Privately owned public space isn’t all bad – and 6 other lessons from planning research

Granary Square: an example of London's privately owned public spaces. Image: Commons.

Academic researchers sometimes have a reputation for abstract thinking, obtuse conclusions and raising more questions than answers. This wasn’t the case with the projects that won the Royal Town Planning Institute research awards this week, however.

The awards recognise planning research, which has practical findings to improve our towns, cities and rural areas. Here are seven lessons about cities that the winning projects highlight.

1. The sceptics are wrong – privately-owned public space can work.

From an investigation of public spaces in London, University College London found that it isn’t all doom and gloom when it comes to so-called “privately owned public spaces” (that is, areas like Canary Wharf that appear to be public, but aren’t).  

Far from causing the destruction of public spaces, private ownership can often be positive, promoting renewal in many parts of the capital. The study found that there was a great diversity across the public spaces in London which cater to the needs of the public in many different ways.

2. Click and collect hasn’t killed the high street – yet.

Another piece of UCL research looked at high streets, from Peckham and Ealing to Oxford Street and Marylebone. It shows that they are still vital to London’s economy – but urgent work is needed to halt their decline.

Most importantly, they need to be managed by a single body that brings together multiple agencies. The research sets out 10 steps to reviving London’s high streets which could be adopted by town and cities across the country.

3. Threats rather than benefits are stronger triggers for environmental protection.

Despite increasing public concern for the environment, it still isn’t being taken seriously enough by decision makers. The long advocated “ecosystem services” approach puts a price on the “services” provided by the environment – think bees pollinating crops, wetlands filtering water or plants converting carbon dioxide into oxygen. This approach is based on the theory that socio-economic benefits will help the environment to properly valued and incorporated into traditional economic assessments of the costs and benefits of decisions.

But it does not always convince enough to trigger action, according to research by University College Dublin and Cardiff University. Case studies suggest that the environment is only taken seriously where there is an existing desire to do so, like a perceived threat to the countryside.

4. Informal influence on decision makers can be as important as the formal planning system.

According to more University College Dublin research there’s a “shadow planning system” dominated big developers and others with money. These “powerful actors” use this shadow system to circumvent the planning systems’ formal structures and procedures to get more favourable results.

The 20 urban planners interviewed for the research commented on the “undue influence” these groups can have and the subtle pressures they can exert on decision making.

5. Sometimes “flexible planning” can be a bit too flexible.

It is generally acknowledged that a liberal, flexible planning system is beneficial to a city’s development, enabling its economic transformation by allowing swift change in land use.

But laissez faire policies such as those adopted in Hong Kong can have unforeseen consequences, as a study by the University of Hong Kong have found. It found that relaxed permitted land-use rights have shifted the burden and costs of gaining land-use change to the end user or owners of the property.

Hong Kong’s rise as an international financial centre has been mirrored by a flexible planning system that has allowed for swift change in land use, but has given rise to unforeseen problems. Image: ExploringLife/Wikimedia Commons.

6.Planners can learn from playwrights.

In the North East of England, a play centred around a fictional town in crisis as it deals with a major planning application has been used to engage communities in planning – so successfully that some audience members having to be reminded that the story is merely fictional.

The Town Meeting is an example of so called “performance ethnography”, an unusual way to conduct research on spatial planning.  Developed by Newcastle University and an innovative theatre company, audience reactions show that older people tend to be more cynical about the planning process, while people under 30 feel much more positive about the process.

The project demonstrates that theatre is a unique and powerful way to tap into and communicate the human responses and passions embedded within the planning process. It highlights the need for planners to be more than technical experts as they increasingly take on the role of facilitator/mediator in the planning process.

7. Cities need research.

Researchers are often criticised for producing abstract work without practical outcomes or solutions to the problems our towns, cities and countryside are facing. The research projects recognised by the RTPI’s awards show that there is plenty of research out there that policy- and decision-makers need to know about.

We need research so that we can make decisions using the best available evidence to deal with the major issues facing our towns and cities, such as demographic and climate change, a changing economy, and increasing urbanisation. If we want to improve people’s living standards and live more sustainably, then not only is planning more important than ever – so is the research that can tell us how to plan better.

Dr Michael Harris is deputy head of policy and research at the Royal Town Planning Institute.


Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.

So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image:

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?

And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.