Guest article: London can still learn from the Abercrombie Plan

By Chris Paddock

This is the first article for On London by Chris Paddock, director of the economic development consultancy Regeneris.

Given that it fell on the first anniversary of the European Union Referendum, it is unsurprising that not much fuss was made about the 60th anniversary of the death of Sir Patrick Abercrombie, perhaps the capital’s most important planning visionary. But as London responds to the challenges of Brexit and Sadiq Khan prepares to publish the draft of his new London Plan, Abercrombie’s work – or at least the principles that informed it – are as important now as ever.

For over 30 years from 1916 when, still in his mid-thirties, he was chosen to redesign the centre of Dublin, Abercrombie was a global superstar of urban planning and his 1944 Greater London Plan, which followed his County of London Plan of the previous year, is his most famous work. It remains a superb piece of city region planning, mind-boggling in its detail yet presenting a clear, coherent vision not only for London itself but also a surrounding area stretching from north of Luton to the South Downs, from High Wycombe to the west to Southend to the east. It includes, among much else, specifics on infrastructure and parks, the evolution of industrial areas and the functional boundaries of communities.

Of particular interest today, with London and its economic reach expanding so rapidly, is the way the Abercrombie thought about the city’s relationships with its neighbours and the implications of these for transport, housing and other infrastructure. This informed both his consideration of the city’s economic needs and his bold recommendations for New Towns, including Harlow and Stevenage.

The 1944 plan has had its critics. Boris Johnson has – unfairly – blamed Abercrombie for the post-war depopulation of London and the hollowing out of its economy during the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. Others, perhaps more fairly, cite as negative legacies his plan’s espousal of modernist housing solutions and brutal transport prescriptions, the Westway being the most tangible realised example.

Also, for better or worse, the 1944 plan is a brazen piece of propaganda for the approaching post-war period. The 24-minute film about it below is clumsy in its espousal of an assumed set of new aspirations and ideals. Yet it is also a delightful celebration of London and its spirit, and shows Sir Patrick himself in action (at about the seven minute point).

Despite being 73 years old and not without its faults, the Abercrombie Plan is full of thought-provoking ideas and commentary, and it can still be of guiding value to London planners today. There are three particular ways in which this is so.

Firstly, there was a major effort to involve the general population with planning processes and decisions. Thousands of copies of Abercrombie’s document were published and distributed to libraries, government offices and even schools (this means that anyone with £50 to spare can pick one up online). In 2017, planning is a very technical discipline, but it is relevant to everyone and can be very exciting. The active engagement with Abercrombie’s work that was encouraged in its time is something that should be replicated with the new London Plan.

Secondly, Abercrombie looked at the economic geography of London in its fullest sense, even then seeing the capital as the centre of a much wider city region. The last census underlined that London’s influence has been expanding across the south east of England and into the south Midlands, yet any formal political discussion of its relationship with these neighbouring areas remains oddly off limits.

This is despite some in those areas marketing themselves as being part of London, with companies describing their premises in Slough, Ongar, Farnborough and StAlbans as “London offices”. A few years ago, the North Northants Development Company marketed Corby, Kettering and other towns nearby as “North Londonshire“. Others, such as the EU Statistics Agency, already define “London” as an entity covering far more ground than Greater London. Such a broader focus, even if it encompassed only closer collaborations with surrounding jurisdictions, would help to strengthen London as it adapts to its more isolated, post-Brexit position.

Thirdly, the Abercrombie Plan reminds us of the importance of fun. It is optimistic for the future and contains plenty of emphasis on providing space for recreation. Its suggestion of creating a big park on a swathe of industrial London in the north east of the city and into Hertfordshire was realised as the Lee Valley Park, which marks its 50th anniversary this year. Still more significantly, it ushered in the Green Belt which, contrary to common belief, was not envisaged as stopping the city from growing but primarily to provide leisure space.

Mayor Khan has signalled with his “city for all Londoners” strategy that quality of life will be given more prominence in his London Plan, following the heavily growth-focussed policies of the past decade. This might seem an obvious priority, yet enjoyment is a difficult outcome to define, pursue and measure compared with job creation and land values. Much can be learned from Abercrombie’s bold approach, balancing these less substantive benefits with the more palpable proceeds of spatial development.

Today, we have more information to work with than Abercrombie did, a different administrative geography and new sets of challenges. Yet his perspectives are still relevant 60 years after his death. The main reason why his 1944 plan still works and informs was its honest recognition that it addressed a moment in time in a city that will always change. Will the same be said of the imminent new London Plan come 2090?

You can buy a hard copy of the 1944 Greater London plan here. Follow Chris Paddock on Twitter.

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