I first met Michael Edwards in 2021 through Just Space, a network of London-based community organisations which he and others set up in 2006. I later learned of his affiliation with the Bartlett School at UCL and a host of other institutions and organisations over his long career in planning, academia and community activism.
Now 81, Michael has contributed to planning practice and discourse across space, time and specialism – consistently upholding a deep belief in the value of community voices and multidisciplinary expertise. From the start of his career in planning he saw the urban planner as a convener of interests and expertise to offer solutions to local communities that advanced their interests and upheld social justice. We discussed how this approach has been crowded out over the last decades as professional specialisms have taken over the urban development process, how this has impeded progress, and how it might be regained.
I’ve written in the past about how I view planning as a “connect-the-dots” process across people, communities and organisations, and have commented on the consequences of those dots failing to connect. I’ve also applied this view to understanding why planners and health professionals don’t collaborate as well as how planners are best trained. I strongly believe that our planning system is constrained by a lack of interdisciplinarity, and feel we need to change this now more than ever. So I came to my conversation with Michael keen to learn about how we got to this place in the UK, and how we might move to a better one.
Raised by parents in Northampton who he describes as labour party stalwarts, Michael was introduced to activism and social justice at a young age. His father, a second-generation shoemaker, was also an organiser who set up the British Boot and Shoe Institution, which convened a coalition of employers, unions and educators in Northampton, then a world centre of shoemaking. His aim, explains Michael, was to bring together a range of people, organisations and interests to improve outcomes for all.
He studied economics at Oxford in the early 1960s, at a time when the Cold War was an undercurrent of student activism, and became involved with student socialist magazines. This cemented a dedication to social activism, and an interest in urban planning, which Michael regarded as a vehicle for social change. Leaving Oxford, he enrolled in a master’s programme in planning at UCL.
Professional planning practice quickly followed as Michael joined Nathaniel Lichfield– whose eponymous practice continues today - as part of the team developing the master plan for Milton Keynes. Initiated under the New Towns Act of 1965, Milton Keynes was designated as the largest of the new town, with a targeted population of 250k and a land mass of 9,000 hectares encompassing several existing towns along with fifteen villages and farmland in between. The government established the Milton Keynes Development Corporation to design and deliver this new city.
Michael describes the team and the process driving the project as highly interdisciplinary, involving architects, urban designers, engineers, economists and sociologists. “It was very collaborative”, he says. As an economist Michael identified and analysed tradeoffs in the city’s design – such as car usage and public space and making housing accessible and affordable. He tells me, with some degree of pride, that a substantial amount of social housing was built in Milton Keynes.
Throughout this period the master planning for Milton Keynes was led by Richard Llewellyn Davies, who was also a professor at the Bartlett School at UCL. He inspired Michael to eventually join him there, and he has been part of the institution ever since, as a lecturer, researcher and collaborator. One of the attractions, he says, was the multidisciplinary approach to teaching, research and enquiry that the school supported “against considerable resistance from certain specialisms” he emphasises. This was one of the institution’s strengths, he argues, and has been diluted by numerous challenges over the subsequent decades. He’s written about these here.
I asked Michael about these and other challenges to the planning profession that he has observed and faced during his career. Have they changed significantly? He points to three:
1. A “progressive corporate domination of urban development” which, he argues has unfolded at the expense of design creativity in our built environment.
2. The health-related aspects of housing and urban infrastructure have been lost – and are only now starting to be seen as important. We commented on the origins of the NHS and its early leadership under the Minister for Health and Housing – an intentionally combined portfolio. Encouragingly, a number of initiatives are underway to pull together health, housing and urban infrastructure, and just this week the Housing Ombudsmen called for an independent royal commission “to reimagine the future of social housing” and re-establish the link between housing and health.
3. Increased professionalisation has led to “contempt for citizens and community voices” – and the popular usage of terms like “nimby” and “yimby” are examples of this “dismissive discourse”. Reinforcing this, Michael argues, is the education of planners as the multidisciplinary approach he so supports faces new challenges – notably a shift in demographics of university students toward those financially well supported and, he argues, “more homogenous”. Additionally, the now accepted masters programme length of one year challenges a multidisciplinary approach as “students need more time and space to listen and learn from each other.”
I asked Michael what he thinks is needed to work effectively with “increasingly dominant” private developers to ensure and maximise benefit for local communities. On this, Michael is very clear: “we need new rules and standards; good intentions are not enough – Grenfell brought that home”. I asked about ESG policies and initiatives in the property sector. “not reliable, and will change with shareholders’ whims”. Unless embodied in law, changes will not be consistent or lasting.
Having said that, Michael has some positive things to say about the regeneration of Kings Cross (about which he’s currently writing a book) and its lead developer, Argent, who have “done a better job within the constraints posed by neo-liberal governance than most other developers this century”. He also cites Kings Place, the area’s cultural venue, as an exemplar of private development gone well. Again, the benefits of multidsiciplinary practice are mentioned – the project’s developer, Peter Millican, is a music lover in addition to his other multiple interests, and this played out in delivering a project that has generated multiple benefits for the local and wider community. When it was opened in 2008, the Guardian, which became a tenant in the development, commented
“Kings Place, the Guardian's new London HQ, provides an enlightened template for speculative property development. Using exactly the same planning provisions available to all developers, its owner, Peter Millican, has created a sensitive, distinguished building that integrates office space with cultural activity in a wonderful setting just north of King's Cross station, along the Regent's Canal. This includes a world-class concert hall created without a penny of public money, the first built in London since the Barbican more than a quarter of a century ago. Every aspect of the development displays the kind of consideration and sensitivity that comes from a singular vision”.
“Kings Place is a vibrant space largely because it blurs the traditional boundary between office environment and public amenity. It shows what can be done when a developer's primary motivation is not maximising the potential lettable space. In creating Kings Place, Peter Millican has explicitly acknowledged and responded to the collective responsibility that all developers share, but which very few take seriously”.
As a conclusion to our discussion, I asked Michael what he thought about the future of local community groups and their inclusion and participation in planning decisions.
He points to Just Space, founded in 2006 to bring together community voices across London and to coordinate responses and practice. It describes itself as
“an informal alliance of around 80 community groups, campaigns and concerned independent organisations which was formed to act as a voice for Londoners at grass-roots level during the formulation of London’s major planning strategy, particularly the London Plan”
Its Community-led Recovery Plan for London sets an example for pulling together the multidisciplinary aspects of urban development and creating a coherent and actionable plan that addresses social, economic and health inequalities in addition to the provision of housing and infrastructure. Michael describes a citizens group presenting the Plan to a GLA committee whose members appeared “flummoxed” to hear about anything other than land use, “which is what they were prepared for”. So progress all round.
As a believer in the value of historical precedent and multidisciplinarism to planning practice, I greatly enjoyed my conversation with Michael Edwards. You can learn more about his work through his blog.
Listen to Locals
January 26, 2024