Friday, 2 July 2010

1st July 2010 – From Yarmouth to Yas Island (and watching UK planning descend into chaos)

Great Yarmouth...

One of the things I love most about my job is the diverse places it takes me to. I’m writing this on the way to East Anglia to talk about two Area Action Plans we’re producing for the run down waterfront areas in Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft. I’ve also been spending a lot of time in Abu Dhabi which despite global financial turmoil, continues to implement its mega-expansion plans. Here I am working on a master plan for a major new city quarter.

The contrasts between these places are immense. In a world of spending cuts trying to justify the funding for a much needed pedestrian bridge in Lowestoft is a major task. In Abu Dhabi they think nothing of spending billions of dirham on an entire metro system, tunnelling an expressway under the current city centre (causing traffic chaos throughout the city), building a grand prix circuit (on the lavish Yas Island where I had my tea the other night), creating the world’s most inclined tower to get one over on Pisa, or creating several lush golf courses in the middle of the desert.

I was last in Abu Dhabi a year ago where I visited Saadiyat Island (where we were trying to invent a system to implement the ambitious cultural district master plan involving 150,000 new residents, and world class museums including branches of the Louvre and Guggenheim designed by the likes of Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid). Last July we had to get a boat out, to what was a desert island with a collection of site offices. It is now connected to Abu Dhabi Island by a bridge carrying an 8 lane expressway, and now boasts a couple of resorts and golf courses. Where was sand, is now grass and planting.

The sustainability aspects of this massive growth are of course questionable. However, unlike neighbouring Dubai where the ribbon-like growth was relatively unplanned, Abu do have a vision and a development strategy set out in their 2030 Plan. They have also extensively invested in a development management system, and a bespoke system to encourage sustainability into projects that they call Estidama. Best of all is a “can do” attitude that is somewhat missing from planners in the UK.
Things couldn’t be more different in Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth where since July 2009 development projects have been put on hold, pared back or cancelled whist local businesses have closed.

Abu Dhabi leaning tower....

However, unlike many other places in the UK, Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft are set to benefit from massive investment in off-shore renewables. The Great Gabbard offshore farm is under construction, whilst a wind farm the size of Norfolk is set to be built just over the horizon from the two towns. Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft are perfectly positioned to benefit from this massive green-energy opportunity and our plan seeks to encourage this investment and make sure that local people are set to benefit.

This, of course, is all at risk at the moment. This week I was at the planning convention where current reform is causing gloom and uncertainty in the system. The new Coalition seem to be intent in reforming the planning system to reflect their “localism” agenda. Their view is the system is broken, and it must be quickly mended.

The Coalition sent along two ministers to address planners - Minister for Decentralisation Gregg Clarke, and Minister for Planning, Bob Neill Myself. Myself and another Young Planner (Nick Pleasant, who is genuinely young) set out the concerns of Young Planners Network ahead of the annual address, where we generally agree that change must happen to the system, but we planners are already implementing a localism agenda (our speech is online at

The two tories seemed to agree with what they are saying, and Clarke even compared Nick and I, to Nick Clegg and David Cameron (not sure whether to take that as a massive compliment, or a massive insult). However, during Clarke’s 20 minute speech little was really said about what was going to happen to planning, what their “localism” agenda really is, or whether they localism will be a force for collaboration, or simply a Nimby’s charter.

They did however promise to meet with the Young Planners, which we should all hope they keep their word on.

As Nick and I set out, and as was reinforced throughout the convention, it has never been more important that planners come together as a collective movement to stand up for planning. The next few months really are going to be make or break for planners.

Let’s hope it works, otherwise this time next year we’ll all be off to Abu Dhabi.

Friday, 16 April 2010

Friday 16th April – Lowestoft’s Got Talent

I managed to get on one of the last flights back to London before the Volcano kicked off, which avoided a week or more in Washington DC (I don’t think Ann Skippers was as lucky).

