While the cult of the star architect has soared in recent decades, the figure of the town planner has arguably become comic shorthand for a faceless dullard. Yet the role is crucial to our urban future, and needs reinventing
British cities are in crisis, but it is of an unusual and distinctly 21st-century form. Thirty years ago, the populations of London, Manchester and Glasgow were all in decline as city leaders struggled with deindustrialisation and inner city no-go areas. Economists wondered what the purpose of a city actually was.
Today, the UK seems to be facing almost the opposite problem. Global powerhouses in finance and business services, the world’s major cities are suffering not from a deficit but an abundance of private capital, speculative development and foreign investment in property.
For all the thrill of visiting or doing business in such cities, the experience of actually living in them has become increasingly bleak. In the maelstrom of global capital, even the middle classes are beginning to feel vulnerable. Conservative politicians mull over taxes on foreign property owners, while broadsheet newspapers fret over how young professionals have become priced out of urban living. And, while much of the attention focuses on London and its extraordinary levels of overseas investment, it is by no means alone as Asian capital floods into property across the United Kingdom.
Housing associations and charities repeatedly call for more social housing. Local campaign groups focus on the loss of green spaces, pubs, independent retailers, cultural venues and studio workspace. Such civic energy and enthusiasm is heartening, but it also begs the question: where are the town planners in all this? […]