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Have you ever been to Basildon? Well, I lived there from 1985 to 1993. Um, it’s a British new town in South Essex. It was once described by a London-based journalist as a “well-planned open prison”. Now I think that’s harsh. And of course the journalist did live, no doubt, in some trendy part of London. But I do have to admit there are some real failings of Basildon.
And one of the failings is because it was a new town—declared in 1948—it was completely planned; the roads were planned, the houses were planned, the jobs were planned. When I say the jobs, of course, jobs were planned for men. What were the women going to do? Well, they were going to push prams and pushchairs through the very many underpasses which the planners built.
Now when people go to places like Basildon what they often say is “where’s the heart? Where’s the soul?” and I do think they’ve got a point. Because we have a problem if we just completely over plan. If you’ve ever looked at the history of other architects like Le Corbusier what he did was predicted how people would live in the machine that he created, which was these huge blocks of flats. He even decided what kind of furniture people should have. And guess what? It didn’t work.
We’ve got this real issue with planning. Of course we need to plan. But one of the phrases I’ve got to know and love is by Mike Tyson: “everyone needs a plan until they get a punch in the mouth”. The problem is; is that when we’re dealing with complex problems, we think that our plan will carry us through, but guess what? New information is coming at us all the time. Situations change and so what we need is, we need adaptability; we need experimentation; we need to try things out. In fact, our own decision making actually leads to different perspectives and new information.
Most cities, most communities evolve. Different planners come along at different times with different ideas. And, and cities and towns and communities they kind of build on what they have already. And that’s why lively vibrant cities are often so different from those towns, like Basildon, that are planned.
So what I’d say to you is think about the extent to which, when you are faced with just an overwhelmingly complex problem, you over plan. Because that’s what they did in Basildon. They assumed men would work, women would stay at home. They assumed that people would live and work in the town. Well guess what? When I lived there where did most people work? They got on the train and they got to London. All of those things changed and none of those things could have been anticipated by those planners in the late 1940s.
So just beware of over planning. But if you’re in England at any time, do drop in, and do see what Basildon’s like.