What Makes Good Planning

We now have a pause till the Spring till when the government announces its response to the Planning White Paper. Hence its a good time to think about what the foundational building blocks of a good planning system should be. A good planning SYSTEM is one which offers the least cost path to a good planning OUTCOME.

It is very easy to make a foundational mistake here.

I remember very much the years following the 2004 Planning Act. A raft of guidance ensued. All of it concerned almost wholly with process. That is the order of things to do to produce a plan. This had the result on an overemphasis on consultation for its own sake (endlessly repeated with limited engagement on genuine strategic options) and gathering of evidence for its own sake.

This is akin to the underpants gnomes view of outcomes.

Where phase 1 is collect evidence and phase 3 is adopt plan. Phase 2 ‘planning’ is a black box.

This is also evident in the new (English – never mentioning what country it is for) Design Guide. Which shows a number of outputs that a good design should have but not how to get there. This might be useful in a purely discretionary system but not in one where outcomes are predictable (such as a zoning one) in that you need to know how to design at various scales. The gap was supposed to be set in the national model design code – which was supposed to be

‘setting out detailed standards for key elements of successful design’

But from presentations it seems it will be – yes you guessed it- a guide to process, analyze your area and produce codes for different areas (what we would call typologies) – yes the underpants gnomes process obsessed approch to planning. This kind of approach is concerned only with process outcomes – i.e. number of houses (widgets) produced. Everything else is a black box. Indeed this was exactly the fatally definition of the purpose of planning the minister gave at the last MHDCLG select committee. But to produce widgets in the best pattern in space you need to understand the principles and methods for optimizing and trading off different forms and land uses in space. A powerpoint saying you have to analyse and then produce zones will be no more helpful than an urban design first year power point. Unless you are just repeating the patterns and forms you like you arnt learning why some work and some don’t and how historic patterns and forms need to be adapted (for example traffic management, accessibility and parking).

Good planning is about optimising patterns and forms in space. You have a limited space and an economically optimum quantum of development. You then need to produce a land use budget that adds up against several criteria including meeting local standards for community facilities and open space as well as surviving testing (at larger scales) traffic modelling. It is the same when zoning changes to an existing area, except you are talking about incremental changes.

In producing an optimal you can use several ‘tricks of the trade’ mainly tried and tested prototype typologies which can be shown to work in certain circumstances. The best codes set out these typologies and set down the circumstances and locations where they can work. They do the hard work for you. For example on one design code developed jointly with world leader DPZ I planned out an area of 7 sq km for 27,000 people in 2 weeks, on two sides of A1, and on the final layout the GIS model showed id by eye balanced the land budget to 3 decimal places (as this was 1 sqm units that was to the nearest mm – equivalent of firing an arrow at a target on the moon and hitting bullseye) Only real planning nerd will understand how this is only possible if the real work is done for you, with typologies and layouts at a cluster scale pre-designed to be optimal (in terms of ‘exaction) roads, open spaces and community facilities. Then simply snapped together like a giant lego kit, adapting to natural features and topography. These prototype typologies (for buildings, roads (ROW cross sections), community facilities and open spaces) require a framework to set within – which is why concepts such as transect (rural to city centre) and fabric (Service centre to purely residential) are so useful in setting out an organising framework. It is trivially easy to produce a design code on reproducing the failed familiar (semi-d on narrow plot widths and excessive plot depths with insufficient space for on street parking). It is much harder to set out typologies for how areas can and should change to produce (missing middle – gentle density) development forms.

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