Friday, 10 April 2015 14:34

1972: The End of an Era?

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In 1972 I was a Lecturer in the Department of Town and Country Planning at Edinburgh College of Art / Heriot-Watt University. I was “yearmaster” to the 5th year undergraduates, a group of about 15 students. We had RTPI-accredited BSc, MSc and part-time post-graduate Diploma courses that were all strongly UK-focused. The only real international element was the overseas “field trip” that the BSc and MSc students went on (the part-time, postgrads’ who used to come in for classes in the evenings, did not go).

The foreign field trip

Looking back, the “foreign field trip” was a rather arbitrary part of the programme. It was not really backed by any preparatory teaching or particularly focused. There were no “aims” or “learning outcomes” written down for it, as far as I can recall, no assessment required. It was all a bit ad hoc, with different staff on different trips to different European countries in different years. I had been on the ground-breaking visit to Poland in 1970 (probably the first by a UK planning school to go behind the Iron Curtain), then to the Netherlands in 1971, but did not go on the trip to Germany in 1972.

Such trips were enjoyable and a rich learning experiences, certainly for me and hopefully for students too (feel free to comment!). I had never been outside the UK until I went to Amsterdam on a similar study visit as a final year Planning post-graduate from Manchester University in 1968, at the age of 23. I saw the visit, indeed all my time at university, as a privilege which I had been extraordinarily lucky to experience.

Later in my teaching career, when it came to the study visit, the savvy students had seen it all before, while others cried off due to financial difficulties or family responsibilities. We lost a lot once the trip, in effect, became optional. A UK-centric outlook became more embedded still with the significance given to centralisation of planning practice through national “guidance”.

Planning as a tool of exclusion

How exposed was I (and through me, my students) to the world of planning outside the UK? I subscribed to the Journal of the American Planning Association, and my teaching drew quite substantially on the articles that appeared there. There were few other journals anyway, and the US was clearly the place at the cutting edge of planning debate, it seemed.

The bitter US conflicts over urban renewal as a means of shifting poor and black residents out of their homes to make way for motorways and prime development sites, and the rise of advocacy planning, struck a chord as the UK’s slum clearance programme began to face similar challenges. The image of a planning as a practice of benevolent, enlightened government action – the post-1945 settlement in Western Europe at least –became tarnished.

The Global South

As to the global South, we had an occasional student from Nigeria, but I do not recall that we ever addressed the issue of planning in such countries. Of course, most of those countries were still overwhelmingly rural. I first began to read about and get interested in what was then called “third world urbanization” a year or so later when teaching the Open University’s course on “Urban development”. However, the modernist planning model was being rolled out in master plans in the capital cities, with scant regard to local situations and cultures.

The environmental crisis

However, 1972 was a significant turning point. It was the year that the UN Conference on the Human Environment was held in Stockholm. For the first time issues about the environment were on the global political agenda. The consensus on the goal of everlasting economic growth was being challenged. Pollution was seen as the main issue, but the Stockholm conference built the foundations for the 1992 follow-up in Rio, which will be revisited at the start of June. Similarly, the basis for the Human Settlements summits at Vancouver in 1976, then at Istanbul 20 years later, and the creation of what is now UN-Habitat can be traced back to Stockholm.

1972 also saw the publication of “The Limits to Growth”, which I began to use in my teaching. It modelled the inter-relation between population, industrial growth, food, pollution and resources, arguing that there were finite limits that on current trends the earth would overshoot. The oil crisis the following year gave the book an added resonance, and made a generation much more aware of the fragility of the normality with which we had grown up.

One memory I have from that time was of going across to Glasgow to hear a lecture by Lowdon Wingo Junior, who was en route to the Stockholm conference. Since my student days I had treasured the 1963 book “Cities and Space” that he had edited. I remember being bemused by his presentation about the environmental crisis. He argued that the solution to all the problems lay in a focus on land values as conceived in abstract by neo-classical economics, bid rent curves and all that stuff. Little did I know back then how this rather strange view of the world would come to dominate so much of urban policy thinking and practice across the globe.

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