Once upon a time, towns and cities used to be for something.
So Dundee, was the city of jam jute and journalism, and Kirkcaldy was synonymous with linoleum. Nowadays Dundee and Kirkcaldy are still there but the jam, jute, journalism and linoleum are long gone. That is not to say that there nothing happening in these places now. But the former easy functional geographical determinism is gone.
What happens in towns and cities now is more amorphous and generic. There is retail, but that is in transition from high street to online, with seemingly only coffee shops, charity shops and betting shops remaining. There is industry, which used to be smelly tanneries and fish gutting, but now seems to be easy come, easy go call centres. The public sector buildings, like town halls and post offices that used to be a hub for towns and cities are vanishing. Housing remains, but people mostly want to live in the the suburbs with their own front door. Leaving the centres to be taken up with AirBnB and the inevitable late night economy.
I don't really know much about development planning. I imagine that councils are packed with planners with dreams of la ville radieuse who all spend their time endlessly reviewing dormers and sundry other extensions.
Do these planners dream of nudging their towns and cities towards rational functional utopias? Or more pressingly, dream of applying the magic ointment that regenerates tired unloved places into vibrant creative hubs?
But if our urban spaces are losing their top down functionality, then that must surely have knock on implications for how you can plan them.
I would suggest that where planning seeks to impose upon an area then it is likely to be unsuccessful. Clearly there are examples where it is possible to create a narrative that this, or that, planning type intervention made a lot of difference. The oft quoted Frank Gehry Bilbao Guggenheim that single handedly turned a dismal port into an must see artistic hub. The New York High Line that gentrified and prettified an ugly disused railway line.
However such examples are irrelevant and mendacious. Either they are true but exceptional, so they can hardly be readily copied by other cities, or they are only partially true, in that what they did, was already happening anyway.
In the West we all live in a postindustrial world now. Most towns and cities have seen heavy industry vanish, have seen light industry vanish, have been left with a gossamer service sector that offers low wage McJobs or better paid jobs that can very easily flit elsewhere should harsh economic winds blow.
This means that most towns and cities are now bigger than they need to be, and frankly have been so for a long time. The Luftwaffe may have cleared great swathes of our cities, but those rubble car parks and gap sites persisted for so long because there was little need for all that space. Most cities have a problematic centre, a problematic non centre, and a problematic relationship between the two.
We don't want our urban spaces to be too car friendly, but then again we don't want them to be too car unfriendly. We don't want things to be regimented into identical terraces, nor do we want an insane variety. Unhelpfully people still have no idea what they actually want until they see it, and even then we tend to want what works. And what works tends to be what other people have already demonstrated that they like.
In practice this can be about as helpful as telling a TV channel to make more popular programmes that folk like and less unpopular ones that they don't.
I suppose that if planning is grappling with the dynamics of a single industry then it can add some value. The fishing boats will need a harbour, served by ice factories, fish processers etc. But nowadays there is no chicken and egg flow of causation. Some business and retail activity will inevitably pop up even in the most dismal of areas, but a vibrant economy can make for a more vibrant and successful area.
But the successful businesses can afford to be choosy and are likely to look for pleasant areas. So, within the limitations of an area, planners ought to just focussing on making it as good as it can be.
But, at the end of the day, what makes an area as good as it can be, is the people. So the small Italian villages that Robert Puttnam wrote about in Bowling Alone, or the vibrant Greenwich Village that Jane Jacobs wrote about in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, were not successful because they were well planned. Brasilia was immaculately planned, but turned out to be nearly completely unliveable.
Planners can ensure that there is enough there to allow people to thrive, but they cannot supply the magic sauce that makes them thrive.
The planning process should be a defensive one, avoiding the worst of disasters, ensuring the neighbourhoods are coherent, walkable, liveable, congenial places. Those that are successful should be allowed to thrive, and those that are in trouble should be nudged and encouraged. And perhaps, at the end of the day, the neighbourhoods that are failing should be allowed to fail gracefully. The industrial revolution was the story of people coming to the cities, but it was also the story of people leaving the countryside.
The metrics for what is thriving are perhaps more visible than measurable. Does a place feel safe. Do people engage with each other, and look out for their neighbours. Are people happy?
By putting making people happy at the heart of planning, you might fail to create the next economic powerhouse, but if you have happy people then you have hardly wasted your time and efforts.