Interview: Dr Wei Yang on planning for the future

30th March 2023

World-renowned urban designer and town planner Dr Wei Yang tells Chris Seekings how we can design our cities so that they are more sustainable and inclusive for future generations

The way our towns and cities are designed has an impact on the way we live, work and play, affecting our physical and mental health, wealth, social cohesion, and a variety of other factors that we take for granted.

The state of our environment and natural world are hugely impacted, too, along with our ability to mitigate and adapt to the devastating impacts of climate change.

Indeed, last year’s report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that the “largest systemic changes” needed to adapt to the impacts of global warming must come from spatial planning, adding that urban design is a “global-level transformational adaptation mechanism”.

Dr Wei Yang – a world-renowned town planner and urban designer – is well aware of her responsibility, and is a leading figure in researching, promoting and implementing the ‘21st Century Garden City’ approach to developments worldwide.

This June, she will become the first female chair of the Construction Industry Council and, as former president of the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI), has spent many years modernising a profession often accused of being stuck in the past.

Garden cities

After training as an architect in Xi’an, China, Yang moved to Sheffield in 1999 to study computer-aided environmental design. It was later, while working as an urban designer in Milton Keynes, that she became fascinated by the concept of ‘garden cities’.

“I was very interested in the wider picture and the interconnection between people and nature,” she explains. “As the last post-war New Town in Britain, Milton Keynes used many Garden City principles, so I started to research the origins of garden cities, and realised that they are highly relevant to our current climate and environmental challenges.”

The concept was first proposed in 1898 by Sir Ebenezer Howard OBE, a social reformer who wanted to capture the benefits of the countryside and the city while avoiding the disadvantages of both. Garden cities typically feature satellite communities surrounding the central city and separated with greenbelts. “I started to create a new model I called 21st Century Garden Cities using the original principles, but adapting them to our new challenges,” says Yang, who counts Howard among her heroes. “Although we do things differently, the moral foundations are the same, which are about compassion and selflessness.”

She is a powerful advocate for climate action, nature-based solutions, health and wellbeing, and social equality, and has been involved in numerous large projects across the UK and China. These include the Historic Yellow River Corridor project in China, which regenerated poor villages using Garden City principles, and was instrumental in influencing Chinese national spatial planning reform.

“When people think about garden cities, they think about the physical format, about the city and gardens, but that is the wrong perception,” she says. “A garden city is a social-economic model, concerning land value, community and governance.” She also strongly promotes collaboration and joined-up thinking between all professionals working in the built environment, adding: “Planning is an applied science across social, environmental and behavioural disciplines, because it’s really about people, society and our relationship with nature.”

Yang with statue of Howard

Today’s challenges

The UK government recently published proposals for wide-ranging changes to the National Planning Policy Framework, such as favouring local consent for developments over “abstract targets”. While welcoming some of the proposals, the RTPI warned that they could come at the expense of levelling up communities, adding that public confidence in England’s planning system is at “an all-time low”.

“Planning is an applied science across social, environmental and behavioural disciplines, because it’s really about people, society and our relationship with nature."

Yang explains how the public’s perception of the planning profession is owing to years of short-term thinking. “Because of election cycles, some decision-makers want to deliver something in their term so they can get re-elected, rather than thinking about the longer-term benefit for the whole of society and the community,” she says. “We have some short-term and mid-term needs, but the real success in planning is long-term success.”

Today’s most pressing challenges make it vital that the planning profession is more concerned with the future, with Yang pointing to climate change and biodiversity loss as examples. “These require us to think strategically about how we use land effectively. There’s lots that we can do to make cities more sustainable, such as considering the orientation of buildings and street patterns, and the introduction of wildlife.” She cites our changing demographics as another urgent challenge. “By 2050, a third of the population in the UK will be over 60 years old. This major demographic shift will change how we plan our cities to ensure our social care and healthcare facilities are equipped for a high-density, ageing population.”

Building communities

When she became president of the RTPI two years ago, Yang spoke about modernising the planning profession, while not losing sight of its founding principles. “We really need to rethink planning and approach it in a different way,” she tells me. “We need to reconnect with the beauty of nature in our cities, towns and villages, and move away from the concrete forest. Urban prosperity is not about the narrow demand of economic growth, it’s very much about a healthy community, the fulfilment of others and non-material needs and aspirations. You could think of garden cities as places with abundant community support.”

Ultimately, caring for people should be the primary driver of planning decisions, according to Yang, who talks about an unspoken “social contract”. “It’s really about how, as a community, we can work together. Often we ask too much, but we need to ask ourselves what we have given to society – it’s a two-way street,” she continues. “Garden cities use the ‘land value capture model’ to support charities and a diverse range of needs from all sides of the community.”

The Covid-19 pandemic also highlighted the benefits of building a community spirit. “Many of our relatives might have been living in different countries or cities and unable to help us, so the people that we had to rely on most were our neighbours,” Yang says. “It really showed the importance of community and gave us a sustainable way of thinking about how we can help each other. Happiness is not about power and money; it is really about health and good social relationships.”

Smart cities

Yang is also a huge advocate of using smart technologies to design cities in a way that supports the specific needs of people living in the area. By harnessing the data already collected on our phones, she believes we can create far more inclusive and sustainable cities. “We have so much data generated that is used to sell us products, but this technology hasn’t really been used for our cities and towns,” she says. “For example, by capturing the pattern of people’s movement and use of public transport, without intruding on people’s privacy, we can understand how space is used by people from different social and cultural backgrounds, and create much safer and more environmentally friendly places, using big data for people’s benefit.”

It is often said that most of our towns and cities have been designed by men, and for men, thus overlooking many of the basic needs of underrepresented groups. Around half of the population is female, and when you add children and the elderly to this cohort, you are left with only around 30% that are fit and healthy men.

Yang explains: “Sometimes we don’t feel safe in areas where it is dark, especially women, so technology could be used to design those places in a more friendly way, or to make them more convenient for women who are walking with children in a pushchair, for example.”

Furthermore, the use of smart technologies can play a key role in collecting insights for tackling the wide range of environmental challenges we face. “We can gather all types of data, including the energy performance of buildings, or how the orientation of streets impacts flooding, so that we can capture that water more effectively – there are so many ways that smart technologies can be used for city planning.” Technology can also be harnessed to strengthen public engagement in planning decisions. Last year, Yang co-founded the Digital Task Force for Planning to create a digitally enabled methodology for spatial planning, saying this is a “core part” of modernising the profession.

Living in harmony

At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, and during lockdown, Yang co-authored Humanistic Pure Land and Garden Cities, which draws parallels between the Garden City movement and the philosophies of Buddhism. The book became a number one bestseller in Taiwan, with all the proceeds donated to fund education and the cost of living for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Returning to a theme that reoccurs throughout this discussion, Yang says: “The book is about compassion and selflessness, because these are fundamental to planning; compassion for people, the environment and all creatures. Human beings have to live in a society that consumes within our planet’s boundaries and creates prosperity for future generations.”

I ask whether she achieved her goal of modernising the planning profession during her time as president of the RTPI. “It’s a big, big task, but I believe I have helped highlight the advantages of modernising the planning profession, and we are still on that journey,” she says. “Ultimately, the fundamental objectives of the planning profession must be to create a balanced system, for people, nature and society to coexist in harmony, and I think that is the key message for all people working in sustainability.”

Image credit: Richard Gleed

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