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. 

Connectivity the key to a successful City region

The publication of today's report by an alliance of five cities - Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Newcastle and Sheffield should be a wake up call to other areas of the UK.

The recognition that inter-city region connectivity is key to forming a successful northern economic counterbalance to London demonstrates the maturity of the City Region psyche across the north. It also demonstrates an evolution of Prescott's 'Northern Way' - a sinuous economic link across the M62. It is significant that the rail zeitgeist has infused the latest incarnation of Northern urban connectivity. However, what is really telling is that whilst they may not have solved all of their internal challenges, the leadership of these cities have reached a capacity at which they can collectively strategise for a £15bn investment from the Chancellor, much of which is about improving connectivity.

Image courtesy of BBC

Image courtesy of BBC

This is particularly relevant to Cardiff but also potentially relevant when one looks at Cardiff, and Newport (and potentially Bristol) together. For example, the urban areas around the Mersey and the Manchester Ship Canal (which include Widnes, Runcorn, Salford, Warrington, Liverpool and Manchester) are already collaborating to deliver an ambitious connectivity, open space and economic development agenda under the banner of Atlantic Gateway.

The need for the very highest levels of frequency, quality and integration across regional public transport is something that the Cardiff Capital City Region Metro will hopefully address. The importance of today's publication by other cities with whom Cardiff should be competing immediately raises the stakes for the Metro in South East Wales. If the region isn't able to deliver the kind of system that globally relevant city regions now require as standard then Cardiff, Newport and the Valleys will see other regions of Britain accelerate into the economic distance.

First impressions of an unfamiliar city

I visited Nottingham today to study the design of the NET Metro public transport system and meet some of the people behind it. While I was here I thought I would have a look around.

As an urban designer I love cities. Discovering new cities, or parts of cities, is a bit of geeky hobby of mine. As a city nerd I am also quick to be critical about a city: what it does right, what it does wrong, what excites and what disappoints.  This was my fist visit to Nottingham. Here are some first impressions of the city...

My first impression was formed by the NET Metro itself. Quiet, efficient and clean. It gave me the impression of a forward thinking city. Somewhere that is investing in the future, not just clearing up the mess of the past.

I got off in the Gustavson Porter designed Old Market Square. The only reason for this impulsive departure was because it was the only thing about Nottingham that I knew about. So I thought I'd go and have a look. 

Old Market Square showed what can be achieved when the designer is brave enough to take out all of the crap and clutter. That level of emptiness can look terrifying when its on the drawing board, but alongside a building like the imposing, but unfortunately named, Council House it works beautifully. The materials were carefully contrasted with the sandstone slabs used everywhere else in the city and the details and standard of maintenance were top class. However, it was very sad to see that the innovative water feature, which was so important to the original design, was out of commission.

After Old Market Square I followed my nose and tried to spot something interesting and walk towards it. What took my eye was the cities way finding system, an effective network of signs and columns that is effectively a finger post system and a roving Rough Guide rolled into one. Taking the time to read and follow it transformed my experience of Nottingham.

Having seen part of contemporary Nottingham I was cast back in time to the Old Lace  Market. National chains gave way to smaller indie businesses in handsome red brick buildings, side streets and intimate squares. More info panels explained that whilst the city's lace production went back to Saxon times it was Thomas Adams' approach to production and employee welfare that helped put the city on the map.

Having had a glimpse of 19th century Nottingham and the hint of a more ancient past, I thought I'd try to see what the city could reveal about its medieval history. I followed the frequent info panels and found my way to Maid Marion Way, a cruel urban motorway surrounded by grey brutalist car parks, towering facades and stark structures that arrogantly divided the new city from its medieval past. Most British cities have places like this, but the experience was still a bitter disappointment. This area must be a future priority for the city council who will need to unstitch this sorry mess that segregates the city from 1000 years of history.

Once I'd reached the gates of the Castle I was disappointed to see carelessly located planters, devoid of actual pants (just mud) in front of probably one of the most important buildings in the city. It seems that the attention to detail, so evident in Old Market Square, had not managed to cross Maid Marion Way and had given up and turned back. This wasn't the only example. Other historic buildings, that would be celebrated in other cities, were left marooned in amongst disabled parking bays and double yellow lines. It seemed that the City Council, or certainly departments of it, are guilty of not being precious enough with some of their most prized possessions.

A short walk around the sandstone outcrop upon which sits the castle revealed Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem, England's oldest inn, dating back to 1189 and a stopping off for medieval squaddies on route to the holy land. I expected to find some of them still there trying to master the most addictive pub game in the whole of Christendom. I was thankful that I got lucky and beat the game after twenty minutes.

In two hours, thanks to the information provided by the city council, I had a good feel for the city, it's past, present and its future. The question that i was left with was: for a city as good as this why does it have such a non-descript national persona? If half of this stuff had been in Liverpool, Manchester or Glasgow the whole world would know about it. In a competitive market place for tourism and business investment Nottingham has more than enough assets to stand out but needs to shout more confidently about what a great little city that it is