by Peter Larkham
It seems as if the FT’s property correspondent has discovered planning history. On no less than two recent occasions, Kate Allen (2014, 2015) has discussed the contemporary significance of Professor Sir Patrick Abercrombie’s plans for the London region, produced at the invitation of the Ministry for Town Planning in 1943-44 (Forshaw and Abercrombie, 1943; Abercrombie, 1945). Both were full-page features on the front page of the weekend ‘House and Home’ supplement; and the first carried a large full-colour reproduction of the widely-recognised “egg diagram” of social and functional areas in London.
It is very interesting to see such historic documents still being discussed in relation to today’s planning issues, and Kate Allen provides a fascinating argument for why the ‘scale’ and ‘ambition’ of Ambercrombie’s ideas are ripe for re-assessment. On one level, this suggests that planning history can have enduring relevance (or, perhaps, “impact” in today’s academic jargon!). But there are also persistent practical problems with attempting to translate the ideas of Abercrombie and the plans, no matter how well-known, into ‘workable’ solutions. With 70 years of hindsight the plans are flawed, probably inevitably; but quoting Boris Johnson’s “differences with Abercrombie” (Allen, 2014) is not really sufficient.
First, one should also be mindful of not slipping into the murky ‘hagiographical’ waters when it comes to reassessing the importance of Abercrombie’s work. For instance, the planning historian would be well aware that, although popularly attributed to him alone, the voluminous plans were not the sole work of Abercrombie. A plan of this scale can never be a sole-author product, and especially a plan produced at such speed and with the urgency of coping with post-war reconstruction paramount. There is no full biographical study of Abercrombie, though, despite his reputation as probably the twentieth century’s best-known, most prolific and influential British planner (Dix, 1981, is the most accessible source).* He worked with a small office staff, but with close collaboration with the numerous London boroughs and other authorities. In connexion with the County of London Plan, Arthur Ling referred to Abercrombie as “coming in periodically” (Gold, 1997, p. 180). Although there was no “public consultation” as we now know it in formulating these proposals, they were certainly produced by a consultative process. Inevitably, though, not all of the authorities consulted agreed with all of the proposals (as surviving files in the National Archives demonstrate). The public were merely informed about the proposals once they were developed, through public exhibitions and sale of the plans as large-format and (relatively) expensive books (Larkham and Lilley, 2012). For this was a time when there was widespread “belief in planning as an overall principle for ordering human affairs” (Ward, 1994, p. 114) and a view of “the planner as omniscient ruler, who should create new settlement forms, and perhaps also destroy the old, without interference or question” (Hall and Tewdwr-Jones, 2010, p. 53) (see Batt’s 1946 cartoon, clearly relating to replanning London). Things, as we know, are very different now; this leads to a second issue with ‘translation’ from past into present.
Whilst Abercrombie’s ideas unquestionably hold a certain fascination, he was, in essence, a Ministerial appointment, and this was not received with unanimous favour. Others felt that they were better suited to do the job. He was very much an Establishment figure, remote from those whose cities he was restructuring – as Jill Craigie’s film of his work in bombed Plymouth shows. And, notwithstanding his official status, it is clear that some Ministry civil servants – particularly in the new “planning technique” section – held very disparaging views of those planners and their plans who were not part of this group. Surviving papers give surprisingly acerbic and personal attacks, including on Abercrombie himself (for example about his plan for Hull, written jointly with the country’s most famous architect, Sir Edwin Lutyens) (Larkham, 2011). “Generally it seems to me a tragedy both for Hull, Sir Patrick Abercrombie and planning generally that he ever went near the place, and the sooner Hull gets away from his wilder ideas and faces up to the practical job of replanning … in a sound, decent, ordinary way the better” (National Archives HLG 79/226).
So, perhaps a more balanced account should recognise that Abercrombie’s ideas, however laudable, were flawed. That said, there is a relevance that goes deeper than mere acknowledgement of his visionary status. Perhaps their key aspect was in their scale. Writing both county and region plans, Abercrombie was able to correlate their recommendations; and the parallel plan for the smaller scale of the City of London (Holden and Holford, 1947) was also able to take account of Abercrombie’s plans (professionally, it was then a very small world: these planners were well known to each other). Together, then, they form an integrated suite of plans constituting perhaps the most detailed and large-scale regional plan ever produced for this country. It is a great achievement that one man, no matter how experienced and well-connected, was able to coordinate this work so quickly. The current government, though, has essentially abolished regional planning frameworks. Abercrombie’s work shows very clearly that towns and cities work with regional economies; and this is probably more apposite today with greatly expanded journey-to-work possibilities and a globalised economy.
