Is a new era dawning for urban design and planning? Don’t bank on it just yet

I have read with great interest the thoughts of those urban designers, planners and other built environment professionals who have been writing about the types of places we would like to help create, post-pandemic. It would be hard to disagree with the wisdom expressed, formed as it is over years of observing and understanding how great places are crafted by many players to successfully set the scene for vibrant urban life in all its guises.

Of course, we need attractive streets with more space for pedestrians and cyclists. Certainly, we need much better urban air quality, and the type of world class public transport system that deregulation cannot provide us with. We need better space standards to prevent overcrowding and we want flexible accommodation so we can easily work from home. We need more housing choice to better fit with different household requirements. We need gardens, safe parks and space for nature, as well as local high streets selling fresh produce at the centre of walkable neighbourhoods. And we need these things to be detailed so that they are beautiful, promote our sense of wellbeing and regional diversity, and are available to everyone.

None of this is new to us. We have been promoting these sensible principles for decades and sometimes, when land values support it, and when developers are able to take a long-term approach to returns, great places are made. But too often we end up with mediocrity. We are as familiar with the images of very poor peripheral housing estates as we are with photos of best practice places. The responsibility for poor places is not attributable to any single sector of our industry, but a culmination of several factors including a focus away from planning for people, a point so eloquently highlighted in the TCPA’s Raynsford Review of 2018.

So, what makes us believe now, when the greatest recession for centuries is looming, that we are about to enter the sunlit uplands of widespread, exemplary development? In spite of its commitment to the recommendations of Living with Beauty (beauty by whose standards?) Government will be keener than ever to ensure there are no impediments to the construction industry’s remobilisation, because this is a tried and tested way to reboot the economy and up GDP. This seems inevitable when investment in land and property continues to be highly lucrative for those who can afford to participate on some level. I read recently that 85% of all stock of British bank lending, which totals £1.7tn, is on real estate (as opposed to say business lending).

In short, whilst I agree that we need a transformational change in the way towns and cities are built, we are unlikely to see radical change in many of the proposals coming forward. But this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be learning from this unique situation. We have witnessed a shift in the nation’s psyche, and we need to carry this forward as evidence of a deep-rooted desire for a different type of society, occupying a different sort of place. Armed with this, urban designers and planners are well placed to lend weight to a coordinated campaign for changes to public policy so that success is measured not by the financial uplift in the value of property, but by a different outcome of the whole planning, design and development process, one in which everyone has a decent place to call home in a part of a town or city that is safe, clean, beautiful and more equitable.

I hope that practitioners and academics continue to write their optimistic articles and papers, because they demonstrate a strong consensus about best practice in urban design and planning. But can we also recognise that our knowledge and skills are of critical importance to the wider national debate about how we rebuild Britain in a post-pandemic time. It’s time for built environment professionals to project our thoughts beyond our immediate and converted audience, and to call on our representative bodies and institutions to join together in leading a campaign to reassert the core values and principles that motivated us to choose this career path. This campaign needs to be dynamic, noisy and unapologetic, and we need to get behind it with unparalleled enthusiasm.