We recently gave a presentation at a breakfast meeting for business leaders in Lowestoft, on the Area Action Plan proposals that we are working on up there. We were considerably upstaged by two GCSE students, Niall and Katie from the Denes High School who presented their concept for a sustainable town that they had called Solaris which had won a national “Developing Sustainable Communities Competition”. This included a whole range of brilliant ideas for a zero carbon town including a water powered lift, ideas for mixed use eco-neighbourhoods and a 3D fly through of an eco-home. We thought that our own planners and designers could learn a thing or two from Niall and Katie, so we invited them down to London for a tour of the office, a trip to the Olympic View Tube and the chance to share their ideas (and hopefully convince them to go into careers in the built environment).

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Wednesday 14th April – Homeward Bound

I am now sat in a rather shabby looking Louis Armstrong Airport. For the first time since last Thursday there are a few clouds over New Orleans, the weather and timing could not have been better with the French Quarter Festival giving the city a real party atmosphere over the past week.

New Orleans has to be one of the most fun, laid back, but inspirational places I have ever been. I have met a lot of amazing planners who are keen, dedicated and love their jobs. I don’t think I met a single planner out here who wasn’t enthusiastic about their work which is a refreshing change to many planners in the UK (although thankfully the real cynics are in the minority). And it is not like US planners are without their problems or cause for cynicism or complaint. Like us, they have seen significant redundancies in the planning sector; with many consultants are on short-time working, and cutbacks in the public sector (although the stimulus package is starting to reverse this).

I am very sad to leave, but at the same time looking forward to coming back to the UK and sharing some of the great ideas and knowledge that I have picked up over here. In particular the feeling that planning is a collective movement, a force for good, and a force for change. This is definitely something that we in the UK should embrace a lot more, especially when times are so tough and the future of the profession is being challenged more so than ever. That said, there are many young planners that I know in the UK who passionately believe this ethos, but I hope that this message can be spread to all corners of the profession, public and private, young and old.

Tuesday 14th April – Last day in NOLA!

Went on a running tour early this morning through the Garden District. Got chatting to a woman called Laura who works for AECOM Design + Planning in Washington. The run was being led by another woman who had worked in the same AECOM office as a landscape architect and had been seconded to New Orleans to assist with the rebuilding effort. Since then she hasn’t looked back. She described 80 hour weeks (not too different to London then!) and tough politics, but the speed in which projects get on the ground is apparently phenomenal.

After queuing for about half an hour in Starbucks for a coffee and a cheese danish (wasn’t worth the effort) I finally got into some of the sessions which focussed upon flood risks in the developing world and getting sustainability into US local plans.

The grande finale of the conference was the closing keynote speech by Adolfo Carrion Jr, appointed by Obama as the director of Urban Affairs in the White House. Carrion has a background in planning and his appointment reflects the Obama administrations commitment to the profession.

Carrion described the American Planning Association (that has been around for 102 years) as being ahead of the game for so long, but a “voice in the wilderness”. He stated that America needs “smart planning” that does not have a party label and cuts across government departments. Embedded into smart planning, he said, are the principles of economic growth, environmental responsibility, and providing every neighbourhood in the US opportunities. For too long pockets of marginalisation have been allowed to develop in US cities, and smart planning can assist in bucking this trend.

Carrion announced a program of spending increases planned over the next few years with a $100 million sustainable communities grant for the next fiscal year, to be increased to $710 million next year. Shame he can’t send some of that to the UK.

New Orleans Mayor Elect, Mitch Landrieu followed, describing how the aftermath of Katrina had not been a natural disaster, but a national disaster that exposed problems that traverse America. the primary cause has been a failure to invest in cities and a lack of foresight and planning. He spoke of local failures since Katrina in realising recovery but believes that New Orleans is now on the cusp of re-creation, rather than just rebuilding, allowing citizens to develop the city that they want to live in. However, this is dependent upon government, business and communities working together something that has not worked well so far.

Concluding, he stated that he believes that Government is an active agent for change and should lead in instilling hope, vision and inspiration amongst citizens. New Orleans, he believes, will come to be seen as an icon for such democracy and hope.

Spent the rest of the day wandering around the French Quarter buying tat and an enormous po-boy. Then went for my final Creole meal in the Commanders Palace Restaurant with Ann and Clive which was some of the best food of the trip.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Monday 13th April – Brad Pitt – Philanthropist or philanthroprick?

