Going for Gold

I’m quite interested in sports – including Welsh rugby, though that is more of a religion – and so the next few weeks of the Olympics might just grab my attention at times. Yes it is bloated, over-corporatized and a host of other problematic things, but I don’t blame the athletes for that and hope to admire and cheer many sporting performances.

So I was amused by the television column in today’s Guardian which claimed that in the London Olympics of 1948, Town Planning was an event. Nice joke, given the state of town planning in the UK and in London. And then I realised that it was not a joke.

In 1948 (as in the Olympics of 1928, 1932 and 1936) Town Planning was indeed an Olympic event. And the gold medal in London went to ….. Finland.

For those years, associated with the sporting Olympics were art Olympics and Town Planning was an official event at four Olympiads. According to Wikipedia, Germany won in 1928 and 1936 (what a surprise) with Britain triumphing in 1932 (some 15 years before what surely should have been a gold medal winning Town and Country Planning Act 1947 – “we wus robbed”) and Finland in 1948.

It does make one think though. How would you judge such a competition? Where does Town Planning end and Architecture start, as most of the winners seem to be more about design of a building? Much of this must have been about beauty in the eye of the beholder, rather than higher, stronger, faster etc. And that would be very un-Olympic, where judgement doesn’t come into it – oh, hang on… the boxing, horse ballet and synchroniesed drowning haven’t started yet.

So the late 1940s seem to have been a high water mark for Planning; Planning was an Olympic event and the landmark (for the UK) Planning legislation was introduced. Where did it all go wrong? Because planning now is in disrepute, seen as getting in the way of progress or special pleading/lobbying, a brake on the country as memorably caricatured in the 1980s, a decade when planning bodies were dismantled.

Yet as we look at the Olympics, however they go and whoever wins, one thing should be clear to all. They did not happen overnight and there has been a huge planning and logistical task to deliver them. Without planning they would not happen. So why can’t we embrace the need for planning and stability to deliver outcomes in other forms of development and in thinking about our towns and cities, as well as our rural economy?

Now where did I put that north Korean flag?

About Leigh Sparks

I am Professor of Retail Studies at the Institute for Retail Studies, University of Stirling, where I research and teach aspects of retailing and retail supply chains, alongside various colleagues. I am Chair of Scotland's Towns Partnership. I am also a Deputy Principal of the University, with responsibility for Education and Students and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh
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