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  • Author or Editor: Mark Tewdwr-Jones x
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narratives of place, planning and change

Urban Reflections looks at how places change, the role of planners in bringing about urban change, and the public’s attitudes to that change. Drawing on geographical, cinematic and photographic readings, the book offers a fresh incisive story of urban change, one that evokes both real and imagined perspectives of places and planning, and questions what role and purpose urban planning serves in the 21st century. It will interest urban and architectural historians, planners, geographers and all concerned with understanding urban planning and attitudes toward the contemporary city.

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... after 100 years debate on how to plan the city, after repeated attempts – however mistaken or distorted – to put ideas into practice, we find we are almost back where we started.... That does not mean, of course, that we have got nowhere at all ... it does mean that certain trends seem to reassert themselves; perhaps because, in truth, they never went away. (Hall, 2002, pp 11-12)

Urban planning within the UK, as in so many other countries, has undergone mixed fortunes over the decades. The establishment of a modern planning process in the early 20th century to combat poor public health, inner-city squalor, bad housing development and high densities, led to a belated political acknowledgement of the need for some form of state intervention in the future form and planning of places. The grand 17th-century architecture of Christopher Wren and the bold Georgian designs for Bath and Brighton, for example, in the 18th century, paled into insignificance compared to what happened to British towns from the mid-1800s.

The Industrial Revolution, dramatic increases in the population and a shift from an agrarian to an urban society had rapidly transformed previously small towns into large urban areas. In West Hartlepool, County Durham, the town grew from a population of 4,000 in 1851 to 63,000 by 1901. The population of London doubled, from approximately one million to about two million between 1801 and 1851; it doubled again to four million by 1881, and then added another 2.5 million to reach 6.5 million in 1911.

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In this chapter I explore how urban planning has been represented in a range of British media between the Second World War and the present day. I assess perceptions and representations of planning, development and of the planning profession in the immediate postwar period when planning was in its modern ascendancy. I explore the image of town planning and town planners in literature, film and television, and discuss how this image is embedded with powerful symbolism that links to a particular discourse surrounding the activity of planning in Britain. The chapter’s overall purpose is to identify the perceptions of urban planning and development since the interwar period, with the aim of working towards identifying why representations of British urban planning are stereotypical and monolithic.

The town and country planning process in Britain, through its management of development, is responsible for much of the contemporary cityscapes and landscapes that form our environment (Hall, 1992). The planning process attempts to reconcile the benefits of development with the costs they impose. Founded in its current comprehensive statutory form in 1947, according to recent government policy planning exists to promote optimal uses of land in relation to environmental management, social welfare, cultural conservation and economic development objectives. While these broad objectives are an enduring feature of the British planning system, the exact orientation of planning to these broader purposes has changed according to the various underlying socioeconomic, environmental and political objectives put forward by governments over time (Bruton, 1984;Tewdwr-Jones, 2002). Thus while the very basic principles of town and country planning remain the same as those first championed in the late 19th century by philanthropists, environmentalists and individuals concerned with healthy environments in towns and cities (cf Howard, 1898;Ward, 2002), the context in which the system operates and the expectations of what it should achieve have changed dramatically since its inception (cf Ashworth, 1954; Reade, 1987; Allmendinger and Haughton, 2007).

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The British documentary film movement embraced modernity wholeheartedly. The filmic works of Robert Flaherty, John Grierson, Arthur Elton, Basil Wright, Paul Rotha and Humphrey Jennings sought to capture and depict a radical period of British history, from the 1930s onwards. A radical political period, alongside economic depression, scientific and technological discovery, cultural innovation and rapid urbanisation, had created new conditions. The documentary film movement sought to contribute democratically to social reform and national renewal, by creating new communication mediums that reflected the Britain that was changing rapidly while additionally fostering a sense of national identity. The urban planning process broadly was an integral purpose to this social movement that could be captured on film, depicting industrial development, housing conditions and the pattern of land use across the country. Many of the film directors were from the political left and had forged close relationships with leading intellectual figures of the time, including W.H. Auden, J.B. Priestley, H.G. Wells and T.S. Eliot, who were also writing, as noted in Chapter Two, about changing conditions and social renewal.

