Reflections on recent Centennial Congress of the International Federation of Housing and Planning (IFHP)
By Jamie K Abbott, on 23 July 2013
Cover of special edition of Arkitektur DK for the IFHP Centenary Congress 2013 in London
The Centennial Congress of the International Federation of Housing and Planning (IFHP) recently brought together a stimulating and highly qualified crowd of international planners for a conversation closely aligned to the DPU’s focus on global urban growth. Yet, as DPU students might have come to expect, the messages the speakers presented were as diverse as their backgrounds and veered from the highly technical to the bluntly political and everything inbetween.
The first to take the plenary podium was Mitchell Silver, Past President of the American Planning Association and Chief Planner, City of Raleigh, North Carolina. In a perhaps unlikely combination, Silver doubles up as an inspirational speaker. He called for us to ‘fall in love with planning again,’ thanked planners and asked us to find purpose, be proud of the planner’s role in and assert the planners role in ‘making a difference.’ Silver argued strongly for big ideas and courage in planning for new trends. His message was that we need to plan more for sustainability, for people and for people’s consumer preferences – and the key difference he highlighted is generational change. According to him, new approaches are needed to cater for increased mobility, urban living, quality transport, easy access to entertainment, shops and high quality public spaces.
The suburban dream is becoming outdated, both for mobile young professionals and for aging baby boomers, increasingly isolated in car dependent suburbs as age curtails mobility. In Raleigh they are responding with a ‘new’ urbanism approach – increased density, transport orientated development (TOD) and investment with a nod to environmental consideration and equity. Another good news story: density = higher tax revenues. For all the big ideas and motivation here we might have been left wondering: where are the people in this? Even further, where are the politicians? Silver’s message was one of the planner as hero, empowering enlightened planners to help people, not the other way around – politicians were peripheral, people were objects to be planned for.
Following Silver’s heavily planning orientated speech, six influential figures took to the stage, including Charles Landry, whose backgrounds and responsibilities stretched tensions between the technical and political planning to the limit. The discussion was unmistakably political, with only two ‘professional planners’ – one of them representing a multinational technology firm. Next, the event divided into sessions around themes. On the agenda were broad discussions around responding to urban growth, a case study of East London regeneration and the Olympics, smart cities, climate resilience and social justice.
I followed the seminar track on the East London case study – the subject of my dissertation and one where planning and politics are tricky to unpick. This deprived area of London is the subject of unprecedented regeneration attempts linked to Olympic ‘legacies’ but while the legacy narrative is of social development, the investment model is dominated by massive real estate development, led by financial industries and a mega event. What would be the effect on the local populations? There were three comparable and sizable interventions to look at – all heralded as part of the solution to the ‘East End problem’. Jo Negrini, Newham’s Director of Strategic Regeneration proudly announced a deal with a Chinese financial conglomerate to redevelop the Royal Docks as a third financial centre for London. The Royal Docks are currently a bleak and windswept site, isolated from the rest of London by the river, major trunk roads (the A13) and sprawling estates of suburban council housing but they are seen as a strategic growth area by the council. It was too early for detailed questions, but the sales pitch was clear – new jobs and investment in an underutilised site.
As the conference progressed, speakers included Eric Sorenson, former CEO of the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC), responsible for the Canary Wharf development and Paul Bricknell, head of planning for the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC). Sorenson was quick to admit that Canary Wharf remains starkly isolated from the surrounding communities and has done little to alleviate poverty and deprivation. This he said was down to physical barriers such as the (very same) A13 and a ‘needs based’ government housing policy that concentrates poverty. But would the Olympics and the Royal Docks go the same way: would economic and spatial improvements cater for the local populations or create new divisions? Bricknell, from the LLDC said no – local jobs and clear physical links are a key part of the Olympic plans; ‘Legacy’ is key. But can we really learn all the lessons of the past simply through ‘comprehensive strategic planning’? And what does ‘Legacy’ really mean?
Mike Raco, a Planning Lecturer at UCL’s Bartlett remained dubious. In his summary of the two-day seminar session, Raco asked: “If we were serious about Legacy, why were £9 bn invested in mega sports stadiums in an area of deprivation when budgets are being cut for key services?”. He invited us to imagine a planning approach for people that invested £9 bn in nursing homes for the ageing population. It went unspoken but it appeared as if Raco’s question quietly asked whether a new financial hotspot is really what Newham needs.
The conference ended as it had begun; highlighting generational change and calling the next generation of planners to step up, to use new approaches to bridge the tough social urban questions. Urbego, the new IFHP initiative for young ‘multi-disciplinary’ planners rejected the old ways but weren’t sure what to offer instead. We had to find something new, different, radical: something akin to the ‘Fosbury Flop’. So how could planning be re-imagined? Well, it seemed to depend on who you asked, but something that didn’t feature much – at least in the debates I attended – was planning with people (or by people) for people…..
Jamie is currently a student of the MSc Urban Development Planning at the DPU