I got up early to get to the Delta Urbanism Plenary which explored some of the issues around the formation of South Louisiana around the Mississippi Delta and other global deltas. Took me back to my GCSE geography days! The issues which led to the flooding of New Orleans were gone through, in particular how the city has subsided due to drainage and urbanisation. An interesting comparison is between the extent of the post 1900 city, and the extent of the areas that stayed dry during the floods. It is pretty much all the areas developed in the 20th Century that were worst affected by flooding demonstrating that the city planners of yesterday had a much better idea about how to build a flood resilient city (i.e. stick to high ground).

Han Meyers of Delft University of Technology then discussed how Dutch cities have evolved and how cities such as Rotterdam are successfully developing in their flood plains.

A session on the post Katrina planning gave an excellent perspective as to how the planning process has acted as a force for good in bringing the city back. A layer of various plans have been produced since 2006 by several different agencies, with varying degrees of success. The panel of New Orleans residents who had been engaged in the planning process spoke of the many problems and disagreements that occurred, but the consensus was that the process was amazing and helped to galvanize and engage the community.

Vera Tripplett of the University of New Orleans in particular gave a fantastic perspective on the planning process. One of the many people whose homes had been destroyed she was desperate to come back to her own house, and it was this that got her passionately involved in the planning process. One of the early plans showed a series of “green dots” to illustrate new open spaces across the city (which is something pretty usual for concept planning). However, when residents saw their houses were under these “circular parks” there was an outcry, and this short-sighted planning approach was recognised by the panel as the catalyst for getting local people involved. Vera described the population as now being “passionate, educated and informed about planning”.

Vera spoke of how she doesn’t know how to describe the impact of Katrina on her and her friends, families and neighbours. There are people in the city that literally lost everything and this is a reason why so many people haven’t returned. In a lot of disasters there is a social network to fall back on, but following Katrina whole families and social networks were destroyed as so many people lost their homes, and this is why it’s been so difficult for people to return.

I took a mobile workshop in the afternoon which focussed upon “housing choices in a recovering community”. This took us round various new housing schemes that have taken place since Katrina including modular homes and factory built units, existing houses that have been lifted up on stilts, and some of the philanthropic schemes. The tour was led by Stephen D Villavaso who is a local property developer who was accompanied by a very passionate bus driver who had a lot to say about the housing issues that he had come across.

We stopped at Project Home Again close to Bayou St John. This was a high quality scheme of mixed housing that had been started by the founder of Barnes and Nobel who had invested $5m of his own money into the scheme. Despite this he had apparently come up against a lot of problems from the city government in terms of support, and difficulties in permitting.

The subject then turned to Brad Pitt who the bus driver loudly proclaimed “should stick to movies” and who clearly has ruffled quite a few feathers amongst local property developers and the comparison with the Project Home Again scheme is quite surprising. Brad Pitt and the Make it Right foundation has received significant support from the city and gained massive publicity as he has bought himself a reputation for philanthropy, investing $1m of his own money.

However, as Stephen and the bus driver made clear the Project Home Again is located close to neighbourhood amenities including schools and shops, is walkable and importantly allows residents to build up some equity. The Make it Right scheme is a few individual houses in a sea of empty lots, there are no sidewalks, schools or shops, and they have been very expensive to construct. Stephen wasn’t going to take us to the Lower Ninth to see the Make it Right homes, but the bus driver had other ideas: “Right I’m going to drive y’all there now” he screamed and away we set.

They are right. I got to get a better look at the houses (it was a very quick drive past on Saturday) and when you look around they are in a desert with no facilities and it is unlikely that the Lower Ninth will ever see the majority of the plots rebuilt. The houses are “bimbo architecture” to the max, but they are well designed, they are sustainable and they have got people talking. As with all development it is good to get a mixture, but I see the point that is being made, and why property people are perhaps a little resentful towards Mr Pitt.

I managed to get back for a couple more sessions which were very interesting!The first was entitled “CEOs on the state of the Landscape Architecture and Planning Profession”. A chunk of the conversation focussed upon the “alphabet soup” consultancies that are going around buying up small firms to achieve Wal-Mart style dominance. The panel (some of whom were ex-EDAW) were fairly cynical about such firms but it was recognised that they play a part and are probably not a threat to the industry. Indeed the potential for collaboration with such firms was seen as a good thing.

