Academic journal article The Town Planning Review

The Changing Meaning of Urban Capacity: A Need to Reflect on Planning for Infrastructure

Academic journal article The Town Planning Review

The Changing Meaning of Urban Capacity: A Need to Reflect on Planning for Infrastructure

Article excerpt

The Urban Renaissance requires desirable urban housing to encourage people back to English towns and cities. Urban-capacity studies (urban-potential studies) are used to identify possible future housing opportunities in these areas; however, urban capacity originally focused on urban areas' finite capacity to accommodate future housing allocations. This change in meaning is explored through analysing the relevant government texts of the time (1995-2001) and urban-capacity studies. This reveals the continuing importance of the intensity of urban use as an issue, but the seeming loss of its consideration in more recent urban-capacity assessments. Yet the quality of local urban infrastructures and their usage remain important factors in realising the Urban Renaissance. Where housing is most needed, the South-East Region, the question of infrastructural provision has reappeared. A new study assessing and costing future requirements has emerged. This may be a much-needed addition in achieving the Urban Renaissance.

Among its many objectives, the government's Urban Renaissance agenda hopes to repopulate urban areas. This can only be accomplished if people actively choose to move to towns and cities. Therefore, urban centres need to provide attractive options that make people want to choose an urban lifestyle over other lifestyles. City-centre accommodation provides one of these opportunities, reducing the need to travel long distances to work and leisure destinations. To achieve this opportunity, appropriate additional new housing needs to be built in urban areas. Currently, the urban-capacity study (also known as an urban-potential study) is one of the main sources of information identifying housing development opportunities in urban areas where this attractive new opportunity can be built.

As an idea, urban capacity has always been an assessment, and fits mainly into the discussions of future housing land. Its focus is urban; and its emphasis has been on the availability and ability of urban areas to accommodate more housing. However, through a discourse founded on issues of the use of areas and their facilities, urban quality, and the desirability of the city, urban capacity has changed its meaning.

With its transformation in meaning, the methods of assessing urban capacity and the variables included in that assessment have also altered. The more recent, and now well-established, methods of assessment have tended to minimise the consideration of the use of facilities, urban quality and desirability of city living. So these aspects of urban capacity are currently missing from most urban-capacity estimates. This has resulted in a disjunction between the urban-capacity concept and its assessment.

For city living, and so for the Urban Renaissance agenda, the importance of this gap will eventually emerge through individuals' responses to urban areas. These responses will be dependent upon their choices over where they live, and their experiences as they carry out their everyday lives, in and around the city. Ultimately these experiences will help them to decide whether they wish to stay and live the urban lifestyle on offer, or leave for pastures new.

Through an analysis of government texts and urban-capacity studies of the critical period of 1995-2001, this paper demonstrates that in the case of urban capacity, the concept has changed, so the evidence-base and the methods of assessment have altered. It also reveals a gap between the urban-capacity study's assessment emphasis on identifying opportunities for future housing in urban areas, and the concept's discursive focus on issues of the use of these areas, their density and their desirability. This gap produces an assessment of urban capacity not in keeping with the concept's underlying intentions and potentially problematic for the continuing Urban Renaissance agenda. This paper queries whether the loss of this original meaning of urban capacity reflects the loss of an idea once deemed important in the land for housing discussion, or whether practice is beginning to find other ways of rearticulating it, as and where this seems necessary. …

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