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07/08/2019

Was Nostradamus really a town planner?

Like Nostradamus, planners are compelled to predict the future. But how accurate have their predictions been over the last 50 years; and how accurate will Louise Brooke-Smith's prove over the next 50?

How many of us regularly read horoscopes and feel that the predictions really do come true? Or do we simply try to make events fit the predictions? Michel de Nostredame, the C16th French astrologer, might have foreseen the future, or might have simply been rather vague in his phraseology. Either way, predictions and crystal ball-gazing have preoccupied many of us for centuries.

It would be fabulous to accurately predict the future. It would save so much time, energy and expense to be able to plan for future needs, anticipate new technology, have a skilled workforce in place and have all relevant regulations prepared in advance. But the best we can do is make intelligent guesses.

What did the great and good of the planning world anticipate 50 years ago? And did we take their soothsaying seriously? The 1960s saw an economic boom in much of the West. But China was still gripped by Mao Tse Tung and there was war in Vietnam. Much of Africa, though, was waking up to independence.

In the UK a building boom was turning bomb sites into new communities, the skyline was punching up to new heights. The baby boom era was taking hold. Comprehensive education was replacing the 11-plus, families started to have their own telephones, and slum clearances were seen as the answer to poor health and inadequate sanitation.

These paved the way for a national roll-out of Le Corbusier’s dream. UK cities saw new suburban estates and tower blocks rise up – Sheffield’s Hyde Park flats were state of the art.

Computerisation was in its infancy but was driving new industry, with manufacturing booming. Beeching cuts axed unproductive rail lines, air travel became more popular and motorways were seen as the panacea. New towns were springing up and planned retail centres such as in Coventry provided an award-winning model for others to follow.

Fifty years on, many of those tower blocks, retail centres and settlements are still serving their communities. Most have had a makeover, but fundamentally they continue to serve a role. The intervening years have seen few periods as aspirational or build programmes as successful or far-reaching. There has been more of a ‘make do and mend’ approach in terms of housing stock and infrastructure.

Rarely since the end of the 1960s has the built environment sector had to, en masse, call for a radical rethink in what we need to build, where to build it, how to build it and how to travel between the things we build.

“It’s not just the housing pressures that have become acute; it’s the nature and location of our retail areas”

But that is what’s happening now. It’s not just the housing pressures that have become acute; it’s the nature and location of our retail areas, it’s a global response to climate change and it’s an awareness that digital technological change is happening quickly. We either embrace it or risk being left behind.

Within the next 10 years all forms of ‘polluting activity’ or anything that has more than a zero-carbon impact are likely to be outlawed and that will affect not only how we will travel but also how we will construct.

Sharing and renting will become the norm, rather than owning a ‘private’ vehicle or home. Transport for people or for goods will be by electric powered autonomous vehicles and drones. Modular build will address housing needs. Digital technology and 5G will have had a big impact on data transference. But by 2030, we are likely to have moved on to the next configuration anyway and so the means of connectivity between locations will be even more effective.

Did Nostradamus see this? I’m sure someone will be able to translate his references to fit. Meanwhile, the Women’s Weekly horoscope for next week simply reads: “A blond leader will arrive on a zip wire advocating a brave new world”. Read into that what you will. 

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

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