• Redefining the density debate

Architects and urban planners should focus less on density, and expend more effort on creating livable spaces. And policy needs to be simpler, less wordy – and implemented by a more professionally-drawn set of decision makers.
That was the view of a panel of experts assembled at LPA’s Politics of Planning conference, who agreed that dense development can work, if the ground level works.
Linda Thiel of White Arkitecter, who recently moved from Scandinavia to run the practice’s London office, reflected on the differences in approach. Having worked on Stockholm’s Hammarby Sea Town expansion, and its densely masterplanned Skanstull district, she said a better funded, more masterplanned approach, with far less bureaucratic planning documents, was her home country experience. And she noted that tall buildings are less of a debated issue: “As long as we get the streetscape right, density isn’t that important.”
She noted that Stockholm’s approach is to have walkability a key in its city plan. That way, mixed use is deployed throughout, in order to reduce commuting and the potential for dormitory settlements.
Kathryn Firth, an urban design consultant at FP Design, called for broader thinking than currently exists. “We need to become less fixated on land use, we need to find ways to measure density that don’t exist yet. We need to recognise what the trends are – these are all having an impact on how we live and move through the city.” She said mixed use projects are currently still “hinged on he economic value of the moment”.
Planning and development practitioners were agreed that a better resourced planning system is going to be vital in delivering better projects, in a more timely way.
Peter Freeman, founder of Argent and a seasoned creator of major city schemes involving complex sites and many mixed uses, declared the necessity of breaking down silos, and opening up a dialogue in order to achieve better results for all. And he was critical of the current planning decision set-up, which often dumbs down approvals.
The big problem with the current system is that it favours “saying no”, because elected members often feel that is the safest route to ensuring they get re-elected. That leads to dysfunctional decision-making. “Sooner or later, the idea of a planning committee being local people will go out of the window.” He proposed unelected professionals ought to be brought onto committees to adjudicate over decisions.
Freeman also noted the importance of getting the streetscape right, and investing to achieve that. One public square in his group’s King’s Cross scheme contains granite benches, an investment considerably more expensive than other alternatives, but one that has helped raise the quality of the environment. The developer also continues to manage the public spaces, animating them with seasonal events and providing free viewings of major sporting events, installing seating and big screens. Such commitments, he says, are rarely made by local authorities, when they manage public space.
Supporting Freeman’s themes was planning consultant Roger Hepher, who called for simpler development plans, with design officers who are less conservative in their approach. Echoing the Scandinavian experience, he declared: “Our plans are far too wordy and complex, they’re far too often behind the curve.”
He also supported Freeman’s ideas for the planning system. “Far too many planning applications go to committee,” he noted. And planners need to take account of opportunity areas within their own patch, for example exploiting improved transport infrastructure. Some key London nodes, such as Finsbury Park, have been left to disappoint: “The planning system has failed to grasp its potential.”

LPA Perspective: What marks the difference between the success of Scandinavian city planning and the relative lack of it in the UK is that socialist Sweden still believes in the role of planning as the arbiter of tensions between public and private interests – the greater good – which we seem to have lost sight of in British planning during the Thatcherite/Blairite era. Our system having been more or less reduced to a development control system operating by planning regulation, rather than creative city design principles. The Swedes spend a lot more money creating a vision that the market can then respond to. If London wants to intensify its land use, to balance interests, it has to invest in this kind of process, and recognise design as a key tool in researching where the best answers might lie – not to rely solely on the private sector to deliver this role for all, which is what seems to happen at the moment. Developers like Peter Freeman probably quite like this arrangement, but it has generated the biggest risk of all in creating growth – planning risk. If the state, using developers’ skills – which are so often absent from the planning process – restored to itself the role of ‘planner’, some of the hugely expensive planning risk might be removed from the system. We could spend the money on more homes.

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