On World Town Planning Day 2019, I was part of an event in Dundee organised by RTPI (Scotland) with the theme “Through the Years, Across the Globe”. Discussion during and after prompted me to ponder Scotland’s messages to an international audience of planners and urbanists.
For a small country, Scotland has contributed significantly to thinking and practice in planning internationally. Here is my personal list of ten messages to the world that came from Scots and Scotland.
1. Planning needs to be integrated, not just restricted to Housing or Land Use.
New Lanark is a World Heritage Site, and as good a place as any to begin this listing. Having taken over the large cotton mill on the banks of the River Clyde, Robert Owen set out to create a model community. At that time many mill owners had to provide housing for their workforce, since mills were often located in remote places to take advantage of fast-flowing streams. What distinguished New Lanark was that he sought to provide a decent living environment for his workers and their families, encompassing not only working conditions and sanitation but also education and recreation. Owen’s innovations attracted international interest, and in 1825 he launched an attempt to internationalise his approach at New Harmony in Indiana. It failed, casting doubt over Owen’s philosophy and practice. However, New Lanark remained an inspiration to many contibuted the utopian idea that places could be planned in an integrated way for the benefit of their residents.
2. Think Global, Act Local.
Patrick Geddes had many more than ten messages of his own, which he passionately preached to international audiences and sought to put into practice not just in Scotland but most notably in India, Palestine and France. His famous trilogy of “Folk, Work, Place” reinforces the idea of an integrated approach, connecting the social, economic and environmental dimensions and all within a consciously cultural perspective. He advocated “conservative surgery” rather than clearance and displacement of people from run-down parts of cities. However, if we have to pick just one Geddesian idea that resonates internationally in the 21st century it would probably be the interconnection between the global and the local, which was embodied in his Outlook Tower here in Edinburgh.
3. National Parks and the value of Wilderness.
Like Geddes, John Muir was strongly influenced by the landscapes in which he grew up, even though his family moved to the USA when he was 11 in 1849. An environmentalist before the term existed, he made his reputation by his work in the Sierra Nevada and especially in Yosemite, leading the successful campaign from 1889 for the valley to be declared a National Park. This was achieved in the face of opposition from those who sought to exploit the economic potential of the area. Muir has been called America’s most influential conservationist. However, his native Scotland, where major landowners held sway, did not designate any National Parks until 2002, and Scotland’s two National Parks include and permit development in a way the US National Parks do not. Muir showed the world that landscapes can have incalculable value and should not simply be sacrificed to the “jobs and growth” demands of commercial lobbies.
4. Professional institutions matter.
Thomas Adams grew up on a dairy farm in the then village of Corstorphine which lay to the west of Edinburgh. He could literally see the city spreading as new suburbs were developed. So again, this was a man whose career was shaped by direct experience of the places in Scotland that he knew. Adams was one of the small group who established the Town Planning Institue in 1914, and became its first President, a clear indication of his standing amongst his peers. Like those named already, his actvity and advocacy extended beyond Scotland. In 1917 he was one of the first Vice-Presidents of the American City Planning Institute, and then in 1919 became the first President of the Canadian Town Planning Institute. Lest we overlook his technical capabilities, he also served as General Director of the New York Regional Plan. Working in the USA alerted him to the possibilities of landscape design and planning, and in 1930 from across the Atlantic he was able to influence the formation of the Institute of Landscape Architects in the UK. Adams was dedicated to putting into practice the idea that professional training, qualifications and competence mattered.
5. Design with Nature.
Ian McHarg was another Scot, influenced by his experience of place, who moved to the USA and helped shape thinking and practice internationally. Born in 1920 in Clydebank, the contrasts between the industrial urbanism of the Clydeside conurbation and the grandeur of the Scottish landscapes made a deep impression. He became the first Director of the Landscape Architecture programme at the University of Pennsylvania. His landmark book Design with Nature elucidate the concepts of an ecologically based approach to the design of places. His 1971 comment reads like an extract from an Extinction Rebellion manifesto: Man “treats the world as a storehouse existing for his delectation, he plunders, rapes, poisons, and kills thisliving system, the biosphere, in ignorance of its workings andits fundamental value”. McHarg was an important figure in the 1970s upsurge in environmental awareness.
