The current focus on re-vitalising our town centre and high streets has, intentionally or not, perfectly illuminated many vital flaws and contradictions at the heart of planning policy. The new measures aiming to boost town centres highlight the startling lack of robust evidence and consistent policy underpinning investment and policy approaches.
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The issues currently exercising our network of urban, movement and parking professionals relate to this inconsistency and lack of rigour. The indications are everywhere: the DfT was this month urged to review its National Transport Model (NTM) by a leading traffic expert who claimed the model’s forecast of major road traffic growth in London, at least, is ‘implausible’. Transport Planning Society chairman Keith Buchan said the forecast was ‘so far away from reality that there must be an urgent review of how this has come about’. And as such potentially flawed forecasts underpin decisions on what transport infrastructure gets built, and what kinds of urban realm investment shape our towns and cities, this is more than merely worrying.
The transport profession has dominated the making of place for the past 50 years because it has counted and modelled. Measurement is power. Urban practice has much to learn from the transport industry if its legacy is truly to be one that is great.
Getting value for money, based on the best evidence, is what we need more than ever in this post-recession world. Our publication Local Transport Today has noted that a shift to smaller-scale transport schemes ‘could be a good thing’ in the spirit of recent thinking around the virtues of ‘smarter’, lower cost interventions. These may well fit in with other recent studies that clarify the drivers needed to support a move to healthier (and so desirable in social funding costs) cycling and walking behaviours, and with those that note how technological developments are increasingly influencing positive changes in living and movement patterns.
But, alas, several recent studies – some commissioned by the developers and investors who insist that they ‘know’ their market – suggest that many private car owners wish to drive and park their cars even when there are convenient and cost-effective alternatives. How can we begin to encourage more realistic behaviours across the board if we don’t begin with the easier targets?
Similarly, in hard times, parking is prioritised as a potentially juicy revenue stream by politicians and practitioners alike, in terms of both collecting and modelling future incomes. But how reliable are such models? Traffic- and car-choked high streets don’t appeal to anyone but those lucky enough to grab a spot while they pop into the chemist.
Yet with infrastructure development decisions, thanks to the lack of rigourous evidence underpinning them, being used to further political rather than social agendas, we still see the lion’s share of infrastructre funding going to private car-based transport modes.
And nor do new planning policy frameworks offer increased consistency. The new NPPF has been criticised for favouring car-based urban sprawl, and the localism agenda, which claims to place new emphasis on supporting accessibility and activity for a wider range of people and places, offers potential but no real resource. As the move to localism cries out for investment in placemaking support, it is, as Julian Dobson, co-author of the Business, Innovation and Skills report into the much-reported demise of the high street notes: ‘ironic that government has withdrawn from serious investment in placemaking at precisely the time when placemaking skills are most needed.’
The challenge for enlightened place and movement professionals is to work together to demonstrate how integrated spatial planning leads to quality of place, which in turn generates demonstrable economic and social value.
The tools and processes necessary to help us understand the real nature and needs of the world around us, and so generate robust evidence bases that support informed decion-making already exist: all we have to do is get (much) better at using them.