The final session focussed on the potential for using social networking sites in planning – both for consultation and career development reasons. I was a little bit cynical about using Facebook, twitter and blogging for consultation purposes, but the case studies given (many of which were from Texas) suggested that it can work very well. Maybe something to try out when I’m back in the UK.

I was privileged to be invited to the APA President’s Reception at the Hilton Hotel after the conference finished for the day, so thought I’d better put on a jacket. I met lots of high and mighty planners including Bruce Knight, this years APA president and various people from around the US. The Planning Institute Australia representative (who looked like he’d had a few tinnies before he came out) gave me a kangaroo lapel badge which was nice of him.

Myself, Ann Skippers, her husband Clive and Sue Percy of the RTPI then went to dinner to the Palace Cafe on Canal Street which was grand and delicious. I invited Shana along – I’m not sure she’d ever been in the presence of so many English people so it must have been a culture shock!

Sunday 11th April – Dutch Dialogues

Today was the first day of the conference proper, and I came away feeling genuinely inspired - in particular about the future of planning as a global profession.

The Obama administration has instilled a pro-planning agenda, and although things are clearly as economically challenging over here as it is in the UK, there does seem to be a lot of optimism amongst American planners.

The day started with the opening key note speech featuring Senator Mary Landrieu (who apparently is kind of a big deal over here), Shaun Donovan (US Secretary for Housing and Urban Development – also a big deal) and Renee Jones-Bos (the Dutch Ambassador in the US).

Senator Landrieu started off by recognising the value of planning and noted that the current administration hope to instill change through the planning process. She then went on to pay respect to the Dutch who have been in New Orleans since Katrina, assisting in the reconstruction of the city based on experience from the Netherlands. Landrieu made it clear that she believes that New Orleans is an important city and an economic powerhouse for oil, gas and food production and must be rebuilt. However, the 250,000 homes that were destroyed and $150 bn damages should have been reduced by better defence, protection and resilience, following the examples set in Holland.

Renee Jones-Bos also believes in the future of New Orleans and started her speech with the facts that the Netherlands is the 7th largest trader with the US, the 3rd largest international investor in the US and manages to retain this position despite much of the country being at below sea level – Dutch bankers also paid for the purchase of Louisiana from the French.

Lessons learnt from the Dutch approach to planning and urban design in the rebuilding of New Orleans was the focus of the next session I attended. Dutch Dialogues is a program that has been ongoing for several years and seeks to instill principles learnt from Holland around flood management, resilience and urban design in the rebuilding of the city.

This session outlined inspirational and very optimistic possibilities for the future of the city and focussed upon how the existing flood defence system of canals and levees could be improved and externalised to provide better protection, as well as recreational opportunities. This strikes a chord with a lot of work that I’ve been involved in the UK which is increasingly focussed upon Sustainable Urban Drainage Systems and a more managed approach to dealing with flood risk.

The Dutch Dialogues session reported back on a three day charette that had taken place ahead of the conference. Underpinning all of the work were four main development principles for the future of the city – Firstly, that it should be safer; second, that it should be resilient; third that it should be sustainable; and fourth that it should be attractive. These are clearly the four main priniciples that should be instilled into development across the globe.

The remainder of the session provided outputs from the charette that focussed upon the removal of culverts and flood walls from the high level canals around the city. It was noted that despite New Orleans being a water dominated city, you don’t see the water like you would in Venice or Amsterdam. The main solution, the Dutch suggest, is to provide more space for water to circulate and be stored, which in dry times can be used to the recreational and aesthetic advantage of the city, as well as providing attractive corridors for cyclists and pedestrians to link city districts.

The Dutch Dialogues work can be seen here:

I met Shana at lunchtime who introduced me to some of her planning friends, many of whom were displaying posters in the exhibition hall. I also went along to the AECOM stand – it was good to see the planning and design part of the business being displayed here.

