‘Djuluchen’ – the heart and soul of urban planning/architecture

The challenge of planning new urban futures is how to adequately integrate the past; this was the theme of discussion at my book launch on Friday. The event took place at The White Building in Hackney Wick, an area where Europe's largest concentration of artists is fighting for survival in the face of plans to transform the neighbourhood into a 'mixed use' residential development. 

To a lively audience on a hot summer's evening, overlooking the Olympic Park, a panel discussion explored the emotional reactions of local residents, and displaced allotment holders as they struggled to come to terms with the battle they have faced over the last ten years to be part of, and not to be completely displaced by the Olympic legacy in East London. Juliet Davis, a senior lecturer in architecture, and Olympic legacy specialist, explained her reaction to my book in terms of the possibility it provides to the reader, to navigate the labyrinthine complexity of the London 2012 urban planning process. 

To frame the discussion, I mentioned to the audience the work of my colleague at Manchester - Dr Olga Ulturgasheva - who studies reindeer herders and hunters in Siberia. I explained that the hunters throw their souls ahead into the imagined place where the prey awaits, and then, in a hazardous environment, they work out carefully, how to rejoin their souls along the foreshadowed path towards the desired destination. This. I suggested, is true too for urban planners, and architects; they must imagine the future and they must do this by throwing their souls forward to a vision of what the future of the city could look like and then, they must set about bringing that future into being.

The danger, however, is that they might try to do this by leaving the past behind. This means that the real difficulty of the endeavour of urban planning is not just in trying to realise a new future, against all the odds, but also that the past must be slowly and carefully integrated into the vision of what the future can be. This matters now more than ever, I suggested, because in Britain, we have mostly failed to give the post-industrial populations of urban neighbourhoods a sense that they belong to the future that politicians, urban planners and architects have crafted.

The consequence of this, of not bringing the past, and its people with us, as we plan new urban futures, is that a point of resistance will be reached where those people who feel left behind will create enough resistance to bring the trajectory of our forward moving motion to a complete stand still. And that motion then creates a brutal snap back, bringing us all, suddenly, to the same disorientating halt. This is what has happened, I suggested, to book launch guests, with the Brexit result. This can be explained, in part, by the failure of planners and politicians to adequately imagine a new future in which the post-industrial past of our urban histories is integrated into the future of what a new service, retail, finance and knowledge economy means for our society.

Now, the challenge posed by the Brexit result, is for us all to understand that it is not just those who were feeling left behind, but also all of us - who thought we were getting ahead - who have to understand what it means to inhabit a post-industrial society. 

On the same night as the opening ceremony in Rio, I explained to book launch guests that the only excuse for the Olympic Games is the opportunity it provides to rapidly address the problem of urban inequality. The fact that this has not happened in Rio is an embarrassment and a disgrace, which is throwing the spotlight on an Olympic movement in crisis, with less and less cities of the world prepared to take the financial, political or reputational risk to host the games.

Professor Gavin Poynter, who opened the book launch discussions, highlighted the lack of transparency about political or planning process in Rio. He explained that part of what makes my new book original and valuable is the insight I am able to lend as a result of the unprecedented opportunity I was given to research and to reveal the behind the scenes planning operation in London. It is this that has made it possible for me to write the drama of the Olympic legacy as it has unfolded in real time.