Cities are good for us

6th Aug 2015

Andrew Wood, our Planning Officer, recently attended two Royal Town Planning Institute events. This is his take on them both:

"At the first, I was invited to speak on the theme ‘Economic Growth – Are We Ready?’ The other speakers were focusing on ‘city’ issues, such as real estate markets, competitiveness, HS2 and city-region governance, and it was pointed out that 90% of all new jobs are created in our cities – leaving just 10% to come from ‘non-cities’, i.e. smaller towns and the countryside. What, then, could CPRE contribute to this debate?

That is exactly the question decision-makers often ask when assembling working groups and new agencies, especially ones concerned with growth and enterprise: the countryside is not a source of growth, so why bother with it?

At the conference I began to answer that question by letting the audience in on an open secret: CPRE is really all about towns and cities. It’s about planning them well, making them sustainable and getting them to interact properly with their surrounding countryside. City and country are not opposites, but are components of the same thing: the thin, unstable crust of the planet on which we seek to survive and sustain society. Cities exist within our landscapes and ecosystems, and could not exist without them.

That’s why cities need to be compact, dense and intensive. The language of economic growth increasingly emphasises the centres of larger cities as the engines of productivity and innovation. But this also chimes clearly with CPRE’s agenda. The late Harley Sherlock, former president of CPRE London, wrote a book 20 years ago called Cities are Good for Us, which had a huge influence on my own philosophy when I was training in architecture and planning. Sherlock brilliantly described how living at high densities is not only the most efficient way to house people, but that it can be best achieved through street-scale developments that give every household a front door and at least a small garden. He eloquently demolished the preconception that high density needs to mean high-rise towers or ‘town cramming’ in which houses and flats are crudely squashed up against each other. Planning and designing properly, for liveable, high-density streets, was really what makes Victorian housing so enduringly popular.

Working as a planner at a time when central Government so badly undervalues the discipline can be demoralising. Last month the Treasury document Fixing the Foundations heralded further ‘relaxations’ to a planning system that has already been heavily anaesthetised, under a deeply misguided notion that doing so will stimulate economic growth and the supply of housing. If you can’t design the built environment properly, and use the planning system to implement it, then you can’t make good places, and if you can’t make good places then society, the economy and the environment all suffer. The Treasury has rarely understood this, but it seems to be listening and learning less with each passing day.

Nevertheless, there is a good reason to be optimistic, because just about everyone else (except central Government), is beginning to move towards some degree of consensus on the value of good planning and what needs to happen next.

The second RTPI event I attended featured their President, Janet Askew, the Leeds City Council Chief Executive, Tom Riordan, and a keynote lecture from Spanish architect-planner Alfonso Vegara. Tom Riordan celebrated “the compactness of our cities and how close the rurality of Yorkshire is”. Janet Askew observed that “urban containment – one of our success stories of the last 70 years – is under attack”; and Alfonso Vegara asserted that “urban intensity is the key to innovation [and] cities are the factories of the knowledge economy, so planning is essential to cities that can be productive.” He emphasised that most ideas happen when people can work and socialise together, at close quarters, which is why cities are good for us. For these dense, intense cities to be liveable and sustainable they need good public transport and public spaces, and they need to be green – green spaces, green buildings.

It seems to me that this is the perfect time for CPRE to get back to its roots. Being the champions of urban containment makes us champions of cities and of the countryside, because suburban sprawl is detrimental to both. CPRE London is initiating an ‘urban network’ across the many local branches of CPRE, and in the north the branches are working together to get a foothold in the Northern Powerhouse. We know that some changes to Green Belts are inevitable, but we’re working hard to ensure that Green Belts are not seen as just an empty space between towns, but a huge environmental and cultural resource that helps places keep the identity and compactness that makes them work. We’re resisting wasteful, counter-productive road-building programmes, and supporting fast, modern, integrated rail networks.  And we’re supporting good quality housebuilding that meets genuine needs but fighting against speculative housing schemes that only benefit the landowner and developer, and generate sprawl. If that’s not campaigning for sustainable cities, I’m not sure what is.