The government of the day had also been persuaded of the merits of sponsoring and establishing state film units with the express purpose of documenting social and economic change. The Empire Marketing Board (EMB) Film Unit started to make short documentary films for distribution in Britain and overseas including making films on such subjects as industrial Britain, children, heavy industry workers, community development and housing needs. Within a short space of time independent film units had also been set up by the General Post Office (GPO) and some of the railway companies: the London Midland and Scottish Railway’s Night Mail of 1936, a 23-minute film of the London to Glasgow overnight mail train with a commentary by W.H. Auden and music by Benjamin Britten, is still one of the most well known and celebrated film outputs from this period.

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As discussed in Chapter One, urbanisation and industrialisation had changed the form and scale of British towns and cities. The urban planning movement had been introduced to manage the externalities of rapid urbanisation but by the time that liberal and socialist governments had put the initial elements of urban planning in place, the social and environmental damage had already been done. New legislation and new modern designs to housing and industrial activity benefited new developments; a significant proportion of poor or sub-standard 19th-century industrial legacy remained in place across Britain even by the 1950s and 1960s, and were largely untouched by urban planning and the modernist movement.

Debates in the social sciences, especially Urban Studies and Cultural Geography, have focused on spatialisation. Spatial analyses of a variety of different forms of culture and landscapes have assisted in our understanding of the concept of space within particular societies and geographies. Cinema and film have been used increasingly as one aspect of this analysis. With this chapter, an examination is provided of the British social realism films of the late 1950s and 1960s to demonstrate not the impact and benefits of urban planning and modernity, but rather the types of places left behind. There was a rash of films released in Britain from the late 1950s onwards that focused on social realistic domestic situations but which utilised the post-industrial urban landscape as a backcloth or setting. Films such as Room at the Top and A Taste of Honey were considered innovative when released, for their revelation of the British working class at a time when the working classes had been largely excluded from cinematic depictions, and their depiction of community, urban landscapes and an attachment to place.

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The introduction of film and early television in Britain enabled the arts, factual material and expert opinion to be communicated to a wider audience (Attenborough, 2002). This was particularly true of town planning, which was in its ascendancy during the 1940s and 1950s, and was playing a prominent role in coordinating physical restructuring, rebuilding or planning new cities, and helping to create better societies (Aldridge, 1979; Hardy, 1991). At a time when planning in the UK possessed very little by way of formal public consultation processes to enable the public to either receive detailed information or express opinion about the form of change occurring (Ward, 2002), the media and film played a vital role in communicating plans and visions to a wider audience (Gold and Ward, 1997). Broadcasters found these serious (possibly even dull) subject matters difficult to convey and to transmit to a mass audience, and various approaches and innovative programming were attempted between the 1930s and 1970s (Wyver, 1989; Walker, 1993). One artist who played a pivotal role in developing television arts documentaries and who possessed knowledge and strong opinions on planning and development was John Betjeman (1906-84), later to become Poet Laureate.

Betjeman did not possess formal qualifications in architecture, planning or the arts, but his work as an associated editor of the Architectural Review had enabled him to gain some experience on the subject, and he had been a regular performer on arts broadcasts on the radio (Lycett Green, 1997). From the number of radio and film broadcast commissions he undertook, he appears to have relished the opportunity to utilise the new medium of television to educate and entertain the public.

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The UK has witnessed a number of high profile and highly successful television series over the last 10 years using aerial photography. Among the most prominent have been several series entitled Coast, capturing Britain’s coastline through a series of linear geographies, and Britain from Above, which considered such diverse subjects as the UK’s infrastructure needs, urban development and natural landscape. And that is aside from the success of Google Earth, that uses aerial and satellite imagery to good effect. The success of featuring and transmitting aerial camera work to represent the changing landscape is not, however, a recent phenomenon. In 1966, the BBC discussed the possibility of making a series about Britain that, uniquely, would be filmed entirely from a helicopter. The series would use colour aerial photography to show modern Britain, how the country was changing, with an anthology of verse, prose and writing chosen or written by well-known authors of the time. The 13 programmes of Bird’s-Eye View, produced and directed by the respected documentary filmmaker Edward Mirzoeff, were eventually made and transmitted between 1969 and 1971, and include: ‘Beside the seaside’, ‘The Englishman’s home’ and ‘A land for all seasons’ by John Betjeman; ‘Eastern approach’ by Stuart Hood; and ‘Man on the move’ by Correlli Barnett. The focus for the series at this time was to record a rapidly changing Britain, with new housing estates, the motorway network, infrastructure provision such as nuclear power stations, and leisure patterns. The Bird’s-Eye View films are an important archive of a changing Britain in the 1960s.

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