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Everything Flows

Everything Flows

Andreas Markides, as the new vice chair of the The Academy of Urbanism, is pleased to make a contribution to the Academy’s journal with the following article:

https://journal.theaou.org/articles/everything-flows/

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Markides Associates Managing Director, Andreas Markides, reflects on change and 35 years of planning.

Many years ago when I was still in school, I was told about a philosopher who lived in Ephesus on the coast of Asia Minor. This philosopher is little known today but he is still remembered because of the following two words that he had uttered: “everything flows”. He explained his statement by referring to a river and went on to say that “no river is ever the same, as it is constantly flowing and constantly changing”. He concluded that the same is true about so much else in life.

I have often reflected on this statement and wondered of its significance and possible application to my own life. In particular, did it have any relevance to my own profession of Traffic Engineering and to the wider field of Planning? At first I thought that the statement held no particular significance but, more and more, as I reflect about my 35 years in this profession, I realise that Heraclitus may have been spot on.

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For example, I have watched with much fascination (and no little amusement) how demand for different land uses changes over time. In the 80's a lot of us were building something which came to be known as a “business park”. No longer were we satisfied with industrial estates as those were ugly and outdated. The Americans were teaching us that we needed to build business premises “in the park”. Once we had satisfied our insatiable appetite with that particular import, we turned our attention and energies to another - that of the multiplex cinema. Subsequently we moved to offices - each building boasting to be better (architecturally and in location) to the one before it. I can still remember the fuss that was made about the Ark which was located so that it would become the western Gateway into London (even though in the end it had priced itself too highly with the result that no tenant was found for some time).  And so we arrive to the present day which is all about housing and yet more housing. 

Nothing exemplifies better our changing approach to Land Use Planning than our policies towards retail development. Remember the big push in the 80's for supermarkets and then hypermarkets? These huge, monolithic structures were springing up everywhere (along with their associated sea of car parking). Then suddenly a voice had the courage to point out that this trend was actually killing off our High Streets. There was tremendous opposition to this questioning of the “retail model” and I can still remember how vociferously the main operators used every possible argument to stop any change on the grounds that they could operate only if they were allowed to have traditionally large stores, surrounded by car parking, on the edge of different settlements. But change we did and perhaps amazingly, we now have a Tesco Express and a Sainsbury’s Local on every High Street and at most railway stations - and there are no car parks in sight! 

This change has now resulted in retailers such as IKEA reviewing their traditional way of operating. One of the most startling manifestations of this change is the new IKEA store proposed for the middle of Vienna, which will provide no parking spaces at all! There is no possibility anymore of loading up your car with their goods - although you could carry them on public transport, if you wished. As an added bonus, the store will be a green building and there will also be public access to its roof terrace, offering stunning views of the city.

Ikea Vienna

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In my own profession of Traffic Engineering we have seen one of the biggest changes in approach and policy. Up until the late 80's, traffic engineers would do everything possible in order to increase traffic capacities and keep traffic flowing smoothly. Then suddenly another lone voice had the temerity to inform us that “the more roads we build, the more traffic will be created”. It was a little like the Hydra - you chop off one head and two more spring forth! This prompted a lot of soul searching amongst traffic engineers who were momentarily stunned and confused. What were they supposed to do? Provide traffic capacity or hinder it?

This perplexity has continued to the present day when the concepts of Sustainability and Healthy Living arrived to put a last nail in the coffins of trip generation and road building. Traffic engineers now know that far more important than traffic capacity is the provision of quality spaces, more human streets, and places which contribute to healthier, happier communities.

Alongside the treatment of traffic we have also been changing our approach to parking provision. I remember distinctly that in the late 80's and well into the 90's all my clients (whether these were developers, house builders or institutions such as hospitals or universities) would not only demand from me but expect that I would make the strongest possible case for the provision of the maximum number of parking spaces. That message started to become diluted with John Prescott’s Sustainability agenda in the late 90's with the result that nowadays a lot of my clients will ask that we make as little provision for parking as possible. The premise is that reduced parking means more land for either landscaping or more development. It just so happens that reduced parking could also mean more sustainable developments but the fact remains that not only has our position changed, we have actually gone full circle from wanting the most to wanting the least!

Coming back to Heraclitus, it is indisputable that in my narrow field of Traffic Engineering as well as in the wider field of Planning there is constant change; the river is flowing. However, if everything is constantly changing, does this mean that we are always wrong?

We were wrong in the 60's when we were building what are now regarded to be awful and unsafe residential towers. We were also wrong when subsequently we started to build what we now consider to be soulless housing estates. Are we perhaps wrong even now when we are embarking (despite much questioning and cynicism) on a path towards a more sustainable world?

The answer is NO; I do not think so. Heraclitus is correct up to a point. We and the world around us change constantly until no more change can be afforded. A volcano will continue to spew out lava and change in its form and intensity until it dies. A tree will grow until its trunk is eaten by a fungus and it falls to the ground dead. A river will continue to flow until it dries up. The volcano, the tree, and the river are gone, to be replaced by something else. Things cannot change in one set way indefinitely. The same is true with humans, but we alone are capable of controlling what happens next.

We are currently entering what can be described as our Sustainable period (in planning as well as in every other activity). Everything up to now has been a stage in our evolution in both Planning and Traffic Engineering and we are but a second away from the end-state. We simply MUST wholeheartedly embrace and adopt everything that this idea entails. We MUST try to create better communities. If we lose heart, it will probably mean the end of the world as we know it. Certainly the signs are ominous, in terms of our natural environment as well as our own physical and mental health.

In conclusion, Heraclitus was mostly correct - everything changes, but only until we reach the end state at which point we have no other option but to transform or else cease. We must find and persevere along the path that protects our environment, provides for healthier living and creates quality places. If nothing else, even at this 11th hour and 2,500 years after Heraclitus’ proclamation, we will have proved him wrong.

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