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Faster, Higher, Stronger….Together: Is it time to bring back the Planning Olympics?

I stumbled across a quite interesting piece of trivia over the bank holiday weekend:* Town Planning used to be an Olympic Sport. 

Between 1928 and 1948, Gold, Silver and Bronze medals were awarded to projects deemed to embody the best of Town Planning. According to Wikipedia, the medallists were as follows:

1928 AmsterdamAlfred Hensel (Germany)
Stadium at Nuremberg
Jacques Lambert (France)
Stadium at Versailles
Max Laeuger (Germany)
Municipal park at Hamburg

1932 Los AngelesJohn Hughes
(Great Britain)
Design for a Sports and Recreation Centre with Stadium, for the City of Liverpool
Jens Klemmensen (Denmark)
Design for a Stadium and Public Park
 André Verbeke (Belgium)
Design for a "Maraton Park"
1936 Berlin Werner March & Walter March (Germany)
Reich Sport Field
Charles Downing Lay (USA)
Marine Park, Brooklyn
Theo Nussbaum (Germany)
Municipal Planning and Sporting Centre in Cologne
1948 LondonYrjö Lindegren (Finland)
The Centre of Athletics in Varkaus, Finland.
Werner Schindler & Edy Knupfer (Switzerland)
Swiss Federal Sports and Gymnastics Training Centre

Ilmari Niemeläinen (Finland)
The Athletic Centre in Kemi, Finland.

Whilst I have not been able to track down any information about the submission criteria; from the medal table, it does rather seem as if sports stadiums and public parks had a distinct competitive advantage....  

This slightly odd piece of information got me thinking: What would a modern day 'Planning Olympics' look like? might now be the right time to bring it back? and if we did, would we need to ban sporting facilities - just to give other types of development a shot at gold?**

The very first thing that we would need to do is separate the art of Planning from architecture - as the last time Planning made the Olympics, it was as a subset of the 'architectural design' portion of the games. This may be a little tricky, given that the 2021 NPPF  was revised specifically to put 'beauty' "at the heart of the planning system", but it is nonetheless important. Whilst architectural merit and good design are vital parts of the planning system, planning is about so much more than that. It is about building functioning, sustainable, vibrant communities. As such, the Planning Olympics needs to reflect everything that makes the profession so valuable and unique. 

This need for Olympic inclusivity will obviously include development types - with events for everything from new towns and residential developments; to industrial, logistical, and employment schemes;  retail and leisure; education and health facilities; civic spaces, transport and public parks (just no sports stadiums... please... at least not for the first few years). It should also, however, span all aspects of the profession, from policy formation, through to development management and enforcement. The public and private sectors should be equally represented. I will even advocate for an event for the lawyers - although I may have a vested interest in that one! 

As to the events, well, much like the actual Olympics these could be many and varied... catering to a wide range of interests and levels of obscurity. 

The following immediately spring to mind:

  • The Duty to Cooperate High Jump: for local authorities attempting to clear stage 1 of the Local Plan examination process. A special mention  must go to Tunbridge Wells Borough Council, here, who is the only one out of its neighbouring authorities to have successfully cleared this hurdle in recent years. 
  • The Site Allocation Marathon: for those promoting strategic sites through the Local Plan process.
  • Synchronised Strategic Planning: a special category for combined planning or mayoral authorities.
  • Sabre Rattling: an event to find and celebrate the best objection letter, pre-action protocol letter or initial enforcement query.
  • The Class Q Sprint: for the fastest determination of a Class Q PDR application
  • Long distance target shooting: for the most obscure  reason for refusal (upheld at appeal) or successful ground of challenge at judicial review.

Although like all good sporting events, the list of categories will expand over time.

More seriouslyevents could be designed to celebrate the most sustainable new developments; the most innovative ways of promoting nature conservation in new build schemes; the most sympathetic conversion of a heritage asset; the most successful urban regeneration project.

Planning, as a profession, currently feels both under-resourced and underappreciated. This may just be a chocolate induced fever dream, but perhaps  making Planning an Olympic sport once again, could help to restore a sense of public pride in our town planners and foster a wider recognition of just how important the profession actually is...

* whilst watching re-runs of QI and folding laundry.... as you do...

** for the purposes of this thought experiment, I am going to assume that the English planning system is not completely idiosyncratic. This may not, in fact, be true - but it makes for a better Olympic event if there is more than one participant, so please humour me. 

In the four Olympic games between 1928 and 1948 (Amsterdam, Los Angeles, Berlin, and London), gold, silver, and bronze medals were handed out in the decidedly non-athletic competition of town planning. Jack Goodman writes in Atlas Obscura that "town planning" fell under the architectural design category along with "mixed architecture" and "mixed architecture, architectural designs," which were a part of the larger "Arts" portion of the Olympic games that included everything from literature to sculpture. The only American to medal in town planning was Charles Downing Lay at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, for his design for the redevelopment of Marine Park in Brooklyn. He scored a silver, beaten by the German team of Werner March & Walter March for their design of Reich Sport Field.”