Can planning’s past tell us about planning’s future?

by Peter J Larkham

Planning has the potential to become a rallying-cry around which people come together to bring diverse and exciting ideas about what their future could be like, and then helps people realise these collective dreams.  But I worry that we have lost the knack of constructively and positively engaging the public in the complex issues of planning.  Perhaps we can look to the past to re-learn a lost art of inspiring enthusiasm and hope through planning.

Routledge is publishing a new series of booksWhen We Build Again book title, reprinting classic texts in town planning with newly-commissioned critical introductions.  My contribution – published on 17 July – focuses on two books about Birmingham: principally the Bournville Village Trust’s When we build again (1941), with Paul Cadbury’s Birmingham – fifty years on (1952).  But why do we revisit these aged texts?  What can we learn from planning history?

It’s commonplace to suggest that we should learn lessons from the past.  On the other hand, perhaps we just make the same mistakes over and over again!  Look at the current furore over the new syllabus for history in secondary schools.  In terms of planning history specifically, the eminent planning historian Tony Sutcliffe said long ago that “does it not reflect [society’s] rejection of a once-proud elite of technocrats, who take refuge in the past from an uncertain present and a gloomy future?” (Sutcliffe, 1981, p. 65).  Sutcliffe’s place for planning history and historians was as “unsettling persons”, evaluating and questioning the past, soberly assessing its “contribution to the long-term development of planning methodology” (Sutcliffe, 1981, p. 67).  Planning history should replace myth in situating ideas within a broad and long-term historical perspective.

So what’s “unsettling” about Birmingham’s planning history after the bombing of the Second World War?  Exploring the commissioning, writing and impact of these two short books reveals some points still relevant when considering the state of planning today.

  • When we build again is a social study of housing conditions, not actually a “plan”.  It started with ideas in 1934 although it wasn’t published until 1941, after much of the blitz bomb damage.  It provided a sound body of evidence, informing a plan-making process: this was at an early stage of planning becoming more “scientific”.  Despite rhetoric about current “evidence-based policy”, there is considerable concern, in the spate and nature of change and the information provided in its support, that we have “policy-based evidence”.
  • Both books are written and, perhaps more significantly, illustrated, for a wide and non-specialist readership.  Even the statistical information in When we build again is illustrated using then-novel presentation formats.  When was the last time you picked up a planning document, read it cover-to-cover, and found it interesting, informative and well-written?  Despite modern technology, have we lost something of the art of communicating?
  • When we build again, in particular, sold thousands of copies.  The government used it as an exemplar of British ideas, sending copies to organisations across the world.  Local people read it.  Its ideas were made into a film, and presentations given to schools and other civic organisations.  How can current media promote the positive message of planning, rather than – as usually seems to be the case – damning the product and process of planning?
  • Birmingham – fifty years on was visionary – literally so.  It gave an artist’s impressions of what the city could look like in the distant future.  The visions were soundly based on current plans, although in fact it’s the futuristic cars which are most startling!  Although urban designers in particular now commonly use 3-D and video visualisations, getting a planning message to a wider public audience means thinking seriously about “how do we want to live?  What’s it going to look like?  How will it actually work?”  – that’s what people want to know about.  Reading a text is less engaging than clear and informative maps, plans, illustrations and so on – and we need to engage with all audiences, all ages, all abilities and backgrounds.
  • Neither of these books were “official” products of central or local government.  One was originated and resourced by the Bournville Village Trust, the second written by an influential member of the Trust and a prime mover in approving the project and funding for the first book.  At that time the person in charge of Birmingham’s planning, Herbert Manzoni, didn’t believe in city-scale “plans” and so Birmingham didn’t have one, although the majority of its competitors did.  There’s something to be learned here about “joined up” planning; engaging with the skills, knowledge and resources of other communities and groups.  Yet this isn’t really the rhetoric of “localism” as currently proposed for planning.  Genuine public engagement with planning has always been difficult and potentially divisive.

So is this re-evaluation producing anything “unsettling”?  In my view it suggests that what planning has really lost in the intervening 60 years is a skill in communicating vision and enthusiasm, with expertise based on a detailed and reliable evidence base.  There is evidence here that planners (and ‘unofficial’ ones at that) were once able to do this well.  There is rather less evidence today that the profession has really convinced either politicians or the wider public.  As Lord and Tewdwr-Jones (2013) suggest, if the current Coalition government was genuinely committed to a programme of ‘real’ restructuring designed to replace ‘antiquated’ planning legislation, it would have to undertake some thorough and serious contemplation about the legacies associated with the discipline.  Perhaps this is what is precisely needed at this juncture, though: not just from the incumbent government, but also from students, practitioners, and ‘believers’ in planning.



Lord, A. and Tewdwr-Jones, M. (2012) ‘Is planning “under attack”? Chronicling the deregulation of urban and environmental planning in England’, European Planning Studies vol. 21 pp.1-17.

Sutcliffe, A.R. (1981) ‘Why planning history?’, Built Environment vol. 7 pp. 65-67.



Routledge book series:

Bournville Village Trust:


Peter Larkham is Professor of Planning with the Birmingham School of the Built Environment.  His next book will also be on post-war planning history (Townscapes of Modernity, edited with John Pendlebury and Erdem Erten, ISBN 8-0415587341).

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