Don’t be afraid to copy ideas from the past

I’m pleased to say that I am not old enough to remember World War 2 but I do just about remember the end of that last flush of post war building that created some of the post war town planning masterpieces and town planning horror shows. As a boy growing up in East London my vision of childhood was all about road building. I saw the M11 and M25 being built and then the M11 link road that took those nasty polluting lorries away from the road I had to cross to get to school and putting them in a tunnel. The idea of sustainable linked (and walkable) communities did not really feature in my thoughts as I toyed with the idea of becoming a Town Planner. What I really wanted to do more than anything else was to spend all day looking at maps because that’s what Planners do don’t they?

However when I turned up in Plymouth in the late 90s I became fascinated by post war rebuilding in Plymouth. A monocled, stiff suited gentleman named Patrick Abercrombie came up with some great ideas for rebuilding bombed out Plymouth after the war. As with his plans for London he did like big wide roads that cut through the heart of communities to enable the motor car to rule. However what fascinated me was his idea of sustainable linked communities even though he wouldn’t have understood that phrase. He wanted to create “neighbourhood grouping[s]; each group a compact self-contained entity. ”

I thought at the time that this was quite inspired and Abercrombie had created a walkable neighbourhood. Looking around Plymouth there was some evidence of sustainable neighbourhoods being created. However in the rush to house people and with the rapid rise of the car you had to sometimes look very hard to find these sustainable neighbourhoods. My impression was that Planners in post war Plymouth felt that the modern way of living with car ownership and the consumer preference to shop in “super” markets meant that Abercrombie’s plan could be assigned to the town planning recycling bin (or even a land fill site).

Then the idea of sustainable linked communities popped up again in the Urban Task Force report “Towards an Urban Renaissance” in 1999 and it looked like this.

However this time the word sustainability was coming into our vocabulary and the debate about man-made climate change was starting to be hotly debated. I believe we were up to COP5 in Bonn at the time, but according to Wikipedia “It was primarily a technical meeting, and did not reach major conclusions”; so let’s just say that climate change was not being taken as seriously as it is today. However whereas Abercrombie was not interested in climate change – because not even the outer fringes of the green lobbying groups had worked that one out – the Urban Task Force did consider the role that Planning makes in reducing man made climate change.

When I worked for Plymouth City Council we dined out on the phrase “sustainable linked communities” and it was the bedrock of the (award winning) Core Strategy that was adopted in 2007. The above diagram was even reproduced in the Core Strategy and the concept has been refined further in the subsequent Joint Local Plan.

And so to bring my time travelling journey to today I read an excellent article in the Planner by Rhiannon Moylan from Montagu Evans who wrote about the “20 Minute Neighbourhood”. Rhiannon rightly puts achieving net-zero at the heart of the reason for a sustainable linked neighbourhood. However if Abercrombie was transported to 2021 he might say “Wait a minute wasn’t that my idea?” He would probably also say “What the dickens is net-zero meant to mean?”

So what is the point of this blog apart from showing my age? Well it is to say that actually some of the best ideas in Planning come from rehashing old ideas but giving them a new twist. Abercrombie was inspired and, if you ignore his obsession for building big roads, a champion for reducing climate change. The 20 Minute Neighbourhood concept is brilliant and, in my view, should form the bedrock of Planning as a key component of achieving net-zero and we shouldn’t be worried that the idea originated from a time when we were doing all we could to drive up the temperature of the planet. We should ditch the bad ideas but not forget the good ones.

Finally I would like to also point out a key difference from the time of Abercrombie and now. Whilst I am far too young to have met Patrick Abercrombie I have seen his film on Plymouth. I’m sure he was a jolly nice chap, but let’s just say he had a paternal way about him and the only women seen in the film were either making tea or admiring Abercrombie for being such a great man who had come to make their lives better. The only people I could see on his team making decisions were white middle / upper class men. How could he really understand what a diverse community really wanted for their future? Well as we know from more enlightened commentators of the time women were making a significant impact on initiatives such as the Garden City movement. Thankfully times have moved on enormously even since the Urban Task Force and, whilst there is still so much more to do, the paternalistic world that Abercrombie and his team lived in is hopefully now fully consigned to history. The great Planners coming into the limelight now are there because they are great Planners and not due to their gender, parental background or ethnic makeup.

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