Tuesday, June 5, 2018

The Big Push

http://www.citylab.com; May 23, 2018

Hello Everyone:

It is beautiful Primary Day in eight states including California.  Naturally, Yours Truly did her civic duty and voted.  Tomorrow, The Candidate Forum will have the results and we will take a look at what the good people at Cook's predict for November.  Will it be a blue wave or a pleasant splash on the shore. Be that as it may, today we hop the pond to London to find out how the city plans to make design better.

In May, London launched an intiative to put good design back into public planning.  The new scheme, named Public Practice, supported by Mayor Sadiq Khan, places architects and urban designers in 17 municipal authorities in and around the capital, for a year-long (possibly longer) placement.

Feargus O'Sullivan reports in his CityLab article "London's Big Push for Better Design," "These planners--chosen from over 200 applicants--will take on major briefs that range from developing blueprints for new garden cities to seeking ways to streamline the home bulging process."  Part of the  cohort is due to be replace next year.  According to Public Practice's estimates, "... this year's associates are, forecast to build, expedite, or improve 17,000 homes and 19,000 square meters (roughly18,300 square feet) of public realm, accelerate the delivery of £26 million ($35 million) of public infrastructure, and engage more than 3,400 people in communities in planning over the next year."

This is a fraction of what London needs.  By most measures, the city appears to be booming but "London is consistently falling far short of the housing targets it needs to just manage its project population growth--let alone render its notoriously expensive market more affordable."  Frequently what does get built is typically developer-driven and completely fails to reflect the needs of the communities--in particular the low-income and minority communities who often are left out of the dialogue with municipal authorities.

Mr. O' Sullivan sounds an optimistic note, "Public Practice could help to rectify this."  The goal is to help London build more inclusive spaces and fuel smarter solutions to the housing crisis.  Mr. O' Sullivan enthuses, "...the first class of 17 in the programs is also unusually diverse by British standards--over 70 percent are women, and around a quarter are black and minority ethnic."

Public Practice's involvement could not come at a better time because London and Great Britain on the whole, is going through a pretty bleak period.  Once upon a time, the British planning profession was an energetic, proactive, city-shaping force.  Public Practice's CEO Finn Williams told CityLab the profession has ... come to be seen nowadays as stopping things from happening.

When casting about for reasons why the once vibrant British planning profession has gone stagnant, nationally imposed austerity measures, not the failure of municipal authorities is usually cited as the main reason.  Mr. O' Sullivan reports, "Public spending has been hit in Britain since the 2007 financial crisis.  Faced with budget choices, many municipalities increasingly restrict themselves to statutory functions, pushing many vital but not legally required design-related considerations down bottom of lists."  This resulted in rather bland and boring design, and a rollback of the planner's broader function "towards a sort of uninspired construction, sclerotic approval--planning department's top disempowered to hold developers to their promises."

One notorious example of this static development is the redevelopment of public housing in Elephant and Castle South London (southwarknews.co.uk; Apr. 20, 2017; date accessed June 5, 2018).  The sprawling Heygate Estate social housing complex was demolished in 2014, with developers of the proposed replacement plan promisng to hit their affordable housing quotas and create public space.  The plans were seriously watered down (vice.com; Apr. 13, 2017; date accessed June 5, 2018) during the years-long period between approval and construction, with belated resistance from the council halting some of the demolition in response to public pressure (bbc.co.uk; Jan. 17, 2018; date accessed June 5, 2018).  Feargus O' Sullivan writes, "This messy, complicated situation is partly a result of an austerity-hit local authority not having the resources, expertise, and will to match the capabilities of an extremely well-resourced developers, reducing its role to that of gatekeeper--not an especially effective one at that."

The de facto shrinkage of the planner's role has another component to it.  "British local authorities have almost disappeared as actual commissioners for new construction."  Here is an interesting fact, "In 1976, when British municipalities built public housing in large volumes, 49 percent of the country's architects worked in the public sector (dezeen.com; Dec. 4, 2017; date accessed June 5, 2018)."  In the wake of eighties policies (en.wikipedial.org; date accessed June 5, 2018) which made public housing development excruciatingly difficult, "that figure is less than one percent."  Currently there is no  mainstream political will to return the United Kingdom to the seventies-era levels of investment in public housing and there is a growing sentiment that something akin to this is desperately needed.  Mayor Sadiq Khan recently launched an intiative to create 10,000 more public housing units (bbc.co.uk; May 16, 2018; date accessed June 5, 2018) in London by 2022.  The new associates of Public Practives could facilitate their assigned municipalities develop public housing, find solutions to streamline the permit process, and develop brief that inspire better planned architectural proposals.

Embedding more design professionals in the decision-making process could have positive impact.  Public Practice co-founder Pooja Agrawal told Building Design:

Many of the most critical decisions about schemes--from the viability of providing affordable housing, to the amount public space--are made without architects in the room (bdonline.com; May 20, 2018; date accessed June 5, 2018).

 Not having an architect in the room can limit their ability to shape a project, even before the design process begins, leaving the profession, as Ms. Agrawal continues,

... In the position of reacting to ready-made briefs, rather than proactively anticipating and shaping new development.  The result is a dilution of the quality of the built environment, with its social impact a secondary consideration.

There are some examples of Public Practice's efforts to remedy the situation.  Hourslow (en.wikipedia.org; date accessed June 5, 2018), a fairly low-density out London borough, east of Heathrow Airport is an one case study. Mr. O' Sullivan reports, "The area is under intense pressure to develop new homes, as middle- and low-income Londoners flee the unaffordability of inner London."  Before Public Practice's involvement, Hounslow's planning department did not have an effect design capacity to properly administer development.  Public Practice associate Kathy McEwen serves as a "design czar overseeing borough-wide construction, creating a design award to recognize the best work from builders in the area."

In other parts of the city, public transport agency, Transport for London (TfL), owns a large amount of brownfield land ideal for homes, much of which is already under development.  Sheba Shetty, Public Practice's associate planner assigned to TfL, should be able to provide more designed-centric eye to new developments under consideration.

Feargus O' Sullivan opine, "On its own, placements like these will not be enough to full restore the planning profession's public role after years of underfunding and reduced standing.  But in showing what's possible, they might help start to turn the tide in the right direction.  

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