‘Town Planning as if People Really Mattered’

Report on Stroud Civic Society talk  Town Planning as if People Really Mattered by Hugh Barton on January 17th 2013.  Report written by Sue Houseago.

While snow fell in soft wet swirls outside we set out chairs in the Old Town Hall with some trepidation. How many, 10 maybe 15? Who would turn out in this weather?

Very soon we were doubling and trebling our chairs as people poured through the door, full of smiles paying their £2 and £3 entry fees – members and non-members – with friendly comments like ‘I can’t complain about that!’ 

Nor could we, when you consider we were about to hear an illustrated talk by Hugh Barton, Emeritus Professor of Planning, Health and Sustainability at the University of the West of England. He began by suggesting we might all like to sing ‘On Ikley Moor Bah t’at’, a metaphorical flurry of snow, moved him sharply on to his talk. This audience meant business!

Hugh began by stating that health and well being should be at the heart of all town planning. ‘So why,’ he asked, ‘Isn’t it?’ 

We wondered too: especially when he went on to extol the British love of, and pride in its countryside.  He suggested that nowhere else had this same passion for its landscape. Up went a slide of John Constable’s painting ‘Salisbury Cathedral From the Meadows’ (1831).  This was followed by David Hockney’s road-ribbons of vibrant colour leading us through the Yorkshire moors.

From these celebrations of air and light, Hugh projected us back to sullen photographs of smog-covered buildings in 1952, together with the shocking fact that still today 29,000 premature deaths are attributed to poor air quality. We were then faced with a vision of Charles Dickens’s 19th century London – seemingly illustrating the opening page of ‘Bleak House’ ‘ … Fog up the river…fog down the river…fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights.’ It took twenty-three years before the first Public Health Act was passed in 1875 ‘to combat filthy urban living conditions’.

The problems today, alongside air pollution, Hugh continued, are the effects of poverty and obesity on health. This includes long term illnesses, both physical and psychological. The poorer you are, the sicker. More startling figures then appeared showing that with an income of up to £10.399 the rates of sickness were 40%, and as incomes rose, so sickness fell to 5%. What then, Hugh asked could town planners do today? ‘At the least’ he said, ‘they could create built environments to compensate in some way for these inequalities’.

Then came his cry ‘We have to change our values!’ followed by a slide – not of Salisbury Abbey but of Tesco, as the 21st century’s centre of worship. Despair filled the hall, we all know Tesco can redesign roads and erect roundabouts, more or less at will. These, plus new car-dependant housing estates like the one proposed for Aston Down, and further afield in the green land around – unbelievably – Anne Hathaway’s cottage, plus car dependant factories and warehouses will continue to blight Britain’s ‘green and pleasant land’, unless we change our values.

The silence in the old town hall was as thick as the snow falling outside.

‘But!’ cried Hugh, ‘There are alternative visions – Freiburg for one!’ Here, the whole centre was reconstructed and pedestrianised in the decades after the war in such a way that trams could access it. Green tramways appeared in the suburbs, and as we could see from Hugh’s slides, pedestrians and cyclists were everywhere. The tram, he enthused, is the core for all developments – schools, shops, housing, hospitals – all are linked to trams. The central rail station has bikes for hire nearby, and the station lies on a brown-field site. Freiberg is also a solar city with roofs busy exporting electricity. Its socially diverse housing estates have play streets around them where more slides showed us relaxed scenes of children at play while mothers’ talk.

Healthy cities can be created, Hugh reassured us, and it’s not to late, think of the Glasgow Gorbals, he added, now with its healthy pedestrianised streets and allotments. It can be done, but not, he added, without the introduction of ethics to private developers. Here Juliet Shipman, Chairman of the Civic Society, spoke out, saying she thought planners were now overwhelmed by legislation. Hugh agreed that there is a danger that the only people with finance, staff and time to think through planning applications are these private developers. 

Planning decisions must be taken by government, local authorities and developers that put health  and  sustainability as their priority. This brought us back  to the problems of the opening point – the division of powers, the commercial oligarchies, house building, retail and artificial professional boundaries that mean town planning has lost its power. However, Hugh reassured us, that Bristol City has built bridges between separate departments, linking public health to sustainability, planning and transport. So why not in Stroud?  

Questions followed from an audience much enlivened by Hugh’s vivacious lecture, and talk continued long after the chairs and tables had been packed away. Eventually we left, some of us to walk up the snowy town, past its books and art shops, its cafes and its array of endlessly fascinating shops: others drove out past our huge, local Tesco, encircled by its landing strips of concrete car parks.

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