Author: Rosemary Feenan
The planning community, urbanists, policy makers and academics have recently been mourning and celebrating the life of Sir Peter Hall, who died at the end of July, aged 82. Professor of Planning and Regeneration at the Bartlett (UCL), President of the Town and Country Planning Association, and also of the Regional Studies Association, Hall was as prolific as he was respected, estimating that he had written around 50 books and 2,100 articles during his professional career. His most recent book, Good Cities Better Lives: How Europe Discovered the Lost Art of Urbanism was published earlier this year. We examine the book’s key messages.
Good Cities Better Lives laments the state of British town and city planning. Since the high water mark of British planning in the 1960s, Sir Peter Hall argues that the field has been on a ‘long downward slide’, attempts at urban regeneration have been ‘tawdry and superficial’, and national policies which seek to generate growth and spread wealth have failed. The result, he observes, is that millions of British people no longer find urban life appealing and are moving out of the UK’s towns and cities. Good Cities Better Lives sets out to explore what can be done to change this state of affairs. Hall leads the reader on a city planner’s version of the Grand Tour, delving into best practice examples of planning from across Europe for inspiration and motivation. He argues that whilst Britain has been slipping behind in city building, our close neighbours in continental Europe have been striding ahead, responding faster and more imaginatively to common challenges, often from within similarly restrictive planning contexts.
Hall identifies some key challenges for the UK which have been tackled successfully by its European counterparts. First, he argues the UK needs to rebalance the discrepancy of economic fortunes which has emerged between the Greater South East and the rest of the country. Hall takes us to Germany, where de-industrialization and re-development have been managed so as to avoid the overwhelming primacy of any one city or city-region. Second, the UK must build more homes of a type and quality, and in the locations, that people want to buy. In the Netherlands we see a huge amount of high quality, environmentally sustainable housing that has been built in a short time. The Dutch are commended for their lack of inhibition about large-scale development and for their proactive municipalities who take the lead in master-planning.
Third, Hall argues that transport should be playing a more fundamental role in the planning of new developments in the UK. France is the relevant stop on the Grand Tour, and is commended for its integrated public transport planning, and for the visionary and committed metropolitan leadership of Mayors in Montpellier, Strasbourg and Lille.
Fourthly, Hall shows that the UK has performed poorly compared to many of its EU neighbours in meeting its (modest) carbon reduction goals. The Scandinavian city-regions of Stockholm, Copenhagen and Malmo are highlighted as sustainable role models. Hall saves the last leg of his literary journey and his notional First Prize for Freiburg, the German city which in his eyes “took on every challenge… and did best at it”.
Good Cities Better Lives is an accessible book for the lay reader, but is also direct in its recommendations for British policy makers. The book brims with suggestions, often imported directly from European best practice. Hall recommends generating a strong science-base in the regions, through the creation of institutions like Germany’s Max Planck Society and the Fraunhofer Society, and with new universities which are free to adopt unconventional faculty structures and find new ways to problem solve. In terms of financing, Hall joins the growing chorus of voices calling for greater fiscal autonomy for the UK’s cities, and also suggests that creating local or regional banks, with a dedicated mission to fund local business and home ownership, could be a key step in re-balancing the UK economy. In terms of governance, Hall suggests that local authorities should work co-operatively on integrated strategic plans for whole city-regions. He argues that city planning departments need to be strong, collaborative, and to have real planning powers which enable them to take a positive lead in developing or regenerating their cities.
Shortly before his death, Hall reissued his 1998 book Sociable Cities as a companion to Good Cities Better Lives. Sociable Cities takes the lessons and arguments of Good Cities and imagines revised visions of the future of three new city clusters at the periphery of the Greater South East (Mercia, Anglia and Kent). The gauntlet is thrown down, and responsibility for giving life to Hall’s vision of those city-regions now passes to policy makers and those with the power to put Hall’s lifetime of planning experience to even greater use.