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At the service of society

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Professor Michael Edwards reflects on the value of activism in informing research and building partnerships between The Bartlett and London.

At the service of society

Michael Edwards in 1972.

Credit: Michael Ann Mullen

I’m keen that all professionals should have a clearer grasp of the social role that they play and of the potential for them to produce better outcomes.

Michael Edwards

Michael Edwards joined The Bartlett staff in the autumn of 1969. Richard Llewelyn-Davies had just been appointed as Professor of Architecture and, at that time, was forming what would become the new, integrated ‘School of Environmental Studies’.

The idea was to bring together architecture, the Department of Town Planning – that Edwards was recruited to – as well as a number of other research units. “Llewelyn-Davies was very keen on two things,” says Edwards. “Dissolving inter-professional barriers and getting more scientific thinking into the whole field. Those were his two guiding principles, and I was very keen on all that.”

Edwards, who had previously studied economics at Oxford before coming to planning, says that one of the things he got involved with alongside his formal teaching was the various campaigns that were going on around London and its development. “There was a lot of big property speculations going on [in the 1970s]; Centre Point and the Greater London’s Council’s Covent Garden Plan, for example. The GLC was moving the vegetable markets out of Covent Garden and it was going to liberate a huge amount of space.”

The spirit of modernisation at the time was to make London fit for cars and the GLC proposed to demolish almost everything in Covent Garden except for the historic core of the piazza and the church, and build a circular ring of dual carriageways around it, linking out to office developments, conference centres, hotels. The campaign to stop it, which broadly followed a “Jane-Jacobs-style anti-motorway philosophy” was a galvanising experience for Edwards, who says the experience (and other campaigns that followed, such as at Tolmers Square and Piccadilly Circus) taught him a lot about making coalitions with disparate groups.

At the service of society

Michael Edwards, then president of the UCL staff trade union branch, engaging with Professor Newton Watson, then Head of The Bartlett, at the UCL front gate during a strike in the late 1980s.

At the service of society

Painted end wall overlooking the temporary Japanese Garden on the site of the former Odhams printing works, Long Acre, which was later the site for the GLC’s Odhams Walk housing and shops scheme.

Credit: Michael Edwards

“The Covent Garden campaign had a very interesting coalition of different social strata: residents, council tenants, people who worked in the markets, as well as conservationists, the vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields – Austen Williams – and squatters, because there was a lot of vacant property at the time. Then there were students from The Bartlett and the Architectural Association, and they were very valuable because they were great producers of alternative plans and good graphics that helped to power the movement.”

The campaign culminated in a public enquiry, and then had a bizarre outcome, Edwards remembers: “The secretary of state approved the plan but then simultaneously listed hundreds of buildings making it completely impossible to implement it.” Gradually, Covent Garden was invested in and improved, and in fact the amount of social housing doubled.

From then on, his research interests and activism were very much linked. “I’m really interested in who gains and who loses from urban change. I’m a strong believer in urban planning and architecture as potentially helping to transform society in a more egalitarian and progressive way,” he says. “I’m keen that all professionals should have a clearer grasp of the social role that they play and of the potential for them to produce better outcomes. That should be a guiding principle of the whole faculty, of the whole university.”

Edwards believes The Bartlett has made a lot of headway, particularly in the planning field, having recovered from a period in the 1980s when “we had a lot of students who were, if you like, Thatcher’s children, fascinated with the bright lights of capitalism”. Radicalism was kept alive by a cadre of students, mostly with geography backgrounds, who had “got the impression that somehow the world economy was producing ghastly outcomes and had to be challenged in some way”, and Ruth Glass (“She was an amazing character. Smoked all the time. Always wore blue. Politically very committed. Always had a glass of Sherry beside her.”)

Today, he welcomes the upwelling of a movement in planning and architecture to assert the value of public and collective enterprise as dynamic institutions that are not just there to regulate private interests (something he thinks has been given a real boost by the appointment of economist Mariana Mazzucato to The Bartlett as Director of the Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose in 2017.)

At the service of society

Celebrating after the oral examination of the PhD thesis of Oguz Isik (now Professor at METU, Ankara) with David Harvey, Michael Edwards and Graham Ive, 1991.

Having officially retired in 2008 – though he still lectures at The Bartlett – Edwards devotes a lot of his time these days to Just Space, an informal alliance of grassroots organisations that he helped form when he was co-chair of the Kings Cross Railway Lands Group. He can often be found at the technical seminars for the New London Plan, where major policy decisions and political judgements are often embedded in the data.

“Just Space plays a role in getting these messages out and enabling tenants’ leaders and local neighbourhood activists to stand up and say, ‘Look, you may regard this as a technicality, but actually this is an assumption that our homes are worthless and can be swept away for redevelopment.’ It is a tremendously interesting challenge and I think we’re doing quite well.”

Before London Mayor Sadiq Khan came in, Just Space decided to use this strategy to create its own plan for London, so that it could present the new mayor with a proactive strategy, rather than having to simply react. The result was Towards a Community-Led Plan for London, bringing together contributions from more than 80 different organisations. Edwards admits that he’s not sure how effective the plan has been, but says that wasn’t really the point: “The idea was to develop our views and ideas, and the scope of cooperation, which Just Space has formed itself into a network of activists who would have otherwise been campaigning just on their own local issues.”

Since 2007, The Bartlett and other parts of UCL (particularly Geography) have collaborated with Just Space on research and consultancy projects, with Master’s modules and multiple papers published every year as a result.

It’s Edwards’ view that universities should understand their role in the city and be at the service of the whole society, and describes the collaborations as a two-way process. “We learn a huge amount from this. It informs the kind of research and teaching we do and gives us contacts. And importantly it usually enriches the experience for students. A lot of them really value it.”

The School of Planning is one of the leading research-led planning schools in Europe, offering a creative and stimulating environment to study the form, planning, design and management of cities, and to shape their future. It is part of The Bartlett, UCL's Faculty of the Built Environment. Find out more:

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