How do we make better places?
Recently, I went to a Manchester Modernist Society screening of historic North West information films. While development per se was a prominent theme, what struck me was the changing relationship between people and planning.
The first film concerned the 1960s redevelopment of central Rochdale (this one, in case you’ve a hankering to get down to the North West Film Archive!). It focused on the demolition of much of the old town to make way for the high-rises of tomorrow – or yesterday, as they now seem. What was striking was not only the utopian vision that accompanied the plans (“No one could miss these old terraces… not even for sentimental reasons”), or how monolithic the towers seemed in the context only of older, brick buildings. Rather, it was the way that the complete erasure of swathes of Rochdale, including commercial and residential areas, was undertaken at the direction of the local authority.
The radical changes were imposed on residents, many of whom had simply to pack up their things and move into a flat (a common enough tale that it spawned a short-lived sitcom). As the narrator said, only the bulldozers and the planners could say what Rochdale would become.
Another film was a promotional reel by the Skelmersdale Development Corporation, selling the virtues of the new town with all the benevolent authoritarianism that kindly mid-century planners could muster. Skem and its fellow new towns were to be ideal, green cities, conjured from neglected countryside to enrich the lives of those trapped in urban squalor.
This didn’t seem to stretch as far as asking people what they would like to see there, but the planners were clear that they had thought about making it a pleasant place to live: separating industry from homes, making safe walking a priority, and preserving uncultivated trees and wildflowers. In other words, they were beginning to speak the language of convenience, amenity, connectivity and sustainability that now characterises planning. Centralised, but considered.
Now, of course, we see that to make properly liveable places the best they can be, you need to talk to the people who live there, and who want to move there. Major changes to both Rochdale and Skelmersdale have been proposed: just last week, a legal challenge to an extension to central Skem was rebuffed; the latest town-centre demolition in Rochdale is due to be finished this year. In each case, the partners involved consulted on their original plans and continue to ask for public involvement.
In the course of my work, I see all the time that developers prepared to speak with communities at an early stage stand the best chance of winning public support, which in the end comes from working towards a shared idea of what development, or redevelopment, can achieve. More inclusive planning can help us to avoid dead ends and build better places. At Remarkable, we’re proud to have a played a part in helping this conversation for some of the biggest schemes around.
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