Urban Update 18 March 2016 - How good is the London Good Growth Agenda?

A Response to the London Good Growth Agenda 2016

Graham Marshall gives a North West pro-social perspective on the debate on the growth of London

London Docklands against the backdrop of a layer of smog

The Mayor’s Design Advisory Group (MDAG) published a four part report in February 2016 looking at how London can grow well, discussing issues and making recommendations around the themes of; Growing London, Aging London, Public London and Shaping London.  MDAG hope the next Mayor will find these useful and will implement the recommendations.  The full report can be found at www.newlondonarchitecture.org/MDAG.

Taking on the challenges that is London is always difficult and these discussions are part of a natural and ongoing dynamic process.  Every now and again, when faced with a step-change, such discussions try to establish benchmarks to guide future decision making.  Our key observations on this set of benchmark documents settle around thought leadership, policy focus and the nature of design.  Starting at the beginning with the foreword in the first paper Growing London, it opens with:

“By 2030 one and a half million people – almost as many as currently live in Birmingham – will be added to the 8.5 million living here in London.  Accommodating that growth in a way that allows the city and its people to thrive and prosper will be extraordinarily challenging.  Only if we think long term and plan ahead will we make a success of it.”

Oh dear; 12.5% growth over a fourteen year period doesn’t feel healthy.   “Only if we think long term and plan ahead” we might conclude that this excessive growth should be directed to Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool.  Liverpool lost half a million people in an eight year period in the 70/80’s – perhaps they could be replaced with this growth within the infrastructure that still exists there, but which the city council struggles to maintain because of population loss.  The starting point of unquestioned or unchallenged ‘growth’ is perhaps wrong; London has much greater problems than that to attend to, and much greater opportunities to capitalise upon.  Better to ask what kind of a city could we ‘husband’ and how can we harness the current growth potential to achieve that.  But let’s say that this potential growth is inevitable because we cannot change our London centric ‘thinking’.  How do these recommendations stack-up as thought leadership on design?


Too many recommendations?

There are 48 key recommendations, which is a lot compared to Mel Brook’s fifteen, Moses’s ten and Jesus’s two.  To encourage a future Mayor to take these recommendation on-board they need to be pithier and pose questions rather than give answers.  For example, in Public London, recommendation two is all we need: Support better planning, urban design and placeshaping skills in London’s local authorities – and then explain what is meant by that.  Or at least it should be number one in place of the recommendation for a Public Realm Task Force which is top down, silo thinking and, at best, an elitist talking shop.  Successful “Placeshaping” is a local co-designed activity that involves ‘the people’ who are experts in their place and expert about their needs.  But that is not to say that they want to be involved in planning – they need to have control over stewardship!


Wrong to focus on existing problems at the expense of creating a vision for the future

Scanning the reports reveals a consolidation of old opinion (economic and architectural) with little evidence-base to support the recommendations.  Lots of survey information and opinion is no substitute for asking the right questions, study and analysis.  Illustrating that more people can be accommodated in high rise ‘units’ does not illustrate that they will thrive there.  We need fresh thinking that generates a future vision for thriving communities based on a wider policy perspective – beyond planning.  The recommendations focus on current perceived problems from a built environment perspective alone, and offers unsubstantiated 20th century solutions that haven’t worked so far.  A problem solving approach generates and maintains a cycle of problem creation. 


Housing – more to this than storage for people

Treating London like a logistics centre that stores people leads to systemised thinking that promotes tall buildings (residential) for example that puts the needs of the authorities before the community; this approach is as socially unsustainable as low rise sprawl.  We should concentrate on the intensification of existing places (especially with medium rise) and think about residential development that we don’t call ‘houses’ – or units.  Houses have connotations of individual dwellings, pitched roofs and chimneys; they belong in volume house builders (even small ones) fictional villages.  We need to work more in line with European models of city building in terms of form, density and scale.  We also need to make sure that we do not convert all our family houses into flats and find we create a new future crisis (the problem solving problem) when all the incoming singletons procreate!  We should be talking about converting lots of other built fabric – bearing in mind that nationally we already have 80% of the built fabric we will have in 2050.


