Can better planning fix the problems that led to Brexit?

The Kings Square Estate. Image: Pollard Thomas Edwards.

With so much government energy and resources devoted to hammering out the UK’s future with the EU, and with the call of a second referendum ringing louder by the day, one has to ask: what is being done to address those issues that has led to Brexit in the first place? 

There has been plenty of analysis about why people voted to leave the European Union. Whatever the reason, the Brexit vote confirmed how far we are from being one nation. It signifies deep-seated social and economic difficulties experienced by people up and down the country.

Could this political outcome in fact be the result of our collective failure to invest in the proper planning of places that benefit people and create prosperity in the long term? At the Royal Town Planning Institute, we’d argue that it is: lack of housing, public services, jobs, social cohesion, and a sense in these communities that they and their voices don’t matter, are the real problems facing Britain today.

Place-making might sound woolly, but the result of our long-running failure to consciously design and invest in communities in ways that build on their potential and promote people's health, happiness, and well being is far from abstract. Town planning was created to mitigate poverty, inequality, disease and the resultant disillusionment of communities. Whatever deal we are to strike with the EU is not going to solve these problems without investment in place-making.

If Theresa May’s government is serious about building one nation, starting with the divisions so clearly brought to the surface by the Brexit vote, then this means a country that is planned properly.

It means, firstly, stronger strategic planning so that cities and regions benefit from more coordinated investment. It also means, secondly, stronger planning at the local level.

The finalists of this year’s Awards for Planning Excellence – announced on Monday – is a celebration of what good local planning can do. The projects are being created and implemented by Britain's planners, to deliver better places with obvious improvements to our health, well-being, economic security and housing.


Building more houses

How does a 2,500 home (40 per cent of them affordable) mixed-use development near Cambridge with improved access to the countryside, two new schools and health facilities and a new park around an adjacent creek to improve biodiversity sound? Impossible? Well, it’s half completed and helping address the housing shortage in the area.

Similarly – albeit on a much smaller scale – four new homes have been built following the transformation of a semi-derelict kennel and cattery in the green belt near Chertsey, Runnymede. The environmentally friendly homes have carbon emissions 10 per cent lower than regular homes, and, through clever design, have reduced the building footprint on the site – situated in the green belt – by 40 per cent.

Or what about the scheme by one local authority in London which has seen 28 new homes built across four scattered brownfield sites?

Jobs, jobs, jobs

Job insecurity is a problem across Britain – not just in the areas that voted predominately to leave. The redevelopment of the declining Bracknell Town Centre – being led by planners – is a £240m project delivering new shopping, dining and leisure facilities and 3,500 new jobs.

Meanwhile, a plan to develop a major new economic hub around Birmingham airport and international train station identifies infrastructure needs and design principles to support up to 77,500 jobs and 4000 new homes.

Improving health and wellbeing

Where you live plays a major role in health and well-being. Earlier this year, Public Health England released data showing life expectancy had gone backwards in some parts of the country.

But across the UK there are examples of attempts to tackle this. A farm classroom in South Somerset teaches school children about healthy eating, while ‘Healthy Places, Healthy Children’ in Belfast is a teaching resource introducing children to help them share their ideas on how to make neighbourhoods more healthy and child friendly. These are ideas that could be rolled out elsewhere.

Regenerating declining towns and cities

Estate regeneration is often associated with local opposition and the loss of affordable homes. However, if done properly can be welcomed by the residents.

The King’s Square estate in Islington, London, being regenerated by a partnership between the local authority, residents, designers and planners. They are working pro-actively together to develop brownfield land into 140 new affordable homes adjacent to the estate. It includes an upgrade to the public spaces and new community facilities including a refurbished nursery and primary school.

At the town level, the planners in Stromness have led an inter-departmental council task force to transform the declining town centre through the redevelopment of key buildings, sites and facilities. Importantly, the community helped shape the project from start to finish resulting in a renewed sense of civic pride.