One of the most enduring aspects of Abercrombie’s regional vision was the need to decentralise population and production from the great cities. It is this idea, developing from the Garden Cities of nearly half a century earlier, that eventually underpinned New Towns; and continues to resonate with more recent ideas about the possibility of creating ‘new’ Garden Cities in an attempt to reduce unfettered ‘(sub)urban sprawl’. And yet, critiques continue to emerge of both Garden Cities and New Towns: “none of us agree with … the idea that big cities are bad and his attempts to move people out of London” (Deputy Mayor Sir Edward Lister, quoted in Allen, 2014). There is another, yet hitherto largely under acknowledged, reason underpinning the ambitions for large-scale ‘decentralisation’. One of the most fundamental concerns of the 1930s and 1940s, and something that Abercrombie was acutely aware of, was the problem of large cities was not just the poor quality of living of many of their occupants, in slum housing, but their vulnerability to aerial warfare. The bombing of London (and many other British towns and cities) brought this home to us, with the V1 and V2 attacks on the Home Counties continuing even as Abercrombie wrote. And that experience paled into insignificance before the catastrophe that the Allies inflicted on, for example, Dresden, Hamburg, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Spreading population and production, at that time, sensibly spread a strategic risk. And a less-dense inner urban area could provide more public open space and a better quality of life for the (still numerous) remaining residents.
Allen (2015) mentions the “stultifying boredom with which …suburban Shangri-Las would come to be associated”, and invokes the spirit of Abercrombie, when she introduces the contemporary interpretation of how ‘distributed urbanism’ has infused the new garden city visions of the 2014 Wolfson Prize (see BBC, 2014). The entries, and winner/runners-up, were very varied in their interpretations; but were perhaps shackled by the prize’s groundrules, with twin foci on attractiveness and economic viability. One of the intractable problems with original Garden Cities and New Towns is that a previous generation’s notion of attractiveness and viability do not survive long; especially when – for example – international economic fluctuations over half a century have to be considered, and when what for the first generation occupants are immensely improved standards of living are found, half a century later, to be sadly deficient in, for example, parking and amenity space, energy efficiency, or even the aesthetics of housing design and layout. It is too easy to blame yesterday’s “planners”, whether faceless or nameless, or as well-known as Abercrombie, for this. And there are tangible practical and theoretical hindrances when it comes to reworking the ideas of planning’s past. We need instead to accept and work with change, at scales ranging from our back garden to an entire city region. We need a planning system that is both visionary but simultaneously better at managing change and producing high-quality development.
This is clearly shown by the experience of David Rudlin of the urban design consultancy URBED, winner of the Wolfson prize. “We have discussed these issues with politicians and planners. The most common response is that our concepts made sense but were impossible in their locality. This impasse is what we need to overcome; we will only do so by raising confidence in the quality of what we build rather than just relaxing green belt policy” (Rudlin, 2015).
Overall, then, Abercrombie was no more flawed than any of his contemporaries or any of today’s planning practitioners. He was a man of his time, and his ideas were also of their time. But their enduring contribution has been to keep “big” planning in a wider consciousness, whether of politicians or the public.
* Professor Gerald Dix was a junior colleague of Abercrombie’s in the post-war period, and still has some of Abercrombie’s personal papers.
References and Links:
Abercrombie, P. (1945) Greater London Plan 1944, HMSO, London
Allen, K. (2014) ‘Back to the drawing board?’, Financial Times, House & Home section, 4-5 October, pp. 1, 11. http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/97afa1b2-44a3-11e4-ab0c-00144feabdc0.html [accessed 20 January]
Allen, K. (2015) ‘Suburban solution’, Financial Times, House & Home section, 17-18 January, p. 1 http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/c7428fe2-9684-11e4-a83c-00144feabdc0.html#slide5 [accessed 20 January]
BBC (2014) ‘New garden cities plan wins £250000 Wolfson Prize’, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-29056829 [accessed 20 January]
Dix, G. (1981) ‘Patrick Abercrombie’, in Cherry, G.E. (ed.) Pioneers in British town planning, Architectural Press, London
Forshaw, J.H. and Abercrombie, P. (1943) County of London Plan prepared for the LCC, Macmillan, London
Gold, J.R. (1997) The experience of modernism, Spon, London
Holden, C.H. and Holford, W.G. (1947) Reconstruction in the City of London: Final Report to the Improvements and Town Planning Committee, The consultants, London
Larkham, P.J. (2011) ‘Hostages to history? The surprising survival of critical comments about British planning and planners c. 1942-1955’, Planning Perspectives vol. 26 no. 3 pp. 487-491
Larkham, P.J. and Lilley, K.D. (2012) ‘Exhibiting the city: planning ideas and public involvement in wartime and early post-war Britain’, Town Planning Review vol. 83 no. 6 pp. 648-668
Rudlin, D. (2015) Letter to the Editor, Evening Standard, with commentary in Building Design Online http://www.bdonline.co.uk/news/wolfson-prize-winner%E2%80%99s-frustration-at-garden-city-%E2%80%98impasse%E2%80%99/5073271.article [accessed 20 January]