Projects on a grand scale generate innumerable written reports setting out the developer’s vision, but very few contain the hard information you get from an architect’s visual plan. Without such spatial maps planners are working blind

Sadie Morgan

Architects love a plan – nothing makes them happier than a visual map that sets out a problem spatially, rather than in words. By overlaying the existing conditions – whether it be roads over rail; water over electricity supply; existing housing development over planned; flood defences over flood plains – you can see where different (and sometimes competing) elements intersect, or where change is most keenly felt. The beauty of a plan is that it helps you understand what the differing pressures of a project are from the outset. The ability to work out what you want and then understand what you are willing to compromise on to make this happen is the sure foundation of a solid future.

In my work for the National Infrastructure Commission, I assumed (naively) that this type of information planning would be readily to hand, either nationally or at least regionally. How can you plan for new infrastructure or development without understanding the impact it has, or better still the opportunities it could unlock? How can you hope to collaborate with your neighbouring regions if many of the jigsaw pieces are missing? Why build a new transport link from A to B based on the shortest route, when a slight deviation via C would unlock a huge number of homes?

The minute something is drawn, visualised or laid out on a map there is no denying it; no potential misunderstandings or misinterpretations

Spatial plans are not new, of course. The Dutch, French and Danish are used to providing these, often overseen by a city architect. I had been searching for something similar for the Thames Estuary as a commissioner on the 2050 growth commission. I wanted to understand how all the new developments fitted together with the new transport infrastructure planned. I was able to see a large number of exciting and well-developed masterplans for specific areas, but no one map that showed them all. As I met and talked to developers and architects, it was clear that there is a lack of understanding about what, where and when things outside of their own plot are happening. Nobody was looking at the big picture.

It was only when I visited the planning team at the Greater London Authority that I found something near to what I had been looking for: a map of London’s proposed new large-scale development masterplans overlaid with the existing and planned transport and power infrastructure. They say that it has already proved instrumental in not only averting potential clashes, but also unlocking potential investment. With funders able to see London mapped out as a whole, they are able to understand how developments fit into the existing and future picture. This map is publically available in two parts, in the brochures City in the West, and City in the East.

Such basic strategic thinking is often surprisingly absent from projects, with short-term and ill-informed decisions being made with often dire and expensive consequences. More often than not, the missing ingredient is the structure needed in which to operate and the sticky question of leadership: “governance” (or the lack of it). But what we need most of all is joined-up thinking. As devolution takes hold and different groups fight for a slice of an ever-smaller pie, it will be those regions able to collectively make a case for investment that will be the ultimate winners. As extraordinary national and international political shifts leave us dizzy and bruised, the truism that the “whole is greater than the sum of its parts” has never been more important.

How can you hope to collaborate with your neighbouring regions if many of the jigsaw pieces are missing?

And what we need to make these parts into an effective and efficient whole is – literally – to be all on the same page. I have noticed that there has been a reticence over the past decade to lay things out, to commit to putting something down in anything other than the written word. We can produce thousands of reports and vision documents but few contain real hard information. They are all too often generic and open to interpretation. The minute something is drawn, visualised or laid out on a map there is no denying it; no potential misunderstandings or misinterpretations.

For a long time now I have advocated the need for creative thinkers to be more involved in government’s big strategic projects. The ability to think laterally and bring an alternative perspective to increasingly complex problems is invaluable. Combined with the skill to show complex things in simple ways through clever graphics, 3D techniques can be a powerful tool to unlock potential. When you can actually see things laid out, you can start to identify the places that need most attention – the knots that need untangling.

So as we move deeper into 2017 I will work hard to push for less writing and more drawing – to commit to what I can see with my own eyes. Such planning may be unpopular, but at least there is a clarity and transparency to it, and it is only then that we can begin to lay a plan for real collaboration in the hope that the UK will indeed be greater than the sum of its parts.

Sadie Morgan is a co-founding director of dRMM Architects. She is also the HS2 design panel chair and sits on the UK’s National Infrastructure Commission