Divided we stand

The quality of advice provided by planners and architects is as much the product of our education, our professional bodies and our office environments as it is our individual talents. The deep structures of our universities, memberships and working cultures have a profound influence on our personal processes of reasoning and acting. We are what we are fed – in the classroom, at the conference and around the meeting table. And what could possibly be wrong with that?

The problem, too often, is that the outcomes of our actions fail to deliver the aspirations of our intentions. New towns, planned to create fresh economies away from war-damaged cities, fail to thrive. Housing estates, designed to engender community, rapidly sink into no-go squalor. Relief roads, built to ease congestion, instead encourage more of us to drive. Clad in fitness gear, we become increasingly obese. Function, it seems, follows our rather poor form.

But we know all this, don’t we? Or do we? Has the current round of housebuilding healed the mistakes of previous generations? Are we now building local movement economies that reduce carbon emissions by providing jobs closer to home, shops on our urban doorsteps? Apparently not, otherwise we wouldn’t bemoan housebuilders and fear the creation of future slums.

Yet, pressed to explain the unintended outcomes of planning and design, the professions have, at worst, blamed the customer for not using their buildings and public spaces properly. At best, a notable few have taken the time to understand their customer, working with them to produce plans that put people first, buildings second.

Such experience has uncovered knowledge that, applied back into design, can militate against the risk of failure. However, a community planning approach is only part of the solution. As well as looking at the users of the places, we need to examine ourselves, the producers. When we do so, we find pervasive, “silo” structures in which we fail to communicate between each other: planners with architects; academics with practitioners. This begins in our universities, where we are still largely educated apart. We emerge, newly qualified, mostly ignorant of the disciplines alongside which we will almost immediately be required to do business.

In practice, we work through such impediments in different ways: avoidance or confrontation being the most common. In avoidance mode, we partition the work: “You do the road and I’ll do the buildings”. Confrontation creates a competition of the egos – whichever captures the client’s heart survives. Neither approach is satisfactory for the results of both too often fall short of the social and economic results that policies desire.

Answering the call: “Physician, heal thyself”, two separate initiatives offer hope for a better, collaborative form of future practice. The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) is sponsoring “UrbanBuzz”, a major attempt to de-silo practice. Similarly, the Academy of Urbanism has developed a programme of “UniverCities” in which, like UrbanBuzz, people from the public, private, community and educational sectors are encouraged to come together around local projects. It is early days for both but the experience of each is encouraging. The true measure of success will be when collaborative working methods are the norm, not the exception. For this to happen, professional cultures need to change: in education and in practice.

RTPI magazine column, September 2008

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