Planning matters: People power

October 03 2019
Planning matters: People power

With Chris Gosling

THIS month’s article was inspired by watching a television programme about the late Jane Jacobs. Her name may not ring any bells but her influence, on us as city dwellers, is immense. She was one of the first people to analyse and understand how human beings use their urban environment. What she found in the States is true the world over.

Her findings came from examining urbanisation, which was and is happening at an increasing rate across the globe, resulting in many mega-cities having been created in the last couple of decades with names that you and I would not even recognise. Many names of cities that you would recognise now house populations many times larger than you would expect. In the broadest of terms, the capacity of cities can be accommodated by building outwards or building upwards. The fastest expansion is by doing both at the same time. The other critical factor is who makes the decisions about how cities develop and where the development should go.

At a time of plans for slum clearance, Jacobs started looking at New York as a user. There were grand urban renewal plans for tower blocks, connected but also divided by urban expressways. Her view was based on observation and questioning: looking at the value of what would be lost - slum conditions, yes, but also the active street, accessibility and the neighbourhood. She recognised that cities are not just for people, but that people make cities what they are, through how they live and use the environment around them. An everyday way that this use is expressed is the ‘desire line’, an informal footpath worn over time by people who choose their route for convenience, rather than taking the formal path that has been designed for them. Another test is where people gather. Public spaces such as parks have been designed to encourage people to congregate, but often these spaces are rejected in favour of others, again for reasons of convenience or greater usability. Formality and informality are two contradictory forces in how we experience cities, as well as the balance between private space and the public realm.

Another key factor Jacobs identified was ‘eyes on the street’. This is enshrined in this country as 'Secured by Design' principles. Encouraging or designing in street activity and windows overlooking streets results in the street becoming a safer place for the people who use it. Criminal activity is deterred; drivers become more considerate of pedestrians; children can even find opportunities to play in the street. People-watching, which doubles as surveillance, is a natural human activity and can make everyone safer in the context of a street. I would argue that it is more immediately effective than CCTV.

Taking all of these factors into account, particularly the users, you have a neighbourhood that people care about: a neighbourhood that is worth protecting. So how does this protection come about? That is in your hands. The planning system in this country is not top down, it is consultative. Change is largely bottom-up, through individual proposals. Where these proposed developments require planning permission, then the neighbourhood can comment on them. The neighbourhood’s elected representative plays a direct part in decisions. That is reactive, but involvement is also possible in a pro-active manner. The plans that form the policy framework that sets the context for these decisions are also open to consultation. The opportunity is available for neighbourhoods to draw up their own neighbourhood plans. This is people power, and you can exercise as much of it as you choose. Perhaps if Jane Jacobs had not dedicated her life defining these principles, our influence over our environment would be much less.