6. A proactive planning approach is needed in declining rural regions.
Professor Sir Robert Grieve was probably the most revered planner working in Scotland in the second half of the last century. He became Chief Planner and also served as the first Chair of the Highlands and Islands Development Board (HIDB). Like so many others he had a passion for Scotland’s mountains. Though the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act is conventionally revered as the foundation stone of a golden age of British planning, Grieve as a young civil servant in the Scottish Home and Health Department saw its weakness. He wrote that it “could not be applied except as a kind of administrative ritual in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland.” The Act had been shaped as a reaction to the largely unregulated spread of suburbs in the Midlands and South East of England in the pre-War years. In contrast, the problem in rural Scotland was population loss in the face of limited economic opportunities and limited access to public services. This was the insight that led eventually to the creation of the Highlands and Islands Development Board in 1965, headed by Grieve.
7. Planning institutions and policies should be fashioned to fit the place, not copied or imposed from elsewhere.
In the 1970s it seemed that Scotland was on a path towards devolution. The decade saw increasing confidence in planning in Scotland, and was a period of innovation informed by analysis of Scottish needs. It had begun with the Wheatley Report on the reorganisation of Scottish local government, which drastically rationalised the hotch potch of over 400 local councils of five different kinds. From 1975 Scotland had 9 elected regional councils, plus three Island councils and 37 District Councils at a more local level. Research and Intelligence Units, where trained planners found posts, produced cross-cutting state-of-the-region analytical reports. Wheatley had described planning as “a big and growing task… the widest of all local government functions”, and the new Regional Structure Plans gave a strategic dimension to planning that had been sought in the 1940s but frustrated by the fragemented local government units. In addition, the Scottish Development Department had developed National Planning Guidance totake a strategic approach to the pressures for onshore North Sea oil related development. There was a Highlands and Islands Development Board, and a Scottish Development Agency that combined economic development and urban renewal, notably in the massive Glasgow Eastern Area Renewal project. Five New Towns, another planning instrument that provided land assembly, land value capture and state investment to deliver development, were a more significant feature of the Scottish urban system than were their equivalents in England. There was also a state vehicle for social housing delivery, the Scottish Special Housing Association. While there were debates and criticisms, it was clear that Scotland had developed an approach to planning to meet identified national needs. All these institutions have since been closed down or the brief of their successor bodies has been changed significantly.
8. Producing a national spatial framework / plan is a good practice.
When power over planning was devolved to the elected Scottish Parliament in 1999, it paved the way for the preparation of a National Planning Framework (2004), with subsequent updates in 2009 and 2014. These provided a long-term national scale overview of major developments and conservation priorities. The NPFs continue to evolve and the next one will be the most ambitious yet, and given the climate emergency and the increasing political scrutiny, possibly the most controversial. Such a document is necessary to set a coherent framework for infrastructure and development and provide a spatial dimension to other public policies.
9. Urban and landscape conservation are popular but need investment and effective regulation.
Scotland has a rich heritage of archaeology, historic buildings and designed landscapes. They are fundamental to a sense of national identity, and are the main attraction drawing tourists to Scotland. The planning system has played a key role in protecting these assets. However, this requires finding investment for maintenance as well as effective enforcement of conservation policies. As resources have been stripped from planning departments and conservation agencies to refinance the banks after the 2008 financial crash, the capacity and political will to deliver conservation has weakened. The challenge is not so much in Scotland’s six World Heritage Sites (though there have been controversies at New Lanark and in Edinburgh), but at the much more numerous less significant sites, which are so important to the sense of place across the whole country.
10. Loose-knit, car dependent sprawl can be prevented.
Since 1947 the planning system in Scotland has prevented our townscapes and countryside from following the North American pattern of extensive, very low density suburbanisation. Green Belt policies have been popular with, if misunderstood by, the public. As well as protecting agricultural land and woodlands, restrictions on greenfield land release contributed to urban regeneration by making brownfield urban sites less unattractive to commercial housebuilding companies, though public subsidies were also needed in places where the market was weaker. By no means all new housing developments have been praiseworthy, either in design terms or in their location, but Scotland today would look very different if development had just been left to developers and the market.
Planning in Scotland can also learn from other countries, a theme I aim to pursue in a future blog.