Urban / town planning and development

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  • I often want to post articles on urban planning and development that don't relate to London or more general ones. The largely unregulated period of rapid expansion of Western cities, which is currently being sort-of repeated, although often in even more extreme ways, across the world in many less wealthy countries, e.g. Mexico, is one of the main factors shaping our lives, whether we live in cities or away from them.

    The railways were the first decisive factor in the modern-era explosion of cities. There had always been concentrations of power before then and people had flocked to seats of power for protection and to participate in the economic activity they invariably attracted. The largest ancient megacities, e.g. Angkor, are generally estimated to have been home to around 1 million people; I think this is probably an underestimate in most cases. It may have been true for Rome, the best-documented ancient megacity, but I think there were much larger places. Part of the problem with the archaeological record is that it tends not to document wooden construction very well, e.g. in what we could today call 'shanty towns', and more research needs to be done on this. However, the kind of economic concentration brought about by railway development was probably unprecedented.

    It can be seen particularly strikingly in Britain, whose 'industrial revolution' started before that in any other European countries, and it has arguably had more drastic consequences here than those elsewhere. Simply looking at any map of Britain shows the imbalance between its largest cities and the rest of the country, whereas other European countries have a lesser imbalance than this. Needless to say, industrial activity in Britain has declined in recent decades, and the development of automobile transportation and move away from rail have meant that it is often located away from cities, but initially most modern industries apart from mining were centred on cities.

    Before the coming of the railways, with the exception of a few powerful cities like London or York, Britain and all other European countries had an evenly-spaced network of small market towns whose economy relied largely on being marketplaces for the surrounding agricultural communities. This also meant that more specialised craftspersons than in most villages traded from market towns. It was a stable and sustainable way of living until it was thrown into disarray by the railways.

    With the sudden rapid development of cities, it became necessary to think of a regulatory response to what was happening, although this didn't really gather steam in Britain until the middle of the 20th century. Before then, much development was undertaken without any real awareness of the consequences. London's development explosion owed much to the development of, first, suburban railway lines and then underground lines. Suburban railway lines initially caused what's often called 'string of pearls' development clustered around railways stations along largely radial railway lines. When the first forms of buses (horse-drawn, later trolleybuses) or trams came along, it became possible to connect people living further away from the railway stations to those, and to the relevant town centres, and the spaces between the 'pearls' were quickly filled in, causing the now-familiar London sprawl. The Underground network, with typically more closely-spaced stations, had an even more dramatic effect on centralisation. Workers, who were often unable to afford pre-Underground train fares, no longer had to walk into the city, which thousands did every day for their commute. The Underground was cheaper and so affordable on some lines (and still was barely profitable, because it turned out you can't really run a railway for profit, but that's another story).

    This rapid pace of urban development was a mixed blessing. Rural communities were left impoverished as they suffered from rapid depopulation, with people joining the urban proletariat (and were likewise very poor). The extreme concentration of activity in cities resulted in slum-like living conditions especially close to the centre (where unscrupulous slum landlords crammed too many people into very little space and constructed dangerous buildings on the cheap). It was clear that something needed to be done to regulate the power of landowners, and so eventually the Town and Country Planning Acts (England/Wales and Scotland) were passed in 1947.


    These have, over the years, been watered down in various ways to the extent that landowners have reclaimed some of the powers they effectively lost, and while there are some very good planning departments, one only has to look at the development of the London skyline over the last two decades to see how the planning system has failed in its regulatory function.

    Anyway, I find it all very interesting, so let's have a thread.

  • Here's a very interesting article on Tokyo's rivers. London has also culverted most of its rivers, although it undoubtedly didn't have as many to start with as Tokyo.


    But it is also a legacy of the 1964 Games, which saw a rapid revision of the city’s transport infrastructure at the cost of the waterways. Multi-lane highways were built directly above rivers and canals, to avoid the cost of purchasing and clearing land. The Nihonbashi river and its beautiful Meiji-era bridge were particularly noticeable victims, but the effect on the ecology and the economy of the waterways was even more devastating.

