Metro growth can make Planners cool again

The October report of the City Growth Commission  and The Guardian's November piece about "making planners cool again” are inextricably linked. James Brown, Director of The Urbanists, explains why. 

It is fifteen years since the publication of Richard Roger's Urban Task Force Report 'Towards an Urban Renaissance' and the centres of Britain's core cities are now very different places. Generally, much better places. It’s difficult to imagine just how lifeless most big British cities could be at certain times of the day in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Just as Roger's Task Force recommended; there are now many more people living, working and spending their leisure time in our principal city centres and they are much more vibrant as a consequence. An approach built around placemaking, creative town planning and urban design has helped to facilitate these changes. 

As we've remade our city centres, ideas about economic development have also shifted to recognise the potential for agglomeration and exchange. Professor Richard Florida has repeatedly outlined how the concentration of ideas and opportunities in cities have helped them to become engines for the knowledge driven economy. 

Into this context the October publication of the RSA's City Growth Commission, chaired by Jim O'Neill, called 'Unleashing Metro Growth' arrived. The report asserts that a new global picture of growth is taking shape. This is not about a transfer of economic power from North to South, or West to East. It is about the rise of cities. The UK is home to one of the world’s truly global cities. But too many of our urban areas outside London are failing to achieve their growth potential.  

Globally, growth is increasingly driven by cities. But very few in the UK are at the forefront of the nation’s economy and many are overly dependent on public sector funding. The key message from the Metro Growth report is that our centralised political economy is not fit for purpose. One could argue that the Metro Growth report is the natural successor to the Rogers report by promoting the importance of our cities. If the Roger’s report was about the design and planning of our cities then the O’Neill report is about their management, funding and governance.   

If one agrees with O’Neill, Rogers and Florida, then it follows that planners have a central role to play in the way our cities are planned, designed and managed. Rather than a troop of bureaucratic monkeys on the backs of economic growth, (as David Cameron might have it), then planners working in all sectors, for: developers, house builders, consultancies and in local government should be in a position to influence city planning and management from the regional scale down to detailed design. At the urban scale, planners are (as you read this) making decisions about development, urban management and urban design. Whilst at the regional scale there are planners involved with spatial planning, infrastructure planning and economic development. In fact: all of the above happens on a weekly basis in our office alone. 

The Metro Growth report is further endorsement of the importance of cities, especially the UK’s core cities (such as Cardiff, Manchester, Bristol, Sheffield etc). This continued importance should give investors, developers and decision makers the confidence that as our economy recovers then new opportunities to remake parts of our cities will continue to present themselves. 

For the resurgence of our cities to continue then the effectiveness of planners in both the private and the public sectors will be at the very heart of these changes. If that can’t make being a planner cool again, then I don’t know what will.