Harry Burchill MRTPI
Following the recent launch of our Centenary Book Kaleidoscope City, the basement of the New London Architecture (NLA) Building Centre played host to the first in RTPI London’s Centenary CPD Series exploring past present and future planning issues in the capital. This invited speakers to provide their views on Patrick Abercrombie’s influential Greater London Plan and lessons that could be learned (or perhaps even forgotten) 70 years on.
Published in 1944, Abercrombie’s Greater London Plan was designed to set out a grand vision for London’s future development, espousing the benefits of a planned city and dealing with its growing population. As London today is predicted to grow by over a million people within the next decade, NLA, RTPI London and AECOM invited a series of speakers to review the lessons of Abercrombie’s approach, and put forward their thoughts on what Abercrombie might do today to set out a long-term vision for London’s future.
Despite the Tube strike, nearly 200 RTPI and NLA members packed into the Building Centre to explore the topic of strategic planning, as relevant now as it was 70 years ago.
Straight off the train from Paris, Sir Peter Hall (UCL) took the audience on a journey through history to familiarise us with Abercrombie and his vision in context of post war London. Celebrating what was in Sir Peter’s opinion, a dying breed of the “Architect-Planner”. Sir Peter said that most of Abercrombie’s principles such as good transportation, precincts, neighbourhood densities, whether or not represented by a “basket of eggs” (an image that the audience became quite accustomed to by the end of the evening!) should be just as relevant today as they were in 1944.
It seemed that Stuart Murray (Assistant Director for Planning for the Greater London Authority) was in broad agreement, reminding us that by 2030, London could become Europe’s first Mega City, the question being asked by City Hall is the same that Abecrombie asked in 1944 – “Where will all the people go?”
Answers to that question were indirectly offered by Andrew Jones (AECOM), who said there was now a need for a new, comprehensive vision for the Capital, just as bold as Abercrombie’s, less constrained by administrative boundaries and not shy of ambitious infrastructure projects, also posing the question; would a similar “top down” approach to a plan be so bad? A view also expressed by John Leatherland (Farrell and Partners) who said that big problems need “big solutions,” although he was not necessarily a supporter of the Abercrombie camp. After all, he pointed out that Abercrombie was a man who advocated the idea of an eight-lane motorway through the Centre of London!
But John was also keen to show that planners have not been sitting idle for the past 70 years, and as an example, took the opportunity to give the audience a preview of Farrell and Partners’ latest vision for London – incremental extensions of the city around regional “transport corridors” separated by “Green Lungs”, each of distinctive character and based on existing areas of natural beauty.
Speakers with responsibility for management and development of areas identified in the original Abercrombie plan were clearly proud to be part of the evolution of these key areas of the Capital. As one of Abercrombie’s original “Green Wedges” the Lee Valley, said Steven Wilkinson (Head of Planning and Strategic Partnerships for the Lee Valley Regional Park Authority), still played a vital role in improving young city dwellers’ access to nature just as Abercrombie envisioned.
Kathryn Firth (Chief of Design for the Olympic Legacy Company), explained how the vision behind the new Olympic City; an integrated “lifetime neighbourhood,” arguably showed improvement on some of Abercrombie’s standards particularly in respect of housing densities. And in the spirit of celebrating examples of the legacy, RTPI president for 2014-2015, Cath Ranson, told of how that very afternoon, she had attended a round table policy discussion ending with a tour of Hampstead Gardens to present a certificate for excellence in partnership working.
Marc Stringa, Principal at AECOM, explored the methodology and principles behind the Abercrombie plan explaining how this approach inspired city plans from around the world. Examples from Sydney, Dubai and Jeddah were drawn to highlight similar and alternative approaches to city planning, some of which could perhaps have done with some more Abercrombie-esque influence. The message from these global precedents was clear; the environment needs to be the driver of development if a planned city is to thrive as a place.
And so, after the session drew to a close, London’s planners together with architects and other built environment professionals alike, minds ignited by ideas they had just heard and inspired by Abercrombian-like vision, ascended from the basement to take the debate further in what proved to be a first-class drinks reception!
Special thanks to AECOM our main sponsor for the evening and NLA for hosting the event.
The RTPI London Centenary Series is a number of events throughout 2014 to celebrate 100 years of professional planning in the Capital and exploring issues planners will need to address over the next 100 years.
The RTPI London Centenary Series is supported by the following partners: Atkins, NLA, Colliers, TfL, URS, KDH Associates and AECOM.