    Already polluted by years of sewage and industrial runoff, the planting of concrete support columns into rivers caused further stagnation and pollution of the water, as well as making the waterways unusable to many commercial craft.

    With the eyes of the world trained on Tokyo, streams were considered so irredeemably polluted that they were filled in with construction rubble, then concreted over. Others were culverted to conceal the stench and sludgy flow, becoming roads instead (and arguably simply replacing one form of pollution with another).

    The one bright spot water-wise was the development of a modern sewage system. Tokyo toilets are the envy of the world, and stopped one form of pollution at least from entering the water network.

  • The biggest governmental failure (not just regulatory) for the people of London is not the tall buildings on the skyline, rather the almost complete removal of the affordable housing grant, the fact that housing need cannot be met by the private sector and the inflexibility of green belt policy/NIMBYs in the suburbs.

    The latter group of people have also been advantaged by the fact all of the above has lead to an explosion in their value of their asset, abided by politicians.

    Until Brexit came along and sucked the life out of constructive political discourse, housing needs, particularly in the south-east, was rapidly becoming the most pressing political issue. Most people in the industry would likely agree Sadiq Khan has done some good in reorienting the planning system in London but we are so far behind meeting housing need, I cant help but think the future is grim.

  • Well. As I've said in various places, I don't think that there are too few homes. The problem is the number of empty homes (not even counting second homes) and the fact that many places are seriously under-populated (e.g. in the North).

    The constant call for more house-building in my view can only have the effect of continuing to overheat the already-overheated housing market. Obviously, there needs to be some rate of renewal of housing stock, and it is deplorable that social housing has been so diminished, but homelessness and poverty (certainly in-work poverty) are caused to a very large extent by so many former council-owned homes having ended up in the private sector, with people having to pay a far too high proportion of their income in rent. Against that, 'affordable housing', while better than nothing, is a fig leaf, even if set at a more humane rate than Johnson's ridiculous 80% of market price.

    And yes, London probably still attracts more people than can sensibly be housed at the moment, a scenario replayed in every boom town in the world. At one point, a London planner told me, the rate of growth was higher than at any point in London's history, with hundreds of people arriving to live here every day. (This was before the 'Brexit' vote.) But why does everybody want to live in London (and other large cities) while other places are haemorrhaging populations? Obviously because people get a lot more information now about faraway places so that moving is easier--and indeed applying for jobs far away, what with on-line interviews, etc.--, and because there has been an increased tendency in the economy to concentrate activity in fewer places, because of automation and artificially suppressed transport costs, so that people see their local economies contracting and try to go somewhere where they think the jobs are in order not to be caught in what they perceive as an economic backwater, often leaving behind a fall in house prices where they come from.

    While I support Green Belt policies, what is certainly true is that more activity should be moved to centres other than central London, and NIMBYism doesn't help with that. However, the most pressing need is still to rebalance London's economy with that of the rest of the country.

  • I don't like the idea of building cities 'from scratch' (obviously not really 'from scratch' but from a powerful industrial base capable of creating the illusion). Humans have long done this, and there are plenty of historical examples of new city foundations, sometimes on the site of existing villages, that were built up extremely quickly by the standards of the time. These older examples weren't necessarily bad cities, although they were inevitably important power centres.


    Today's new such 'cities' of high-rises and designed-in motor traffic dependence are most definitely shit.

    Good growth takes time.

  • I'm really pissed off with all that's being announced at the moment:


    None of it makes the slightest sense, all of it is stupid and regressive, pushed by people who stand to gain from crap development. The planning system is poor and needs reform, but in precisely the other direction, and it's not 'reform' to merely dismantle hard-won gains or make it even more of a Wild West shit show.

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Urban / town planning and development

Posted by Avatar for Oliver Schick @Oliver Schick