thoughts on our urban future

Responding to Localism: Part 2

the localism jigsaw puzzle

In my previous post I wondered what may be the vehicles which could allow some of the things I find interesting about the idea of localism. I guess how the whole thing may work remains unclear, but I still find there are some compelling reasons why we should not dismiss localism as just the latest gimmick to justify budget cuts. Given the number of interesting conversations that I’ve come across in the last few months about the issue, I’m probably not the only one who thinks there is something exciting about the whole thing.

Now, having said that, it’s important to point out that for many existing community groups the idea of on-the-ground organisations shaping development is nothing new – many of them have been doing this for a while now. This offers some interesting sources from which urban professionals could learn; in fact probably many have already been working with these organisations and actually doing localism.

The difference, I suppose, is in the fact that the government is looking to make the whole planning system ‘simpler’ (and I am not exactly sure how, and if, this will actually work like that), giving more opportunities for bottom up decision making and so more space for the ‘natural dynamics’ of towns and cities to take place, as opposed to trying to impose objectives and directions from the top.

There are countless examples of places where urbanisation takes place a lot more ‘organically’. In many places in the developing world (but not there exclusively), planning is far less complex – if existent at all (at least in practice), and government resources are limited. Communities are therefore forced to organise themselves to make things happen. This obviously has its drawbacks, but it does create some very vibrant places, where groups of citizens set out to really influence how things function within their neighbourhood and also more widely, as a result having a strong impact on how towns and cities develop and grow.

In the developed world, planning professionals spend a lot of time looking for ways to inject vibrancy and life back into urban areas that have lost those very things that make it interesting to live in the city, where lots of other people also live. In the developing world, this is very rarely the case – the problems there are much more to do with dealing with chaotic development and the provision of infrastructure which lags behind changes that already happened. In those places, people naturally take over streets and other public spaces, using them as the spaces for exchange and interaction that they are.

In the UK, with  urban regeneration high on the previous government’s agenda, there are many succesful examples of how the planning system, as it was, could foster the development of vibrant places. Nevertheless, there are also many examples where the ‘regeneration’ has largely focused on revitalising places through encouraging the creation of places for consumption, and little else. This has created some rather sterile places, where the opportunities for real social exchange and interaction are actually very small – and as it has been shown more lately, very dependant on a model of consumption that is actually not sustainable. Moreover, it has encouraged what is now commonly known as ‘clone town Britain‘, because of the lack of distinctive character caused by the presence of the same chains, the same shops that are everywhere. I think designing with the community can offer an opportunity to work with those things that are different about each place, allowing the creation of plans and strategies that make neighbourhoods develop with their own identity.

I’d be interested in hearing about current or past initiatives where community groups are already doing localism, and how they see all this changes to the planning system will affect their work. I suspect this kind of planning and regeneration can produce some very exciting results, but I wonder what kind of resources are really needed to launch this on a national scale.

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1 Comment

  1. I think you make a very good point when you say that good examples of localism have already happened. My fear is that with the proposed changes, in “good” places with active, interested, and educated citizens, you are never really going to have much problem with community buy in and community support as long as a project is run correctly. Even when something is not run correctly, with an active community base, you will have people standing up with objections when things go against the community view.

    But what about everyplace else? My fear about the current UK government’s view of localism is that it assumes a lot of things about people and places and their motivation levels which I have much more cynical view about. I also think that as well intentioned as local people may be, there will always be greater, wider, bigger issues that some higher authority should be keeping their eye on. Because local people will in general care about what is best FOR THEM without perhaps considering (or caring about) the impact on their neighbor.

    My next fear is that in order to enforce localism the way the current UK government is proposing it puts far MORE pressure on the local planning authorities and will not be a quicker process. After all, if only three tax paying citizens can make a ‘neighborhood’, who is to say that hordes of local people won’t be clamoring to have their individual concerns heard which may conflict with their neighbors and it will be the job of the local council to assess every valid application as well as put it to a referendum. While all this is possible, I just don’t know where the money and resources are supposed to be coming from in order to do it properly.

    And as you say, is it worth getting rid of the existing structure when good examples of localism have already been shown to be possible within it? An organization I have had some experience with and been very impressed by is The Glass-House ( This seems like sensible community led design within an existing overarching structure. So why do we need to get rid of the structure exactly? I am not convinced.

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