Developing people rather than buildings

September 3, 2020

There’s a lot of development going on in the North East at the moment, but is it the right kind or should we be looking at new ways to rejuvenate and revitalise our cities, towns and villages? Richard Dawson hears from County Durham-born Professor John Tomaney about the need for new thinking in conversations about urban development and why cities of the future should be built around the movement of people, not cars

“How do we make cities that are focussed on quality of life, tackling inequalities and promoting health and wellbeing?”

It is this question that occupies the mind of University College London Professor John Tomaney and that makes him critical of the model of urban development currently being pursued across the North East.

An expert in urban and regional planning, who has taught at some of the world’s most prestigious academic institutions, John speaks with authority about the need for new thinking where the regeneration of the North East’s economy is concerned.

John was born in County Durham at a time when the coal industry, which had dominated the area since the mid-19th century, was beginning to decline.

By the time the 1980s rolled around, he was in a position to go to the London School of Economics and Political Science and start an academic career that is now almost four decades in the making.

After a brief spell working for what was then Ken Livingstone’s Greater London Council, while studying part-time for a master’s degree at Sussex University, John came back to the North East in 1987 to pursue a PhD at Newcastle University.

In the years since completing his doctorate in 1991, the goal of John’s academic research has been to think about how we can improve the way we live in cities, towns and villages, particularly in former industrial regions such as the North East.

Now based in Gateshead, John believes the need for new thinking about urban and regional development is greater than ever.

“As far as this region is concerned, there is a massive planning challenge to think about what we can do to make our towns and villages places where people can have opportunities and a good  standard of living,” he says.

“Our solution generally has been to build sheds and hope that some economic activity is attracted from the outside to occupy them, but I think that era is over, and we need some radical new thinking.”

The North East’s flirtations with radical ideas have had mixed success over the years, the most profound example being the period in the 1960s when T. Dan Smith was leader of Newcastle City Council.

“The era in which Dan Smith operated wrought huge changes in our cities, some for the better, some for the worse,” John explains.

“He was part of a much larger wave of modernist change in planning and architecture. He personified this notion that the past needed to be swept away, that the modernisation of the region’s economy, society and built environment needed to be unleashed.”

Local government played a central role in urban planning during the Smith era, allowing many large-scale infrastructure projects, such as Newcastle’s central motorway, to be constructed relatively quickly.

There was a strong reaction to that in the 1980s when the emphasis shifted away from centralised decision making and towards market forces and more private sector involvement.

This inflexion point accelerated changes that were already underway as a result of de- industrialisation and, according to John, “fuelled the growing gap between this region and the prosperous South.”

Today, the so-called North/South divide is wider than it’s ever been, substantiating John’s view that, in the UK, we are still pursuing a model of economic development that is fuelling regional inequalities.

Newcastle University professor, Andy Pike, calls this model ‘city centrism’.

“This is the idea that the key to economic development is to build up and densify city centres to get more and more people to live there and spend money there,” John explains.

“Underpinning it are powerful ideas from urban economics about how productivity is generated and about how concentrating economic activity in cities will lead to enterprise, growth and so on.

“What this amounts to is a property-led development approach where cranes in the skyline are the measure of development.”

John is sceptical about whether this measure is still the right one in 2020.

“It’s measuring growth in terms of the output of the construction sector, not in terms of the wellbeing of the population,” he says.

I ask John about the success of Greater Manchester, which is a prime example of so-called city centrism, perceived by many to be a booming city with a £62.8 billion economy.

“There’s been lots of development in Manchester but it’s also the most unequal city in the country outside of London,” he answers.

John wants to see the North East embrace a new model of development that is focussed on developing people rather than buildings.

More emphasis on making the region a better place to live, a place which tackles inequalities, and which invests in health and wellbeing, education, skills and training.

More resources dedicated to addressing longstanding problems such as demographic ageing, social deprivation, loneliness and climate change.

“None of these issues is particularly new, but they need our attention,” the academic says.

“We need to think more about how we develop our own population because the old ways of doing things are no longer going to work.”

The new model of urban development, which John describes, is still very much a work in progress, and while there are general trends we can identify, it is not exactly clear how we move forward from where we are today.

The fabled adage ‘the old is dying and the new cannot be born’ seems particularly apt, especially when we throw the world-historic crisis that is the coronavirus pandemic into the mix.

COVID-19 could be another historical turning point for the North East and its built environment, much in the same way that modernist planning ideas transformed our cityscapes in the 1960s.

“The places which can reinvent themselves are the ones that will prosper in the future,” John adds.

In Newcastle, this process already looks to be underway. The city council has introduced a number of changes across the city centre, most notably on Grey Street where more space is being created for pedestrians, cyclists and the introduction of pavement cafes.

Under the new measures, the vast majority of on-street parking on Grey Street will be removed, with traffic restricted to one way going southbound and a cycle lane going northbound.

John believes the transformation of Grey Street is symbolic of the new direction we need to go in and supports it wholeheartedly.

He says: “The evidence is overwhelming on pedestrianisation and I think the council has been courageous in taking this on.

“We could be one of these examples people turn to of a city which is showing the way forward, rather than one that’s arguing about whether its prized architectural asset should be used for the parking of cars.

“There’s an important debate to be had about how we make the best of Grey Street, but I think we can all agree that parking cars all over it probably isn’t.”

When you consider that the A1 used to run up Northumberland Street, it’s difficult to overstate just how transformational pedestrianisation can be for the look and feel of a city.

Here, Newcastle is relatively late to the party, with many other cities across Europe having already pedestrianised vast swathes of their urban centres.

John says: “Newcastle is a city that so lends itself to it because it’s such a beautiful city.

“You could imagine the whole of Blackett Street, Old Eldon Square, Monument and Grey Street pedestrianised.”

It would be a powerful rebuke of the modernist planning approach, which imagined cities of the future as given over to the car.

“We’re now at a point where the city has to be reshaped to facilitate the movement of people rather than cars,” adds John.

The Grey Street pedestrianisation plans have been brought about because of COVID-19, but their true purpose is to tackle another existential threat – climate change.

Getting cars out of city centres – what you might call de-automobilisation – is considered crucial for reducing carbon dioxide and other harmful pollutants that are causing major health problems for urban dwellers today.

While more investment in public transport will be needed to liberate our cities from the tyranny of the internal combustion engine, pedestrianisation is at the heart of the model of development that John believes we must embrace in the years to come.

He concludes: “The future is about promoting sustainable development, quality of life and the health and wellbeing of people.

“The economy is going to be reconfigured around all of this. Cities and regions are going to be reconfigured around this. Even the small villages in County Durham are going to be affected.

“All places have their strengths and their assets that can be deployed in the pursuit of this new model of economic development.

“The question is, who is going to lead us in this direction?”

Professor John Tomaney

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