Lessons from London, one of the world’s greatest cities

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FAMOUS plans were usually attached to a man’s name – Abercrombie, Burnham.These days there isn’t a single visionary, godlike planner. PlaNYC, for example, wasn’t called the ‘Bloomberg Plan.’ ”

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–Patrick Philips, Chief Executive of the Urban Land Institute (ULI)

Regular readers of this column might already be familiar with my lamentations and hopes on architect-planner Daniel Burnham’s unrealized plans for Manila and Baguio. This time around, let’s look at one of the visions that town planner Sir Patrick Abercrombie had for London.

London has been a major settlement for the past two millenia, and although it’s skyline has pretty much changed since its early years, it is one of the few cities in the world that has successfully integrated modern and progressive architecture with its historic heritage buildings.

The Abercrombie Plan
In 1811, London became the first modern city to have more than one million inhabitants, and became the world’s largest city from 1831-1925, with over six million inhabitants crowding the city. This led to cholera epidemics and traffic congestion. Because of the industrial age, most of the length of London’s River Thames was shut in by warehouses, factories, and walls.

In the late 1800s, the Garden City movement by Sir Ebenezer Howard emerged, where cities are planned to be self-contained communities surrounded by “greenbelts.” Town planner Sir Leslie Patrick Abercrombie used these principles in his ambitious plan for a “New London.” In 1943, he wrote the County of London Plan and a year later, the Greater London Plan. These top-down plans were prepared in anticipation of the end of World War II and the reconstruction after bomb damage and population migration. World War II, despite its destruction, paved the way for London to do away with the “dirt and disorder.”

According to Abercrombie himself, “It’s rather like how you plan a garden. You need to give it air and sunshine, shelter from the wet and cold, room to grow, and most importantly, there must not be any overcrowding. London used to be a collection of scattered village communities and grew up without any (cohesive) plan or honor. This plan hopes to do away with what is bad and ugly about it.”

The plans ushered in a golden age of city building, with major physical developments that alleviated traffic congestion, population growth, depressed housing, inadequacy and maldistribution of open spaces, employment and industry, recreation, and urban sprawl. The main thrust of the plan was to move more than 600,000 people out of London into “new towns” and “garden cities.”

One of the most visible physical manifestation of these plans are the development of London’s ring roads, rail services, Heathrow airport, and the M25 London Orbital Motorway. One of the most important provisions of the plans was developing recreational areas through a green belt of protected countryside, parkways, and open spaces.

Like Burnham’s Plan for Manila and Baguio, Abercrombie’s comprehensive and great plans for London were also not fully realized due to the unstable post-war economic climate, but it has been successful in creating an optimistic vision of a Globalized London.

Visions and infrastructure plans
Current London Mayor Boris Johnson has been successful in the globalization of London with a long-term vision to make Greater London to become the greatest city in the world. Johnson’s own ambitious plans reviewed Abercrombie’s plans with London’s first long-term (35 years in fact) infrastructure plan.

Sir Edward Lister, Chief of Staff and Deputy Mayor for Planning of the Greater London Authority, shared the city’s strategies and challenges at a recent Center for Livable Cities (CLC) Lecture series in Singapore. Instead of depopulating London into new towns like what was deposited in Ambercrombie’s Plan, they will be concentrating on densification.

Aside from that, Abercrombie’s comprehensive plans and its principles on transport, open spaces, and blending housing and industry are still relevant today, evident in Greater London’s Plan for 2020.According to Lister, presenting a single but comprehensive plan is more effective because it makes it easier to persuade people to imagine and see the larger plans and outcomes. Transport, says Lister, has proven to initiate cross-political support. One such example is the 118-km rail link, Crossrail, to be completed by 2018. The Crossrail took many years of motivating and convincing political parties, businesses, and the public to support and carry out the plan.

In essence, London’s problems pre-war and post war are also Manila’s problems today. While the Philippines is known for Miss Universe, Miss World, Miss International, our country could also be known for Miscommunication and Missed Opportunities. There are leadership challenges and lack of urban visionary leadership, political will, top-down planning, good design, and good governance. Corruption, criminality, and climate change remain to be our most difficult challenges but need to be addressed effectively, nonetheless.

According to Dutch architect Jan Gehl, “it takes 300 years to create a lively city.” London is already on its way to become not just a lively city, but the greatest city on earth. How long will it take for Metro Manila to become one?

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2 Comments

  1. Instead of focusing on Manila alone, why don’t we also plan our other cities and towns? I believe that the key to achieving this is by educating our local politicians and active participation of the citizens. Architects and planners cannot just sit on the sidelines waiting for commission from clients. Otherwise we will not go anywhere. Our cities and towns are “developed” by inexperienced politicians and it’s a mess out there. Let’s bring our expertise to the towns and cities by conducting charrettes so people could better understand what a good planning is about. In other words, let’s be proactive, not reactive.