Wrong to target old people as a special needs group

Why have old people been singled out for special attention?  Because there are rafts of policy initiatives in this area.  But does that mean that it should translate so literally into place recommendations.  They are not a special needs group that require particular housing or clustering.  In Liverpool city centre (a fast growing urban population) older people predominate, but they buy into the widest range of homes on offer – people do not get old like they used to (taking up bingo and dying their hair blue).  It is the quality of the whole place that is important to them.  There are also several references to downsizing in the documents to accelerate subdivision – perhaps older people shouldn’t downsize because they need the space for a home office/ studio, visitors, grandchildren or care worker accommodation.  For their own wellbeing they probably need to stay in a home of memories or within a community.  The problem in London is rapid population growth facilitated by government spending and facilitation across a raft of areas, and vast areas of low density car based suburbia.  Old ladies living alone in three bedroom houses are not a big problem that cannot be balanced by time – although they are an easy target for government and lazy thinking.


Young people ignored

Young people are not mentioned at all, except for reference to a growing birth rate.  From our reviews of social science research, the considerable and epidemic mental health problems associated with urban living (the urbanicity effect/ urban penalty) is greatest in those who are born and grow up in cities.  These young people are the future and if we are to ensure that we produce places that are good for their long term wellbeing we need to be thinking much more creatively about placemaking.  Not growth, economics or architecture – those things naturally follow from good placemaking policy.  It is also worth noting that the birth rate does rise significantly when people live in resource poor environments.  An answer to those who wonder why the working classes have so many children; they are future discounting as a stress response to place.


Just saying good design is completely meaningless

‘Healthy streets’ are mentioned – whatever that means – but mental health (government strapline: There is No Health Without Mental health) and wellbeing are completely absent.  It is notable that there are no experts in this area on the panel although social policy and research demonstrate a great understanding of the key issues for urban living.  The future of placemaking, and therefore ‘Good Growth’, needs to be based in the delivery of social policy, supported by planning policy not the other way around.  That has implications for design guidance and for designers – perhaps neither are fit for purpose in this new equitable century.  Just saying good design, and well-designed is completely meaningless except for those that profit from it.  Currently we have policy drivers the wrong way around and these papers illuminate that problem.  In the 21st century, you would expect London to be leading with fresh thinking, accepting that although the city appears to be booming it is increasingly failing.  The historic population growth these reports illustrate actually record people fleeing from rural life because a filthy dangerous industrial urban one was better – not because it was good.  People are similarly fleeing from somewhere to London today – not because it is good.


“Living environment” perspective needed – not built environment

Our response to these papers is a reaction to what appears to be more of the same whilst our urban environments continue to decline in terms of their negative impacts on most people’s lives, not least in London.  Victorian London was an appalling place to live for most and its failings brought about extensive public health (and engineering) improvements.  Note, physical improvements for physical health – that is important.  The reports note this, but fail to recognise that in our theoretically equitable contemporary culture, we need to attend to the issues of good mental health and wellbeing, and the impact the built environment has on that – but we need to understand it from the ‘living environment’ perspective not the inanimate ‘built’ one.  If we are at all interested in material sustainability we first need to embed social sustainability (they are different). 

We need to be promoting ‘thrival’ not survival in our urban human habitat.  Poor place stewardship that ‘does things to people’ is antisocial.  Better stewardship (typical urban design) proposed by these recommendations is still ‘doing things to people’, but in a social way.  What we need is collaborative stewardship where ‘people do things together’ – that is prosocial.  Thought leadership on these issues demands a wider base and fresher thinking; post-disciplinary urban thinking that includes the creative social sciences.  That is our thought provocation for the new mayor.


Graham Marshall @prosocialplace is an award winning urban designer, living environment expert, ex-pat Londoner and visiting senior research fellow inthe Institute of Psychology, Health and Society at the University of Liverpool.