I went to a session on working globally after lunch. Although this was more focussed upon APA members there were a lot of good ideas discussed about how planners can move around the globe to work, rather than being typecast into a single country. In particular the potential for planners working as part of international relief operations was seen as a massive opportunity for good by many and there are even the startings of a “Planners without Borders” orgainisation in the US, something that could be mirrored in the UK.

In the afternoon I went to a couple of sessions on planning for climate change. This focussed upon a number of planning-led initiatives in the US, in particular state-level Climate Action Plans, which some research was showing had made small impacts in reducing CO2 levels, although obviously nothing like the reductions required to reverse predicted climate change impacts.

After the session finisihed I met up with my pal Sarah who used to work in London and we had some beer. I then went to TW Fins (on a very boisterous Bourbon Street) where I had a very civilised meal with some great people from the APA, who like everyone i’ve met here so far are absolutely passionate about planning.

Monday, 12 April 2010

Saturday 10th April – Outside the French District

Today was the first time I got outside of the prosperous central areas and actually saw the legacy of destruction that Katrina brought in 2005. I had signed up for an orientation bus tour that took us all the way round the city visiting a lot of different neighbourhoods and areas that were badly hit by floods which were the main disaster brought by Katrina.

We did a loop around the city, passing Treme, Fauberg Marigny and Bywater, and then across the industrial canal and into the Lower Ninth which suffered some of the worst flooding during Katrina, and also happened to be where some of the poorest people lived. Much of the area today has reverted back to nature with acres of vacant plots lining the avenues, interspersed by some remaining flood damaged houses which still retain the Katrina graffiti which is quite haunting.

In the wake of Katrina, emergency response crews tagged thousands of houses with a spray painted X to tell others that it had been searched. At the top of the X the crew wrote the day of arrival. On the right side the crew wrote the number of occupants and their condition. A “0” meant crews found no one, a “2” meant they found two alive and a “2D” meant they found 2 dead.

One of the biggest draws to the lower ninth is the emergence of the new sustainable homes being constructed by charitable organisations such as “Make it Right”. Make it Right are in the process of building 150 affordable, sustainable and architect designed homes in the Lower Ninth and are probably most famous for their association with Brad Pitt who fronts the organisation. News is spreading of this green building agenda and there was an article about it on the front page of USA today on my first day here. The houses are haphazardly arranged amongst vacant plots and are modern in style, most of them built above raised voids to allow for future flooding. Most sport solar panels, whilst all of them have escape hatches in the roof to avoid residents having to break their way through as was the case during Katrina.

We looped through the St Barnard district, also badly hit by flooding and out to the east which gives an idea of the swamp land New Orleans is founded on. Then back through the city to the Lake Area, a more prosperous neighbourhood that was subject to flooding after the drainage canals breached. This gave us a good idea about the New Orleans drainage system, with much of the water directed into culverted canals flowing above the surrounding buildings. We were shown the 17th Street Canal breach which caused a lot of the flooding of this part of New Orleans. Apparently the concrete chanel simple couldn’t withstand the pressure of the water that led to it bursting.

A noticeable thing about this area was that although a lot of empty buildings remained, there were also a lot of restored buildings demonstrating an increase in prosperity compared to the Lower Ninth. There were also less vacant plots, perhaps demonstrating the better building quality in this area than the buildings in the poorer areas out east.

Although there wasn’t a full programme of conference events on Saturday, I came back to the Morial Center and sat in on a session on European Deltas which gave an interesting insight into river delta development in Italy, Spain, the Netherlands and included an appearance from Steve Quartermain of CLG, talking about English flood issues (although not strictly in delta areas).

In the evening I got to meet up with some friendly planners based in the US. Firstly Shana Johnson who was introduced to me as a buddy for the conference. After a walk round the French Quarter and some gumbo, we met some AECOM colleagues from San Francisco and went and enjoyed a whole load of different music, on street an in bars. The highlight being a stand off between two Dixie bands on either side of Frenchman street (with some aggressive tuba playing), and a band called Johnny Sketch and the Dirty Notes in the Blue Nile Club. This is by far one of the funnest places i’ve been. The night finished with some coffee and beignets.

Found out a little later there had been a triple shooting on Royal/Canal Street junction where we’d been shortly before. Whilst Nola is fun, its still pretty gritty.