“I mean, bluntly, there comes a question in life – do you believe planning works, that clever people sitting in a room can plan how people’s communities should develop? Or do you believe it can’t work?
“I believe it can’t work, David Cameron believes it can’t, Nick Clegg believes it can’t. Chaotic therefore in our vocabulary is a good thing.
“Chaotic is what our cities are when we see how people live, where restaurants spring up, where they close, where people move to.
“Would you like to live in a world where you could predict any of that? I certainly wouldn’t.”
Nicholas Boles, Conservative MP for Grantham and Stamford
Nicholas Boles’ remarks are understandable but at the same time worrying for many involved in the planning, design and management of places, urban or rural. Thinking that the answer to planning is chaos not only questions the budgets currently allocated to the activity but also critiques the intellectual basis of the profession.
Understandable because, from failed housing estates to the Dome, the UK planning system has a poor record of doing things “top-down”.
Worrying because people who have taken time to study how cities evolve have concluded that they do so in ways that are far from chaotic. Instead, urban scientists, such as Prof Bill Hillier of University College London, have found that places are structured by the interplay between the attraction of assets and the location of these in the spatial network of towns and cities. Successful places have attractive assets and effective spatial networks. Having both makes planning and managing such places all the easier. Placing key assets in the wrong place – like the Dome, which was built at the tip of a poorly connected peninsula – is a recipe for failure.
Urban experts have also found that places are, at best, probabilistic in the way they operate, never deterministic. You can’t make anything happen – only provide conditions that facilitate things happening.
The problem for some people is that this kind of analysis is often too subtle and sophisticated. People are looking for simple answers. So, when Nicholas Boles concludes that planning doesn’t work, he announces that the answer lies in a soundbite: chaos.
Saying that chaos is the answer to top-down planning is akin to saying that anarchy is the answer to autocracy. Far from it, the answer is not in chaos but in a looser fit form of planning that recognises the fact that cities work well when individual acts of settlement and occupation occur within a well connected and well maintained movement network; when attractors are well located; when the street system promotes walking, cycling and public transport as well as the car.
It is a fantasy to think that this will happen unless the efforts of individuals are emboldened by a vision and coordinated as a system. We used to call this planning.