Planning for the Future – looking at the pictures

I’ve spent quite a lot of time this week looking at the Planning for the Future White Paper, to the extent that I think I have started to go a little word blind. (Our synopsis and initial commentary is available here.)

But, seeing as the Government has gone to the trouble to produce a nicely-formatted*, illustrated document, I thought I would take a leaf out of my five year-old’s book and have a look at the pictures instead.

Curious as to what the photographs were showing, and where they were taken, I’ve made a little map of the various developments featuring around the country.

I’ve managed to locate most – but not all – and there are two or three of the inevitable stock photographs that Google Image Search and I couldn’t locate. Green are “historic” or well-established sites, yellow recently completed or under construction, and red planned.

Having done this, a few of my thoughts arising from the text itself are strongly confirmed.

  1. There are some first class, innovative developments happening across the country – and certainly not confined to our big cities. Anything that can be done to genuinely encourage and support this, and to ease the passage of such proposals through the system, should be welcome.
  2. Almost all the images are of housing and residential development. There is very little mixed use, and (with the exception of one stock photo of an office building with a green wall) no commercial, industrial or logistics space at all. This seems to reflect the paper’s almost sole focus on housing development, without really engaging with other sorts of development.
  3. Furthermore, a lot of the developments show are large and medium scale – but relatively low-rise and low scale – urban extensions or regeneration projects. Again, this is unsurprising given the thrust of the paper and its “Growth, Renew or Protect” concept. Again, this reflects the fact that the Paper doesn’t really engage with smaller infill or city/town centre sites and is feels quite focused on strategic land and urban extensions, whilst purporting to be comprehensive planning reform.
  4. Very few of the proposals that feature are of city-centre developments. King’s Cross is included, along with Timekeepers Square in Salford, but that seems about it.
  5. That scale point again. With the honourable exception of Elephant Park, I don’t think any of the images of new development shown exceeded four storeys.
  6. And finally – this just confirms to me that architectural photography can be just a little sterile sometimes. These are supposed to be places for people – I know we people are a bit untidy but I do think including some inhabitants, passers-by and a bit of gentle clutter would help to humanise developments that potentially could appear a little intimidating.

Taken alongside the lack of reference to other uses and to the types and forms of development that would typically occur in city centres, on infill and windfall sites, and the seemingly limited applicability of many of the principles proposed in the plan to already built up, and perhaps heritage-constrained, city centres, I am a little concerned about what this says about the scale and ambition for the centres of our larger towns and cities. These can be our most economically, socially and culturally active and vibrant areas – and they’re currently having the stuffing knocked out of them by Covid-19 – so the White Paper’s apparent silence on them is a real worry.

(* Actually I found it a bit of a pain to read the landscape, double-page spread on a screen. After having spent the week battling with it, ironically one of the least Internet-savvy people I know helpfully pointed out that there is a simply formatted, accessible version also available here.)

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