Similarly in Porthcawl, West Wales, the transformation of a former 1800s tram terminal, known as ‘The Jennings’, into a mixed-use scheme, including cafes and live/work spaces, has acted as a catalyst for the regeneration of the wider area.

There is cause to be optimistic about our future post Brexit – and planners are leading the way.

Joshua Rule is public affairs officer at the Royal Town Planning Institute.

 
 
 
 

Vanilla Skybus: George Romero and Pittsburgh’s metro to nowhere

A prototype Skybus on display near Pittsburgh. Image: BongWarrior/Wikimedia Commons.

The late director George A Romero’s films are mainly known for their zombies, an association stretching from his first film, 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, to his last as director, 2009’s Survival of the Dead.

But many of them are also a record of Pittsburgh, the city he lived and worked in, and other locations in the state of Pennsylvania in the late 20th century. Martin (1978), for example, isn’t just a movie about a kid who thinks he’s a vampire: it’s a moving portrayal of the post-industrial decay of the Pittsburgh borough of Braddock.

Though born in New York, Romero studied in Pittsburgh and stayed in the city after graduation, shooting commercials as part of the successful Latent Image agency. It was in collaboration with advertising colleagues that he shot his debut Night of the Living Dead. On both that movie and subsequent films, Romero and his colleagues used their experience and connections from the agency to secure cheap and striking locations around the city and state. 

It’s in Romero’s little-seen second film, 1971’s romantic drama There’s Always Vanilla, that a crucial scene touches on a dead end in the history of urban transport in Steel City.

In the scene Vietnam vet Chris, only recently returned to town after a failed music career, sees his father off on a train platform, after an evening where Chris got his dad stoned and set him up with a stripper. (It was the early 1970s, remember.) An odd little two-carriage metro train pulls up on an elevated concrete platform, Chris’ father rides away on it, and then Chris literally bumps into Lynn, whom he then both gaslights and negs. (It was the ‘70s.) You can see the scene here.

A screenshot from There's Always Vanilla, showing the Skybus through a chain link fence.

If you don’t live in Pittsburgh, you might assume that funny little train, still futuristic forty years on, is just an everyday way of getting around in the exciting New World. Who knows what amazing technology they have over there, right?

In fact, the Transit Expressway Revenue Line, more snappily referred to as the Skybus, not only doesn’t exist today: it hardly existed at all, beyond what we see in that short scene. In the 1960s there were plans to replace Pittsburgh’s street car system with a more up to date urban transit system. The Skybus – driverless, running on rubber tires on an elevated concrete track with power provided with an under rail system – drew enough support from the Port Authority and Federal Government for them to fund a short demonstration track at the Allegheny County Fair, at that point a local institution.

It’s this demonstration track and train that appears in There’s Always Vanilla. Film makers love isolated systems like this, or the UK’s many heritage railways, because they allow for multiple takes and a controlled environment. So it made sense for Romero to use this local curio rather than seek access to an in-use station.


The sequence in Vanilla shows that the Skybus system worked, and as a potential metro system it looks quite striking to this day with its curved windows and distinctive logo. But the proposed system wasn’t popular with everyone, and cost concerns and political wrangling stalled the project – until it was finally rejected in favour of a more conventional steel wheel on steel rail transit system.

The demonstration track was pulled up in 1980, although the small station and platform seen in the movie remains: Romero expert Lawrence Devincentz narrates a photo tour of the building on the blu ray of There’s Always Vanilla.

Vanilla was renamed and barely seen on release, but is now available as part of a boxset of Romero’s early works from Arrow Video, in ridiculously pristine 2K digital transfer. The Skybus is there too, a curio of Pittsburgh history caught on a few short minutes of film. Neglected back then, both seem considerably more interesting now.

‘There’s Always Vanilla’ is available on blu ray as part of Arrow’s ‘George A. Romero: Between Night and Dawn’ box set, and will receive a standalone release later this year.

Mark Clapham used to work in rail regulation, but now writes things like this. He tweets as @markclapham.