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David T Breaker: We need a planning rethink

David is an A-level politics student at a Kent grammar school.  He will start studying philosophy, politics and economics at the University of Essex in September 2006.

General Well Being (GWB) is the latest phrase in politics. Hot on the heels of BBC2 series “The Happiness Formula” and “Making Slough Happy”, happiness has shot up the political agenda at lightning speed. But what makes us happy? These programmes all offer solutions, ranging from the quite insane suggestion of tax rises, through to various therapies. But what I am going to say is more provable, easier, and doesn’t damage economic growth - a good environment.

The term ‘environment’ brings up connotations of the rainforest, polar ice caps and global warming. But it should also bring up the image of our streets, houses and offices. This is our built environment, which we control. Churchill once said “we shape our buildings, and then our buildings shape us.”

It can be summed up in one building; the London Zoo Penguin Pool. One of the big architects of the 20th Century, Berthold Lubetkin, designed it in 1934. It was hailed by architects as a marvel, and today it is in fact the only listed penguin pool there is - but penguins hated it! Today they are in “a more natural environment”, to quote the zoo officials, the pool recognised as “unsuitable for penguins”. It changed their behaviour.

For humans, being living creatures, it’s the same. Much of our built environment was designed as “machines for living in” with the aim of changing human nature. It was very popular in Russia, and it worked, except the change wasn’t as intended. It is not natural, and the result is unhappy people. Lack of space and privacy make us anti-social, and worsen disputes. Bleak characterless design dehumanises us, destroys identity and civic pride.

Buildings aren’t machines for living in, they have got to be homes, places of work, and leisure space. They must represent us, our dreams and aspirations, likes and wants. Our nature as living beings. Churchill’s quote relied on a perpetual and two way process of evolution; we shape our buildings, and then our buildings shape us, then we shape our buildings, and so on, ad infinitum.

In order to create a happier country, we must accept the failures of post-war design, which replaced this evolution with a modernist revolution, and learn from the past. Our urban areas are mostly bleak and unwelcoming. The environment alien to nature. Modernism tried to be modern for the sake of it, everything had to be entirely different. But if you reinvent the wheel, and insist it be entirely different, it ends up square.

By and large, modernism only caught on among architects, planners and politicians - the “bold statement” too often merely an architectural ego trip. An often forgotten result of Thatcherism and rolling back of the state was a new individualism and freedom in architecture. Yes, Thatcherism helped kill modernist architecture. But our planning laws are still hopelessly out dated and modernist council planner in their feel, some resembling regulations of a backward socialist state than modern Britain.

No more than 60% on enlargement, permission needed for conservatories, windows and any extensions; yet you can paint your house a ghastly colour and make it a total dump, knocking thousands off neighbouring properties, with no restrictions. The laws put everything into debating size, but not quality. Often they’d rather a small ugly house be built instead of a larger, beautiful house. With major new developments looming, we need a new planning act desperately.

I do not accept the terms ‘pastiche’ or ‘bold’ in architecture. To me what matters is if it’s good or bad. A good design calms traffic, provides car parking out of sight, puts pedestrians first, has plenty of green spaces, uses natural materials which blend with nature, has buildings that complement each other, uses and develops a local character, reduces the need for car use by mixing development, and is a place people want to live. It is a place with a social mix, open spaces, light, and lacking vulnerable points such as alleys. All these things bring out the best of human nature, creating lively, safe and pleasant communities; and are vital to lasting happiness. It is built around the people, to a human scale, and it doesn’t attempt to plan and design every detail of people’s lives - it trusts them.

A bad design brings out the worse in society. Overpowering and bland style, lack of privacy, monopoly of the car, social segregation, “bold statement architecture” that rebels against nature instead of working with it. It is a top-down, “we know best” sort of architecture that treats people as sheep.

We must give greater protection to pre-war buildings, good enough to last this long their quality is assured, but greater freedoms over post-war ones. Planning approval should only be needed if the changes damage the area, proven by say a panel of local estate agents. On a post-war house, what does a conservatory or porch matter, even an extension, if they improve the area or have no impact. But something that damages the area, that’s another matter, and needs controlling.

We should ensure good design for new developments through a new planning act, whilst totally redeveloping the post-war sprawl, perhaps with an X-List of worst offenders for fast track demolition. Good, new buildings can be done, nothing has to look bad (even a multi-story car park can look good built of brick and nicely styled). The model of the sadly derided in Britain but globally renowned Poundbury, along with Port Sunlight and Welwyn, should be our basis - but we can do even better.

We must learn from the past and improve on it. The penguins have moved on from their modernist “modern for modern’s sake” experience, now so should we.


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