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Alison Ravetz talks about the reissue of ‘Remaking Cities’ and ‘The Governance of Space’

Author Alison Ravetz evaluates the British planning system--its evolution, challenges, and opposition--in her recently reissued 'Remaking Cities' and 'The Governance of Space.'

Remaking Cities is a history and closely argued analysis of the British planning system, from its origins in turn-of-the-century utopianism to its first thirty years of operation as an integral part of the Welfare State. It produced the urban and town-country settings that still surround us: functionally segregated and shaped by supposedly neutral planning expertise, according to government policy. Other professions besides town planning were involved: notably architecture, transportation and highway engineering.  Planning was challenged by, and accommodated as best it could, the fall and rise of different industries and invasions of new technologies – notably the rising tide of motor transportation. As a composite system, it was bound to reflect the values and power relations of its times.

For all the changes made in the 1960s and ‘70s, planning never achieved the autonomy its founders had wanted. In the years covered by this book it faced public protest and campaigns, weathering several ‘crises’ both of the profession and in the environments it sought to control. It was compromised by its inability to protect the victims of development whose space and local activities were overwhelmed by the invasion of what Jane Jacobs called ‘cataclysmic money’. This In effect created new categories of powerlessness, such as the ‘transportation poor’ and the ‘housing poor’, that have carried over to the present, subsumed in the ‘inner city problem’ described and prescribed for countless times, but never in fact resolved.

Planning’s core contradiction was that its existence was owed to the very for-profit development whose harmful effects it was created to remove. This was crucial in the export of western-style planning theory and design icons to ex-colonial and developing countries lacking the social and economic frameworks that supported them in Britain. It was rooted in the philosophy of environmental determinism: a naive belief that ideal, designed environments could meet social needs as experts defined them, while disregarding the difference between ‘place’ as used and inhabited by people, and the more  abstract ‘space’ of planning lore and practice. A review of collective and individual patterns of behavior in ‘places’ leads Remaking Cities to new insights into the vital but problematic practice of ‘public participation’ in planning.                  

The book’s later chapters ask whether there were any alternatives to the way planning developed in Britain. This was not for the purpose of presenting a manifesto for change, as did many critiques of planning at the time, but to explore what they might entail in practice. Communist planning did not answer because, whatever its differences, it was as exploitative of people and natural resources as the west. The only genuine alternatives available were those of the ‘counter culture’: a variety of disconnected, mostly short-lived group experiments whose limited practical achievements were perhaps outweighed by the significance of their removal or re-drawing of conventional boundaries between work and life, home and workplace, town and country, and male/female roles in society.

The theme is taken up in again in The Government of Space, a succinct guide for non-specialists to the operation of planning in society. Its chapter ‘Turning Points’, highlights three classic cases of interaction between state and local people. Two of them (Black Road in Macclesfield and Tolmers Square at London Euston) were led by people who saw potential in old, supposedly expendable, urban environments. The third was the big council estate of Byker in Newcastle upon Tyne, where an old environment had already been destroyed and it fell to an on-site architectural team to reconnect a former ‘slum’ population to its industrial and cultural past.

By the time Government of Space was published, British planning was in such deep crisis that many thought it would not outlast the century. In the event, the ‘new right’ Thatcher regime made drastic inroads into it as a local government service and abolished London’s and other metropolitan authorities that threatened central control. Competition, rather than need, became the criterion for distributing limited funds, and the short, sharp, one-off initiative the mechanism for kick-starting ‘enterprise’ where this had failed. A generation later, in Coalition Britain, where riots and homelessness have returned to the streets, government again views planning as an unnecessary  brake on enterprise and projects of national importance. Inroads into development control have become bolder and parts of the planning apparatus summarily abolished. But the recent worldwide crises of banking and growth-based economies raise the question whether it is less planning we need, or more. Either way, notions of ‘growth’ and ‘development’ are involved, and if we are shopping for new paradigms, the broad retrospective sweep of The Government of Space is a good jumping off point.


For more information on Remaking Cities and to order your copy, visit:  http://www.routledge.com/9780415844444/

For more information on The Government of Space and to order your copy, visit: http://www.routledge.com/9780415844451/