Resilience in the Time of Covid: planning the urban future
Changes to urban planning could provide the key to the long-term protection of our communities and ways of life. But what do these plans offer to bolster the resilience of our urban areas in times of crisis?
“Build, Build, Build!” This was Boris Johnson’s call to action upon unveiling a new white paper on ‘Planning for the Future’, which calls for a complete shake-up of the current planning infrastructure across England, announcing swathes of deregulation in an attempt to kick-start the economy. Indeed, with the UK in the midst of one of the world’s deepest economic contractions, any measure that seeks to bolster economic activity of any kind is currently extremely welcome. It is not only the economy, however, that has suffered as a result of the pandemic: cities across the world have suffered in innumerable ways, and changes to urban planning could provide the key to the long-term protection of our communities and ways of life. But what do these plans offer to bolster the resilience of our urban areas in times of crisis?
Resilience has become somewhat of a buzz-word among local planning practitioners, and features explicitly within the UN’s Sustainable Development goals. This concept has many definitions, all of which centre on the ability of communities to deal with and recover from shocks in a timely and effective manner. Resilience as a concept is by no means new, existing in disaster management since the 1970s, and firmly in the vocabulary of global institutions from the 1990s. Yet, despite its salience, Covid-19 has shed light on its lacking real-world presence in many societies. Few areas have convincingly demonstrated an ability to control or bounce back from this crisis thus far; many are languishing in the midst of second or third waves, with any upturns seeming increasingly temporary. Looking beyond coronavirus, the ability to weather a storm will be an essential trait given the ever-growing threat of climate induced catastrophes. Indeed, the OECD stresses the need for any comprehensive resilience strategy to aim for inclusive, green and smart cities.
Some have used the pandemic as an opportunity to further integrate resilience thinking into modern planning: Milan pledged a pedestrianisation of 35km of its roads to encourage healthy living and reduced pollution; Ismir implemented a broad, multisectoral Resilience Action Plan; and Paris is set to double down on its resilience commitments after successful Covid responses stemming from a prior community resilience initiative. Similar ideas are also evident within the EU’s New Bauhaus project, which aims to spark a European-wide sustainable construction revolution as a response to the pandemic, nabbing a rather sizeable €750bn injection from the Union’s coronavirus recovery fund.
England’s planned reforms, in comparison, resemble a myopic step back.
These new reduced planning restrictions will essentially divide all land across England into three designations: for growth; for renewal; and for protection. The idea is that any land within the former two categories will see many planning restrictions slashed. Until now, planning powers have traditionally been vested predominantly in local authorities; however the proposed changes will mean that many applications can bypass local scrutiny procedures, handing over the reins to developers to dictate the urban landscape.
Criticism towards these plans has been ferocious. The Royal Institute for British Architecture warned that “there’s every chance [these plans] could also lead to the creation of the next generation of slum housing”, as even the former Prime Minister Theresa May branded the plans as being “ill-conceived”. With reduced public control, the quality of future urban housing stock has rightly been called into question. Further, the proposals aim to fast track the process of building upwards, increasing population density - a major reason why cities have struggled in tackling the pandemic. Equally, Boris Johnson’s explicit frustration with current biodiversity protections as the plan was announced has angered environmental activists. It is clear that deregulation will act only to reduce carbon standards on new buildings, and further reduces the toolkit available to UK local governments to respond to the climate emergencies that they have declared.
The Local Government Association has aired fears of a dangerous shift in power. The plans will allow buildings to change purpose without local authority consent, effectively rendering financial yield as the lowest common denominator in building usage designation. Stripping local authorities of their oversight function places decision-making duties in firmly the hands of the construction industry who bear more accountability to shareholders than to the community. The built environment has an undeniable impact on its community’s health and wellbeing, be that through air quality, access to open green space, ease of social engagement, or the availability of an array of amenities. Careful and detailed urban spatial planning can create cities that foster healthy, happy, strong and independent communities; widespread deregulation, on the other hand, calls all of this into question.
Resilience is clearly not on the government’s agenda. Indeed, the word was only mentioned once - and rather off-handedly - throughout the entire 80-page proposal. While these plans remain in the pipeline, still subject to a formal consultation process (due to end on the 29th October), they do mark a clear statement of future intent from a government who maintains a healthy parliamentary majority. Resilience planning can be an essential guiding light for future crisis management; this white paper threatens to push England into the dark.