The future of urban form and infrastructure: more effective management of flooding and other challenges

by Peter Larkham

“Plan boldly!” (Lord Reith, 19401)

Photo of flooded residential area at Wimborne, February 2014
Flooding on the Stour, Wimborne, Dorset.
Photo: Ian Kirk (via Flickr)

The recent floods are just one example of the problems we are likely to face in the coming 50-100 years as a result of environmental and social change.  Traditional urban forms are vulnerable, and current ways of planning are weak and slow to respond.

I spent a day recently at an ‘expert symposium’ on the future of urban form and infrastructure, part of the Government Office for Science’s “Foresight Future of Cities” project.  It was a fascinating and wide-ranging discussion with a good range of experienced academics and professionals.  But it actually said very little about form or infrastructure in any detail.  We largely accepted that much existing research had already identified good and bad form, and in fact the key to better urbanism in the future was better management, at all scales.

So, acknowledging ideas from the assembled experts (though anonymised via Chatham House rules), there are some radical lessons for planning and management.

Quote 1 for Blog 17First is consideration of the appropriate scale for planning.  The UK does not have a strategic plan, let alone one with any spatial awareness.  Decisions are seemingly led by Treasury rules and priorities; short-termism dominates; and since the abandonment of regional planning, it seems that the rhetoric of localism cannot respond to larger-scale concerns.  The political reaction to the current flooding exemplifies this disconnection.  In reality, towns and cities operate in networks, at regional (or perhaps sub-regional) scales; and key issues cross our small-scale political and administrative boundaries.  Strategic infrastructure, too, crosses these boundaries.  In fact, and something raised through recent BCU research, the natural unit boundary for so many things is, in fact, the river catchment area.  Some of the flooding problems of Shrewsbury, Bridgnorth, Worcester and Gloucester could be mitigated by major green infrastructure – tree planting – in the Welsh uplands of the Severn catchment.  We might then be able to re-think, and perhaps re-purpose, some of the currently vulnerable flood plains.  Greater awareness of water flows might help to more effectively locate water-using development such as housing, and provide for greener solutions for managing waste water.  Much of the south-east, where much development is focused, is a water-poor region.

Quote 2 for Blog 17Related to this point of scale, and to resource allocation, is the idea that competition between cities is actually corrosive rather than positive.  Networked cities, or settlements within city regions, need to collaborate to make more effective use of scarce funding, rather than competing for exclusive use of particular pots of money.

Secondly, we need to make better use of transport networks and nodes.  Focus more development around existing nodes, and develop new nodes with real strategic vision and purpose.  So, for example, we should minimise railway stations on high-speed long-distance routes and junctions on motorways, because local journeys clog the system.  Don’t build edge cities – look at the infilling around the M42/A3400 junction!

We should use transport and other infrastructure to conceptualise city networks, such as the Randstadt (an urban ring with a ‘green heart’), or perhaps even linear cities as ‘beads on a string’.  This needs to rethink the relationship between built and unbuilt; urban, peri-urban and rural; and perhaps green belts might be replaced by corridors, wedges and the like.  Green, blue and grey infrastructure need to be integral parts of this picture.

Communications infrastructure will be vital too.  The wired (or, better, wireless) city is already allowing virtual communities to develop: work and social interactions occur at a distance.  Many people may not need to move to be closer to their jobs.  Where you live may be more about access to leisure and recreation: wellbeing and improved quality of life rather than access to employment.  Could this introduce ‘happiness’ as a measure of good urban form and design?

We can only plan boldly and appropriately with a suitable administrative system.  Our current quasi-judicial and adversarial system does not generate certainty for individuals, communities or businesses.  Our governance systems are not integrated.  Do we need to re-invent the much more integrated Department of the Environment?  Or a Cabinet committee, rather like COBRA, charged with investigating, and overseeing the implementation of, long-term planning for changing social, built and natural environments?  At the very least we need better working between interests of communities and built environment (DCLG), natural environment (DEFRA), all modes of transportation (DoT), and funding and the business agenda (Treasury and DTI).  These interests need to collaborate, not compete.

Quote 3 for Blog 17The finance system doesn’t work to the advantage of cities and the public good either.  UK housebuilding works to profit margins of 20% or more.  In the Netherlands the equivalent is about 5%.  Apparently this relates to certainty, ability to borrow, and the need to satisfy shareholders.  If a less adversarial planning system delivered more certainty, perhaps development industry funding could change, and we might be able to build more houses for the money available.  We should also remember that new urban form, and new settlements, should be about far more than just new housing!

A final point relates to people and society.  We have become afraid of change: caricatured as NIMBYs2 and BANANAs3.  We build gated communities; privatise formerly public city-centre space; and build six-foot fences between our rather small gardens.  We worry about in-migration, but elsewhere cities are shrinking and becoming bankrupt.  In looking to the future, could we seek to educate wide sections of society to be more flexible, accept change, tolerate newcomers, use spaces differently, live and work in new patterns?

“People don’t like change.  But make the change happen fast enough and you go from one type of normal to another” (Terry Pratchett, Making Money, 2007)

Peter Larkham
Professor of Planning


1         Lord Reith was the first Minister responsible for planning, in the short-lived Ministry of Town and Country Planning during the 1940s.  He gave this advice to badly-bombed cities including Coventry and Plymouth.

2         Not In My Back Yard.

3         Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anybody.



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