Thursday, 26 June 2014

Regeneration, garden cities and why Jane Jacobs didn't like Ebenezer Howard


Anne Power, Professor of Social Policy at the LSE isn't a fan of our renewed enthusiasm for 'Garden Cities' - indeed she was quite scathing in an interview with 'Inside Housing':

Garden cities are environmentally damaging, expensive and slow to build, said Professor Anne Power...talking about the government’s plans for a new generation of the developments.

So where does this take us? I'm not convinced by Professor Power's argument on either speed, cost or environmental risk but her view is important since it comes from someone who has spent a lot of time worrying about the problems of cities.

But there's another view - for me a better, more liberal and more exciting view - that of Jane Jacobs. I've always loved the way in which planners and regeneration boffins claim Ms Jacobs for one of them - when the very opposite is true. This means that planners go on about people-led and evolving city systems while completely ignoring anything that looks remotely untidy or outside municipal control.

Anyway, here's what Jane Jacobs though of Ebenezer Howard, the guru of 'garden cities' and godfather of town planning:

“His aim was the creation of self sufficient small towns,really very nice towns if you were docile and had no plans of your own and did not mind spending your life with others with no plans of their own. As in all Utopias, the right to have plans of any significance belonged only to the planner in charge."

And we see this reflected in the self-righteousness of 'transition' towns, in the obsession with the local multiplier (have NEF actually conducted any real tests on their model or is mine still the only one) and in a focus on anything other than tilling the soil of enterprise.

So much that is written about community regeneration either mistakes the activities of the relatively wealthy residents of poorer places for regeneration or else implants a set of values that were best left behind when the Woodstock generation left that muddy field and headed into the real world.

I was at an interesting session on the next round of LEADER funding (EU funding directed to the rural economy, farm diversification and rural business productivity). It was striking - and depressing - to see the argument presented that we'd have to focus on economic growth (you know, jobs and businesses) because that was what DEFRA wanted. The implication - and this is clear in so much community regeneration - was that a better economy with more jobs, more income and more wealth was somehow not what regeneration is about. So much better to open up a new cycle path, run awareness-raising on climate action or plant herbs in street verges.

The problem we have is that our "plan-led" system has competing objectives - it wants reduce carbon emissions, it urges us to be healthier, it wishes to plan out crime and it wants to promote biodiversity. And, wonderful though these things may be, they all require a compromise - we cannot meet the idea for all of them. Something has to give.

And the first thing to give is economic growth, jobs and business. The very act of planning - or requiring someone to seek permission to do something with their property is a drag on the economy. But when we want that decision - to build a home, to open a business, to extend a factory - to also contribute to combating climate change, preventing obesity and providing homes for bats, we have problem.


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