Sunday 27 May 2007

Planners make profound decisions

My Grandfather's funeral was Friday. Bit of a mortality reminder; if such selfish thought are permitted on such days. I spent most of the day reflecting on what a person is remembered for after they are gone. Tributes paid to the man tended to partially reflect the person I knew. The man was fanatical about his home, birds, biodiversity and wood. He fought in WWII, married and raised a family, taught at university, produced carved regionally significant artworks, produced countless small design feats, could name every bird in the UK from sight and sound, and much much more. He was a quiet over-achiever. In later life, for my family and others, he was the man you contacted for advice on every practical problem.

The reason why this man is relevant to my Blog is, perhaps sadly, due to my lasting memory of a bugbear of his which existed for the part of his lifetime we shared. What I remembered was how he objected to the extent to which the lands around his home, which were once part of the village, into which he moved post-war, were re-zoned, and subsequently developed, for track housing. Over the final three decades of his life, he watched as more and more housing of a dubious quality was built, and less and less of the place he once knew remained. The effect of this was, I think, hardly noticed by my family.

The effect was one familiar in Ireland. He focused on his interests and his work and did not interact with any of this new development. My Grandparents' property became a private enclave surrounded by tall hedges. Beautiful inside, with bird tables, many species of flora, and a peaceful, away from it all, atmosphere. A large site amongst tiny suburban boxes. Sadly, while their interests in nature and especially birds flourished, their lives became hermit-like. Today, like many parts of Ireland, there are houses everywhere. Children and their parents interact on estate roads and cars drive in and around the area with a constant hum. Perhaps the original occupants of all areas eventually become forgotten as development takes over and villages are overwhelmed, their inhabitants blind-sided with such severity their association with the area is circumcised. The death of my Grandfather made me think of all the people who are coping with change in their communities as they get older. It is these people, many of whom never object,who experience the repercussions of what we planners permit today. They live with it from the date of grant. The aim here is not to be moralistic; not to take a potshot at Irish planning; but to try to remind all planners of the profound importance of remembering how planning decisons can alter people's lives.

The celebration of my Grandfather's life was shared by friends, family and associates, but not by neighbours. I hope our new communities will remember to introduce themselves to the existing residents of an area. Anyone who had taken the time to knock on my Grandfather's door could have embarked on an adventure. A perfectionist in all he did all his life. A man who found beauty and happiness in a lump of wood, was a man with whom to share a road.

The question of course is what he thought of my being a planner. He thought you could only change things from the inside. My responsibility, he said, is to plan to protect. By this he meant protect nature. But the lesson is a wider one. The planner's role is one with a great responsibility to protect. Sometimes we get it right, sometimes we do not. We must strive to do better: to protect.

Brendan Buck

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