Planning London: From Julius Caesar to Boris
On the evening of the 20th February London’s Planners again assembled for another engaging event in RTPI London’s centenary programme.
Just a stone’s-throw from the home of Sherlock Holmes, Duncan Bowie (Senior Lecturer in Spatial Planning at the University of Westminster) captained his audience on a journey through the history of London at lightning speed; covering two millennia of planning in a fitting elementary way.
From the Imperial to Geddesian to the Corbusian; he showed just how many strategic concepts of London have been proposed or realised under these three historic traditions, dating all the way back to Roman times.
Surrounded by his own impressive collection of plans (including colourful children’s books), Duncan introduced the capital’s past city-shapers; their visions, aspirations and in some cases, even their results! From Ostorus Scapula (reported to be the first Governor of London), to Wren, Hooke, Evelyn and Newcourt; John Nash and George Peplar, Basiljet, Webb, Unwind up to Peter Hall, Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson, no one could escape Bowie’s investigation, no matter how hidden by the shroud of history they were.
The sheer variety of planning proved fascinating; how Planners responded to context after the great fire or the end of the Second World War. Whether plans were shaped by architectural ego, political ideology or even, as some have argued, Masonic symbolism, Duncan showed that the grapple for influence over London’s future has always been a source for a great deal of inspiring and imaginative planning work.
Tracing the origins of familiar concepts today like Lord Meath’s concept of a “Green Girdle” or the idea of London as a city of villages, Duncan did a great job in providing what could be described as one of the most thorough planning history searches ever conducted!
Some variations displayed were more radical than others; Newcourt’s grid system particularly raised a few eyebrows in response to its lack of reference to existing urban form, but even the more recognisable ideas exposed surprising revelations; a water and road network plan for London which drew inspiration from Haussmann’s Paris plan being one of them.
And as is often the conclusion of historical investigation, it became difficult to prove that any planning problem is original, (planners have been debating whether or not a Green Belt would strangle the city for a long time!). But acknowledging that planning today is not so much about individual personalities of the likes of Abercrombie and Sir Christopher Wren, Duncan Bowie stressed how planning has evolved into a much more collaborative and team-oriented discipline. And for those who thought that this collaborative nature is a hindrance to progress or stifles vision, it was perhaps worth reminding us that one just has to look back at the seemingly colossal number of political and interest groups involved in planning decisions immediately post Second World War, to breathe a sigh of relief that decision making for the capital is maybe not as complicated as once was.
So, as the past chair said in his closing remarks, for those having trouble researching site histories in their quest for understanding of context there is now no excuse; Duncan has proved that if you dig deep enough, you can get as far back as the Romans!
Another successful event with special thanks to Duncan Bowie, University of Westminster and Lucy Barton RTPI.