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Think big, build small

Using the fox in Isaiah Berlin’s famous essay as inspiration, let’s think about large infrastructure projects in an incremental and pragmatic way.

Building site. Photograph: Getty.
I have come to a stage in my career, as an architect planner, where I increasingly believe that there are two very different philosophies of planning. Like Isaiah Berlin’s Hedgehog and the Fox, these competing philosophies tell us a lot about the predispositions of those who espouse them, the way we attempt to shape the future of our regions and cities and the times that we live in.
 
In Berlin’s seminal essay, the hedgehog knows one big thing and relates all of life’s apparent complexity including the incidental to this big thing. The fox, on the other hand, knows many things and naturally goes about piecing them together to form a patchwork quilt within overarching strategies or visioning.
 
I write therefore not to propose yet another project but a different way of thinking about aviation provision. Before any choice is made between a third runway at Heathrow or a new estuary airport or any other singular grand projet, there needs to be a wider search for the right set of solutions for London, the south-east and for the UK overall. 
 
Thinking like the fox, I wonder whether there are interim deliverable solutions that don’t rely on bigness, that can unlock the problem and begin transformation, in an incremental and pragmatic way, while not preventing the bigger things happening at a later date.
 
Closing major airports, building giant new hubs or any other grand gestures must only be considered in the light of looking first at what we have now, and how those resources can be better used, not only within themselves but in the light of our network of other transport systems. In this we must include the addition of high speed rail and all the other substantial rail improvements that will change and rebalance the potential of the total system.
 
Examples of the sequential and incremental steps toward this could include much better surface links to Gatwick and Stansted, with additional runway capacity closely aligned to demand, all working together within a bigger overarching strategy of a constellation system of  three dual runway airports serving London – smart and appropriate solutions to our aviation needs, capitalising on clever IT and logistic and network solutions that could be:
  • provided incrementally, responding to demand, rather than being a big bang project that will take many years to deliver
  • affordable and low risk, not a huge initial investment and very high risk
  • provide an optimum performance level in terms of capacity and connectivity
  • be a big picture, resilient, sustainable and appropriate set of solutions consolidating and intensifying existing employment and infrastructure in the heart of Britain.
The same cannot be said for all of the big hardware of the proposed new airports in the Thames Estuary and elsewhere, some of them requiring the dismantling of our already successful “aerotropolis” at Heathrow and all of the hundreds of thousands of jobs and business that go with it. These options also bring with them a considerable embedded, and ongoing, carbon emissions cost, for building a new airport from scratch and for the additional travel to a single airport east of London.
 
These solutions cannot be delivered for decades by which time competitors in Europe will be out of sight.
 
To turn to the question of system resilience and of competition - a world city and mega metropolis on the scale of London shouldn’t put all its eggs in one basket – let’s learn from what is working elsewhere – the similar “constellation systems” of New York and Tokyo served by 2 to 3 competing airports, as compared to the smaller non-metropolitan cities like Hong Kong, Frankfurt and Amsterdam that  have a single big airport – it’s all a question of balance and scale. Don’t over simplify, but intensify, integrate and connect.
 
Let us look at all of the options, and whether we can use existing and proposed airport and transport infrastructure to incrementally form an evolutionary and networked answer to the call for airport capacity – a constellation system of airports. 
 
Sir Terry Farrell is principal at architect planners Farrells Jargon buster.