Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The city's Public Practice program is embedding experienced architects and planners around the area in an effort to speed housing construction and get more inclusive public spaces.
This month, London launched a scheme to put good design back at the heart of public planning. A new social enterprise called Public Practice, supported by London Mayor Sadiq Khan, is embedding experienced architects and urban designers in 17 local authorities in and around the U.K. capital, for year-long but potentially open-ended placements.
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 homebuilding process. Part of a cohort due to be replenished in a second round next year, this year’s associates are, according to Public Practice’s own estimates, forecast to build, expedite, or improve 17,000 homes and 19,000 square meters (roughly 18,300 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.
Compared to what London needs, this is only the tip of the iceberg. While by many metrics the city could be said to be booming, London is consistently falling far short of the housing targets it needs just to manage its projected population growth—let alone render its notoriously expensive market more affordable. What does get built is often developer-driven and fails to fully reflect the needs of the surrounding communities—especially in the case of people on lower incomes or minorities who often have less direct access and dialogue with the authorities that govern them.
Public Practice could help to rectify this. Aimed at helping London build more inclusive spaces and kickstarting smarter solutions to the housing crisis, the first class of 17 in the program is also unusually diverse by British standards—over 70 percent are women, and around a quarter are black and minority ethnic.
Their collective involvement couldn’t have come at a more opportune time, as London’s and Britain’s planning has been going through a pretty bleak period. Once a proactive, city-shaping force, the planning profession in Britain has, as Public Practice’s CEO Finn Williams told CityLab, “come to be seen nowadays as stopping things from happening.”
When looking for the reasons why British planning has gone awry, the smoking gun is not the failures of local authorities per se. It’s really the result of nationally imposed austerity policies. 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 to the bottom of lists. This has meant not just a tendency towards uninspired, mediocre design, but an attrition of the planner’s broader role towards a sort of developmental and aesthetic firefighting. In London, the results have been a combination of uninspired construction, sclerotic approval processes, and—when it comes to major projects—planning departments too disempowered to hold developers to their promises.
One locally notorious example of this: the redevelopment of public housing in Elephant and Castle, South London. Here, the vast Heygate Estate social housing complex was demolished in 2014, with developers of a replacement property promising to hit affordable housing quotas and create shared public space. Those plans were hugely diluted in the years between approval and construction, with only belated resistance from the council halting some aspects of the demolition following intense public pressure. 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 developer, reducing its role to that of gatekeeper—and not an especially effective one at that.
This de facto shrinking of the planner’s remit has another strand to it. British local authorities have also almost disappeared as actual commissioners for new construction. In 1976, when British municipalities built public housing in large volumes, 49 percent of the country’s architects worked in the public sector. Now, in the aftermath of 1980s policies that made public housing development extremely difficult, that figure is less than one percent. While no mainstream political force is as yet expecting the U.K. to return to its very high 1970s level of investment in public housing, there is a growing acknowledgement that something along those lines is desperately needed. Mayor Khan recently launched a plan to create 10,000 more public housing units in London by 2022 (which would be delivered by boroughs rather than London’s City Hall). Public Practice’s new associates could help their municipalities get this public housing developed, finding ways to streamline processes and developing briefs that inspire better, more harmoniously planned proposals from architects.
Planting more design professionals in decision-making bodies could have other positive impacts. As Public Practice co-founder Pooja Agrawal told architectural magazine Building Design: “Many of the most critical decisions about schemes—from the viability of providing affordable housing, to the amount of public space—are made without architects in the room.”
That can limit their abilities to shape projects, even before the design process begins, leaving the profession, as Agrawal says, “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.”
Some examples of Public Practice’s attempts to turn this situation around are already underway. Hounslow, a relatively low-density outer London borough located just to the east of Heathrow Airport, is a case in point. The area is under intense pressure to develop new homes, as middle- and low-income Londoners flee the unaffordability of inner London. Prior to Public Practice’s involvement, Hounslow’s planning department didn’t possess an effective design capacity to oversee development. The Public Practice associate, planner Kathy MacEwen, will act as a sort of design czar overseeing borough-wide construction, creating a design award to recognize the best work from builders in the area.
Elsewhere in the city, the city’s transit body, Transport for London (TfL), has a large volume of brownfield land suitable for homes, much of which it is already developing. TfL’s new Public Practice associate, planner Sheeba Shetty, should be able to provide a more design-focused eye to the developments they are considering.
On its own, placements like these will not be enough to fully 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.