by Chris Bertram on September 5, 2003

OpenDemocracy has a short piece by Paul Barker on the late Cedric Price and the idea of the Non-Plan. Here’s a quote that will delight some and annoy others:

bq. “Architects”, he once said, “are the greatest whores in town. They talk in platitudes about improving the quality of life, and then get out drawings of the prison they’re working on.”

The idea of the non-plan sounds fascinating:

bq. He and I collaborated on Non-Plan, an anti-planning polemic, which infuriated architects, planners and assorted do-gooders. The idea emerged during a conversation I had with Peter Hall, geographer and planner, in the late 1960s. Both of us were appalled at the disasters that urban planning had brought about. We wondered if things could be any worse if there were no planning at all.

bq. What worried our critics, who were many, when the four of us published our Non-Plan issue of New Society (20 March 1969), was their uncertainty about our political stance. Was this anarchism? Or deep-dyed conservatism, a precursor of Thatcherism? Our essential point was that you should always think very hard before telling other people how they ought to live. They had their own preferences, which ought to be respected.

bq. We suggested carrying out a Non-Plan test. Four districts should be freed from all controls, and we could then judge whether the upshot was any worse than what happened with the controls on. To make readers sit up, we chose four much-cherished slices of English countryside for our test. The resultant incandescence was highly satisfactory.

I’m intruiged, and mean to find out more.



eric 09.05.03 at 1:57 pm

That stuff sounds like some things that Virginia Postrel talks about–letting people make their own choices and compromises.

One would assume that there might be some rules involved, though. (Building codes and such).


JD 09.05.03 at 2:37 pm

Reminds me of some of the ideas of the SI or at least a slightly more coherent and slightly more British version.



Ted Barlow 09.05.03 at 3:09 pm

Reminds me of Houston.


Dick Thompson 09.05.03 at 5:12 pm

Reminds ME of Jane Jacobs. Death and Life of American Cities.


alkali 09.05.03 at 5:18 pm

Eric writes:

“One would assume that there might be some rules involved, though. (Building codes and such).”

True, although many of the execrable features of the suburbs are the result of purportedly protective codes. One example is code provisions requiring incredibly wide streets in residential neighborhoods, purportedly so that two giant emergency vehicles could pass one another on the street if need arose. Another example is code provisions requiring enormous setbacks for building that increase lot sizes and drive up land prices, purportedly so that fire does not spread from one home to another, as if homes constructed from modern building materials were often completely consumed by fire.


david 09.05.03 at 5:51 pm

Phoenix is the non-plan. Real good on desegregation, less good on looks, although that may be a combination of bad taste, high heat, and cheap building materials.


clew 09.05.03 at 6:23 pm

Well, one problem is that other people’s building practices on their very own private land affect how I live. Incomers cut down their trees in my grandparent’s Florida neighborhood; he was fine, he had a big lot and left his trees and could stick to his original no-air-conditioning architecture, but his neighbors on smaller lots sudddenly had to close up their houses and spend on airconditioning, because checkerboard tree cover wasn’t enough. (Within a year, the incomers had all their windows covered and huge airconditioners installed, but had not replanted trees. Verrrry slloooow learrners.)

One of my neighbors pushed a loophole in the rules about walls and shaded my ex-vegetable garden; a rural friend lost the farm when someone else’s industry ruined the water; etc etc.

There are a whole lot of deeply stupid planning rules, but we need some. Without them, there’s a lot of building investment that’s just too risky, unless you can buy enormous buffer zones, which by definition most people can’t.

I would like to see a directed graph of the reasons for all the rules in my city, and a review system for them.


back40 09.05.03 at 6:56 pm

Christopher Alexander’s Pattern Language efforts come to mind as well as Stewart Brand’s learning buildings.


David Sucher 09.05.03 at 7:15 pm

Neither Jacobs nor Alexander argue for No Planning.
And I would doubt if Brand does.
The very idea is somewhat preposterous.

Humans are an organizing and planning animal. One can argue that we have lots of bad and over-reaching plans but to argue for No Plan is hard to imagine.


Chris 09.05.03 at 8:40 pm

I’ve had a chance to read the original paper now. I may blog a bit about it early next week. I’m not sure how far it was meant as a serious proposal and how far as an irreverent polemic against the comfortable assumptions of the planners. It is good on those, though, on the unforseen consequences of plans and no-plans and so on. One question that the paper poses: how many of the historic buildings and streetscapes we now value (and would fight to preserve) wouldn’t have been built in the first place if they’d had to get the approval of the people who would have been planners if there’d been any back then?


Kieran Healy 09.06.03 at 1:09 am

My immediate reaction was exactly the same as Ted’s: it sounds like you’d get Houston. It’s the paradigm of the non-planned city. You drive around and it’s little house, strip mall, giant office block, little house, church…


David Sucher 09.06.03 at 3:58 pm

Look forward to reading more of your thoughts on the article; and if you know where it is available on-line, please do share.


nnyhav 09.08.03 at 2:20 am

Thomas Bernhard’s Correction. So-Cal-led.

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