Sir Terry Farrell was listening to a prestigious evening debate at the Royal Institution of Great Britain some 18 months ago when he was suddenly struck by an idea. The debate on science and technology encouraged the country's top scientists to predict the future. But there were no takers among the distinguished audience.
"Not one of them was prepared to do it," Farrell recalls. "Yet these were people who had developed computers, jet engines and nuclear power stations. If they are not prepared to do it, just who will speculate about the future?" Society is in such a "state of shock" about rapid change that predicting the future, never mind planning for it, is "paralysingly impossible", he argues.
Yet who is better placed than planners to take up the gauntlet? Farrell will explore the role of planning and design professionals in influencing the future of towns and cities in this year's RTPI annual lecture, to be held in London next week. The lecture coincides with publication of his book Place, which details his career up to 1981 and how he became one of the world's leading planners, architects and urban designers.
His global reputation has become established since the late 1980s through such schemes as the MI6 headquarters building in London, Quarry Hill in Leeds, the Edinburgh International Conference Centre, the Brindleyplace masterplan in Birmingham, Newcastle Quayside and Kowloon Station in Hong Kong.
"I have tried to define the nature of place and what we mean by the future of place," he explains. "Town planning can grasp the opportunity for leadership in defining place. There is a great need for leadership in the face of such rapid growth and change and with the increase in confidence in rebuilding our cities."
He continues: "Leadership has become relevant again. Whether you call it planning, preparing or speculating about the future, you cannot hide the fact that planning is advancing up the agenda, particularly with this government, the urban renaissance and internationally. There is more awareness of the need to lead."
Farrell is frustrated by constraints on the planning profession from bureaucracy and short-term development control, which reduce its contribution to shaping the long-term future of towns, cities and countryside alike.
"Planners need to show a much greater degree of confidence," he insists.
"The public has got to see planning as an essential activity that needs resourcing and investment."
He sees towns and cities as "snapshots in time" and "statements about who we are right now", but also as "an accumulation from others in the past that we have added to and that will be adapted and added to by our successors". His six years' experience as a commissioner for English Heritage showed him the importance of place-making founded on understanding and protecting what is passed down by previous generations. "But we have to achieve a proper balance with the past."
In the early 1980s, Farrell was president of the Urban Design Group and one of the founders of the Urban Design Alliance, which brought together the built environment professions. He admits that in those days the phrase "urban design" confused everybody, from the general public to politicians.
Today he takes some glee at hearing it used even by members of the cabinet and the royal family.
"I had come to the conclusion that one of the biggest problems with planning is the separation of the professions into tribal camps. This has led to road engineers doing their bit in isolation and architects doing the same, not caring what the next building is," he complains.
But he sees positive signs for the future. "What we are seeing now is a return to urban values. The investment is returning to our northern cities. London has grown into a great metropolis. Our idea of cities being the positive engines of our lives is back, rather than seeing them as a source of crime, pollution and social disadvantage. Now there is a feeling that cities are great places for the future."
Farrell's lecture will be panoramic in scope. It will explore ten themes for the future of cities, many of them overlapping. One is the trend towards ever larger cities, whether the emerging super-cities of the Far East, urban mergers such as Manchester and Liverpool and the South East's own metropolis. With it will come massive infrastructure investment, big complexes and entire campuses and small towns under one roof.
He will contrast the negative consequences of urban growth - pollution, poverty, terrorism and global warming - with the more positive side of improved access to health care, fitness facilities and parks. Transport interchanges, the role of culture, density, knowledge capital, the space between places, the role of cities in a digital age and our very perception of cities are other themes.
He will also speculate about what is "fair" for city inhabitants with their separate ethnicity, age and interests, as well as how far the political process limits what planners and architects can offer for the cities of the future. "The town and city are never perfect. They are always a kind of expression of society, but there will never be a perfect society or individual. Yet it's important to have public control. We have had far too much top-down thinking that ignores the tastes and views of people.
"There is this view that public participation is a magic wand and if you consult everyone something great will emerge. What you get is something like a Pop Idol contest where the dumbest solution will emerge. It's the responsibility of people who study cities to come up with the visions and the leadership that connects the bottom with the top."
- The RTPI annual lecture by Sir Terry Farrell takes place on 9 December at the Kennedy Lecture Theatre, 30 Guildford Street, London. For further details, please contact Helen Booth (tel) 020 8267 4126 (e-mail) firstname.lastname@example.org.
Place: Terry Farrell, Life and Work - Early Years to 1981 is available, priced £29.95, from Laurence King Publishing.