How to save our planning system from entropy
If we want to improve the design quality of our towns and cities we need to stop focusing on relaxing vs tightening planning, and work to make it more predictable.
We all know that the planning system is broken. We all know that planners don’t get to plan anything anymore: that the role of the planner has been reduced to development control or occasionally design police. Who can blame them for being a cantankerous negative lot? It’s hardly a joyous position to be caught between money grabbing developers, naive designers and unfathomable politicians. It’s hardly enviable to be tasked with implementing bizarre, conflicting policies and bearing the brunt of all parties’ frustrations. It’s hardly surprising the process is onerous, punishing, obstructive and farcical.
This state of affairs is especially exasperating because it serves nobody, except perhaps a few callous planning advisors in a protection racket sort of way. It doesn’t persist because some fat cats are smugly lapping up the cream. It remains, as far as I can see, because it would be achingly difficult to unpick and restructure. This fills me with a second law of thermodynamics flavoured sense of doom. It’s too complicated to fix, so we patch it up over and over again, making it even more complicated to fix, leading us to more and more patching ad infinitum or heat death of the universe. That we’ve forgotten how to be propositional at scale is really part of the same problem: our built environment, like our legislation, is too complicated to unpick.
In 1971, American chemical thermodynamicist Frederick Rossini, at his Priestley Medal Address, described how civilised societies faced a trade-off between security and freedom akin to the trade-off between order and disorder in chemical thermodynamics. A quick bit of crude revision: the second law of thermodynamics states that there is a natural tendency of any isolated system to degenerate into a more disordered state. This is defined in terms of entropy: the degree of disorder or randomness in a system. Within a closed system, entropy always increases with time. This is obvious to us when we think about plates shattering and eggs being scrambled. Does it also apply to legislation; that without work being done by an external energy source, degeneration is unavoidable?
The second law of thermodynamics states that there is a natural tendency of any isolated system to degenerate into a more disordered state
Rossini’s central point was that there are many societal problems to which thermodynamics can make significant contributions. His parallels between order and security and between disorder and freedom are poignant with respect to planning. Planning is crippled by an inability to admit that security and freedom are inversely proportional. As in other walks of life, we want to feel secure in our freedom, which is to say we want the balance to be reliably weighted in our favour. We – the ‘good’ designers – want the planners to recognise us as a force for ‘good’ and allow us the liberty to build ‘good’ buildings. Simultaneously, we want the ‘bad’ players in the built environment – the slum landlord type developers building their shoe-box wealth stores etc – to be heavily regulated against. It’s difficult not to feel that freedom and security go hand in hand, at least for the deserving. But in planning as in life, the stringent processes set up to prevent nasty developers from getting their own way also impinge on the freedom of well-meaning community groups or worthy designers.
Rossini believed that our society behaves according to natural law where there is a trade-off between freedom and security and that the best we can expect is to achieve an optimal balance. Finding this optimum is key, and we can find it, but only if we first acknowledge that that’s what we’re trying to achieve. Once we’re comfortable in that endeavour, we then need to invest in a reordering of the planning system. We must invest if we are to reorder, it is a scientific imperative: it is impossible to return our planning system to order – to decrease its entropy – without a lot of work!
The more the planning system resembles a thermodynamic system the better, because a planning system that allows built environment operatives to better predict the outcome will come with enormous benefits. Key factors propagating poor design are our compromise-incentivising planning system and resource strapped design teams. A huge reason for design fees being difficult to secure is risk that the work will be abortive, and a huge contributor to this risk is planning.
Run it the other way and the consequences are scary. More onerous planning procedures increase uncertainty, simultaneously adding to design teams’ workloads and squeezing fees, in turn damaging design output. Well-meaning propagators of additional layers of planning complexities – from more area-specific policies to more design reviews – inadvertently make good design more difficult to realise. Inadvertently and unavoidably: you can’t unscramble scrambled eggs.
Maria Smith is a director of architecture and engineering at Interrobang