London ‘falling behind’ other world cities over regional planning

Friday 2 November 2018

Everybody needs good neighbours. But London’s inability to effectively plug in to a strategic regional plan for the wider south east is holding it back, in contrast to other world cities such as New York, Sydney and Paris.

That was one of the key messages to emerge from the latest NYLON session, where experts from London and New York debate topical issues affecting both cities. Held yesterday at KPF in London and the Center for Architecture on the other side of the Atlantic, the session looked in depth at the growth of both cities, but crucially at how New York was able to think more regionally thanks in large part to the Regional Planning Association (RPA). London, meanwhile, suffers from what London Assembly member Nicky Gavron branded during questions a ‘cliff edge’ at its borders over key issues affecting issues like transportation and housing across the region. ‘When it comes to the edge of London, who does Sadiq Khan pick up the phone to?’ she asked. ‘There’s nobody there’. A way of having some sort of combined authority was ‘desperately’ needed, Gavron added.

RPA president Tom Wright began by saying that New York looks to London for a lot of its inspiration, including on urban design, with no two cities more alike in his view. But New York has a regional plan – its fourth, released last November – courtesy of his private civic group, ‘prodding and pushing government and the private sector to make investments and think comprehensively about growth and success’. New York is the economic engine driving the region, said Wright, but it is a city that will need capacity to cope with a rise of in-bound commuters. The main thrust of the plan is to ‘fix the institutions failing us’, improve the subway and mass transit, work toward congestion charging (over which there is a better chance in the last six months than ever before), and an idea to build more homes by redeveloping parking lots near rail stations. It believes it can create an additional 250,000 homes for the city this way, RPA being well placed to push ideas before politicians are ready to do them. 

Centre for London research director Richard Brown said it was striking how many problems there were shared between the two cities. But there was the ‘illusion of devolution’ and no strategic planning tier outside London, with an often less than perfect system in place through which authorities exercise their ‘duty to cooperate’. ‘London is falling behind other cities for this reason’, he said, ‘including greater New York and Sydney, in addressing need as a wider region.’ The challenge, he added, was that London is no longer growing as an ‘island’ on its own, but government has proved reluctant to change planning policy. At least, though, the new London Plan talks of accommodating not all growth in its borders, but the vast majority of growth. ‘That’s a big step’, he said.

One of the key challenges, said Carolyn Grossman Meagher, regional planning director for New York City, is that it had been nobody’s day job to make these things work; it was her goal to figure out how the city can take leadership and think about its role in the region, using and improving data, changing the culture of planning, and working to rationalise regional transportation. Marilyn Jordan Taylor, Professor of Architecture and Urban Design, Former Dean, University of Pennsylvania School of Design added that ‘this administration, for all of its challenges, is the first to use the words regional thinking. Part of the RPA’s role was to make sure public officials taking ‘dynamic directions’ feel support from the top regional thinkers as well as from the local communities where the actions are being taken. ‘Those are exciting possibilities for us, once we get past the mid-term’, she said. 

Design South East director Chris Lamb said that places outside London were keen to have a dialogue in order to move towards a polycentric region, to get better, more joined up thinking and to enable good growth. When it comes to the Thames Estuary, moreover, said former deputy chair of the Thames Estuary 2050 Growth Commission Professor Sadie Morgan, the commission’s approach was to build on existing good ideas. ‘We didn’t want ours to be a plan that sits gathering dust’. So it set out some key deliverables, a plan that stood a chance of staying on the desk, whilst gathering ideas. It then prioritised some of the 327 infrastructure projects identified as needing addressing. ‘Whenever we look at places within the UK that need help, love and attention and have huge opportunities it’s the lack of leadership, coordination and people coming together that stops it happening. If we want productive places in London and New York it has to be done cohesively and collaboratively. This is a call to arms.’

Another call to arms emerged at the end of the session, chairman Peter Murray proposing that the NLA, Centre for London and Thames Estuary Growth Commission get together to create an organisation to have more regular debates around regional issues. 

By David Taylor, Editor, NLQ

Part of the NLA International Dialogues Programme

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