Can we Organise Cities for Good?

by Richard Blyth

Posted: 20 Sep 2018

Following St Paul's Institute event with Professor Richard Sennett of LSE and Mayor of Bristol Marvin Rees to discuss the ethics of cities, Richard Blyth of the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) reflects on ways the built environment implicitly indicates who is welcome in a community.
You can find the video to the event Democracy and the Common Good: How we Live Together in Community here

Urban Planning has come in for some bad press over the years.

The Nazis and the Communists fell in love with grand schemes to rebuild cities and create great public buildings and boulevards which celebrated the power of the state. In South Africa, laws established that different parts of the city were to be occupied by different races - to the extent that Black people were also denied the right of permanent residence in cities.

But even in democratic societies, planning can be hijacked for sinister purposes. Inner city Black neighbourhoods in northern American cities were destroyed, ostensibly to improve motor access to the city centres. Closer to home, and currently, powerful political debates rage over "gentrification":  should housing estates be rebuilt at higher densities (and rents), chasing out existing residents and ushering in the well-off? A case has been made for such changes, but the impact on individuals and groups is severe. And many of these same families have already experienced upheavals of slum clearance only a generation ago.

In response, a powerful lobby continues to argue that to "interfere" in cities is plain wrong. The free market should operate unfettered because, once you intervene, you become open to manipulation from powerful interests - either financial or even racist agendas.

So, is seeking to organise cities in a rational way a doomed enterprise?

I think not. The crises affecting our cities are not going to be solved by unfettered market activity. For one thing, the pressures of demography (the combined challenges of population growth and an ageing population) and climate change are so intense that unless interested parties in a city act as one, they can't be solved.

And poor people have never been able to house themselves satisfactorily on the incomes they have available. If we consider that secure housing is a priority along with good health, then leaving the provision of it to market forces alone has never worked.

The problem with the free market solution is that it means the community abdicates any oversight: the powerful can purchase good environments, and the weak are left with the rest. Any urban planning process must be placed under democratic oversight.

But this still leaves us with many challenges. Existing residents can be keener on their own status quo (nice neighbourhood, good views) than on welcoming newcomers who also need good homes. That's often true even where the incomers have similar community characteristics to themselves, but it can be much harder where there are perceived differences. Voters also tend to favour the needs of their own generation over those of future generations.

How do we address these concerns whilst maintaining democratic accountability?

One issue, which we are all very aware of following two recent referendums in the UK, is that a lot depends on the extent of the areas over which the democracy operates. What is the right territory for democratic oversight?  A solution may be found in relating different decisions to different spaces. The city as a whole may need to establish democratic principles to offer housing for all kinds of people, not just the super-rich; and to make sure that everyone has access to transport, clean air and green space. But the detail of implementation in neighbourhoods is best left to local design, in line with the overarching principles. 

In England, a process of neighbourhood plans has been established which can be used to implement broader principles of city design in a local context. In Paris, a process of participatory budgeting allows residents a say in how the city's money is spent locally.

The exciting thing about cities today is that they are able to enter into networks across the globe to share good practice - like UN Habitat and the C40 Network of Cities. And the UN Sustainable Development Goals, now adopted across the world's nation states, provide a strong underpinning and guide to the kinds of principles to which all cities should aspire.

But democracy is not the only weapon against the misuse of urban planning.

The other is ethics. The Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) requires its Members to sign up to a code of conduct so that if employers or clients insist on inappropriate behaviour, Members have a solid basis on which to stand. Updated in 2016, it requires Members to "exercise fearlessly and impartially their independent professional judgement to the best of their skill and understanding". The other key attributes are competence, honesty & integrity; due care and diligence; equality and respect; and professional behaviour. And as part of our work to serve all parts of society the RTPI was a partner in the AHRC Faith and Place Network which placed particular emphasis on how to work with a variety of different faith groups in the city.

Urban planning arose in its current form in the late 19th Century as a way to combat the ills of slum dwelling. At the time the focus was on creating healthy dwellings. During the 20th Century it has, from time to time, been hijacked in some dubious ways. Now its role is transformed so that it is not only concerned with the built form of cities, but with how cities work and how they serve their all of their citizens. It should have a great future: it certainly needs to.

About this author

Richard Blyth is the Head of Policy and Practice at the Royal Town Planning Institute.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of St Paul's Institute or St Paul's Cathedral.