Blog: 23 April 2020Cities of the future …. Or maybe the past?

Robin Shepherd

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Robin Shepherd

Planning Director

Southampton office

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Whilst we all adjust to “physical distancing”, where our streets and parks are now seen as areas of risk, not the pride of cities, questions are starting to be asked as to what the right urban planning response should be.

Some may not realise, but the town planning system we have today evolved from a public health crisis in the early 1900’s: too many people living in close proximity, combined with poor sanitation, creating hot-beds of disease. Urban planning, informed by the scientists and medical experts of the day, was seen as the remedy; dense populations and pollution the cause; and dispersal the solution; and by the 1950’s, cities seen as bad for your health and suburban lifestyles the future.

Then to the 1980’s and the suburban housing estate became the new enemy. Congestion, car-dependency and a lack of “community”; moving on more recently to include sustainability, carbon footprint and air quality – with the solution being …. (wait for it) ….. re-urbanisation and densification of our towns and cities.   

Today, COVID-19 has re-positioned health at the forefront of our minds once again as we all start to consider how we can best learn from and exit this crisis it will soon, once again, be a core driving force in urban planning, influencing how, where and in what form people should live, work and interact.  Having come full circle over the last 100 years or so, we are once again dealing with the same problems of population proximity and its challenges on health, and as Ian Klaus has recently commented, “digital infrastructure might be the sanitation of our time”.

Of course, we want to learn from this pandemic and enhance the resilience of our cities, but we must also beware of the dangers of knee-jerk reactions and single-issue agendas. As learnt in the 1900’s, these could completely undermine other equally important issues and what makes cities so successful and fundamental to the way we live, exist as well as their importance to the economy.   

I do believe it is for urban planners to come up with the solutions, but we must learn from the past. Firstly, we must recognise that urban planning is ultimately only a regulatory tool – to control where development happens and in what form. Whilst it can influence certain markets, it cannot and should not be used to control human behaviour. 

As professionals in the design and development industry, we do however have a greater impact than we probably realise: we determine where and how people live by the locations and spaces we create – affecting their physical and mental wellbeing, as well as their quality of life, friendships and prosperity, for generations, so we have an acute role to play here, if we do it right:

  • Interdisciplinary approaches - Urban planners, designers and place-makers must collaborate with the health and research industry, but importantly, not hand over the agenda.  In the 1990’s there was a drive to ‘Design out Crime’, and although well-intended, urban design by crime specialists and standardisation, resulted in many examples of poor urban design. We all need to understand how places can be created to be healthy and how we can plan in good mental and physical health, but that is not about merely consulting the health sector on a planning application, or driving formalised health standards. We must bring healthcare providers and experts around the design table – alongside transport, air quality, environmental and community experts – to find common ground and solutions that allow all of these aspects to be addressed and successful places created.

  • Councils’ play a critical role in place-making – Of course council’s make policies and  determine planning decisions, but outside of this, they play a crucial role in representing the communities where development takes place. It is the people, supported by the public and third sectors that create a successful community, so instead of merely driving developers to ‘mitigate impact’, we need council’s to help create communities.  MP’s, Councillors and their advisors need to get involved alongside the planning system and determine how they will help create a successful community through governance, positive intervention and simply getting stuck in.

  • Avoid the knee-jerk reactions – If we rush to make decisions it is likely we will make them legislative, and there is a strong chance they will then have a myriad of unintended consequences. A health driven agenda, although highly desirable, could undermine our abilities to respond to climate change or social isolation. Uninformed policies to increase the minimum size of homes, control population densities, undermine the efficiency of public transport , etc can all have much wider consequences and must be balanced to ensure the result is what everyone wants and needs.

And finally…

  • Let’s be creative – By listening to the problems people have experienced during this stress testing of our urban environments we can learn and drive creativity.

  • This experience has clearly aided us all in recognising the wellbeing benefits of natural light and private outdoor space & nature, but we can get creative about how we respond to this need. Public and private greenspaces, gardens and balconies, green streets, active and relaxing spaces – greenspaces in our cities and towns need to get more imaginative and inspirational – to enhance the opportunities for everyone.

  • This crisis has shown how home working will grow in importance for everyone going forwards. How much travel time and carbon could be saved by everyone working from home a bigger proportion of the time? How can the form of our homes and technology be better combined and considered in the home to provide both the right spaces and the flexibility for everyone to accommodate this?

It’s easy to pass the buck and rely on others, so, questions for everyone:

  1. How can the urban planning and design profession respond in a creative and imaginative way across urban landscapes?
  2. How can the national and local government help achieve this?

Please do drop me a line with your thoughts.



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Lets Find a Way, Covid-19, #letsfindaway, health