Anyone who has seen Renee Zellweger in her Oscar-winning performance in Judy will perhaps understand. I certainly found Judy to be a desperately sad character, a product of a challenging and constraining environment. In her case it was the Hollywood bubble and the manipulation of a money-grabbing industry that inevitably took its toll.

Sometimes no matter what career you take or what stage you reach, the pressure can show and you can’t paper over the cracks. The good news is that it’s OK not to have to pretend. Being honest about mental health isn’t quite a badge of honour to illustrate the scars of a challenging career, but it’s coming close and that’s no bad thing.

What has this got to do with planning? It’s all about environment –how we plan for a positive environment then create it, manage it and invest in it. Health and wellbeing are the current buzzwords and the links to physical and mental health are rightly being held up to be of paramount importance. After all, if we continue to plan, design and then end up building an environment that results in damaging our society – physically or mentally – we should be called to account.

Some investors are beginning to call it out. US management consultant McKinsey isn’t the only commentator reporting that the money markets are recognising more than just the bottom line. They are valuing ESG (environmental, social, and corporate governance) and true social value that is more that just the easy box-ticking exercise. Organisations across the property, land use and construction sector are seeing investors support them for ‘doing the right thing’ and being true to their values rather than always following the money.

“There seems to be a genuine push to do the right thing”

It’s as if there’s a perfect meal of embedded sustainability with a sautéed appreciation of quality design, accompanied by side orders of innovation, inclusivity and ethics. It’s a healthy diet of clever architecture, practical and effective landscaping and infrastructure that actually does what its meant to do. It doesn’t come cheap, especially if you add HS2 to the mix, but there seems to be a genuine push to do the right thing and really plan for people.

Nor is it at the expense of profit, as Blackrock and L&G are showing.

If we adopt a healthy and ethical approach to planning and design policy that results in attractive, sustainable, practical, affordable and liveable places that have a positive impact on our community’s physical and mental wellbeing then, as built environment professionals, we will have hit the jackpot.

Like me, you may have attended those well-meaning conferences with articulate and persuasive speakers. Sometimes it can be hard to move forward with effective and innovative land-use planning strategy when we hit the desk and realise that politics or lack of money or incompetence get in the way. But the time has for us to get on and do the right thing and put our values at the forefront.

As Judy and many others have shown, we are influenced by our environment. If those environments are challenging, unimaginative, socially divisive and bleak then the human spirit can understandably end up damaged. But if we can encourage invigorating environments that support the human spirit we can create fabulous stages for some incredible performances.  

Dr Louise Brooke-Smith is a development and strategic planning consultant and a built environment non-executive director

Illustration | Zara Picken

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