Anna Minton’s new book Ground Control: fear and happiness in the 21st century city makes a convincing case that planning and housing policies have, perhaps inadvertently, made British cities increasingly distrustful and alienating environments over the last thirty years.
One of her main theses is that an excessive policy focus on individual property and privacy are turning British cities more and more like those in the USA – less public contact within local communities resulting in more distrust and less respect.
Much of the book is a critique of recent UK government policy. Fortunately, the author goes beyond that to identify some pointers for better policymaking – and better communities. One of her most cogent arguments is for planning to refocus its aims beyond buildings and property value: in other words, going beyond the traditional concern of the planning system on physical “development”, which Minton refers to as “classical planning”.
Planning, she suggests, should create environments where not everything is planned. Rather than seeing everything as permanent and controlled we should also create space that is “fluid and open” for spontaneous, temporary activities like popular culture, art and music – bolstering her argument by quoting such luminaries as Kevin Lynch, Jane Jacobs and Peter Hall, with reference to examples in Manchester and, ironically, London Docklands.
To the public, none of this should be a surprise. They know that places are not just about buildings and property, but also about people, activity and identity. But for the planning profession – and I include myself in this generalisation – our education and legislative framework means that we must take a conscious step to widen our perspective from the built environment to include people and activity, even though they should of course be essential ingredients of placemaking.
I am not saying anything particularly new here. But Anna Minton has reminded me how how important it is for planning to broaden its horizons beyond permanent physical things if we are to create more human and liveable communities.