“The Planners” keeps hitting the mark

Greenwich Heath near London

Greenwich Heath near London

I’ve previously offered praise  for the BBC show The Planners.  I find my enthusiasm continues to grow with every episode I watch.  Nor am I alone in my approval.  Writing in CityLab, Feargus O’Sullivan expresses similar feelings about the show, noting the captivating conundrums presented by the producers and the insights to English land-use philosophy.

Some readers may remember the U.S. television show Picket Fences from the mid-1990s.  The well-constructed scripts made it perhaps my favorite show ever.  The writers would select a potentially controversial aspect of everyday life, whether personal privacy, May-December romances, or school busing, construct a scenario that evenly balanced the points on both sides of the equation, and then allow the characters to become emotionally invested in arguing the pros and cons.

Many episodes ended at the courthouse, where Judge Bone would hand down his gruff, but Solomonic judgments, neatly cutting through the Gordian knots that had entwined the adversaries.  Although reality rarely plays out as neatly as Judge Bone would have it, Picket Fences still provided an introduction to ethics and morality in the modern era.

The Planners is the reality equivalent of Picket Fences, reaching similar heights in the land-use issues that are selected for the show.  Whether the balancing the rights of homeowners to mount solar panels on slate roofs versus the rights of historians to preserve medieval vistas or comparing the rights of farmers to build a new chicken facilities with the rights of neighbors to be free of chicken aromas, the land-use decisions to be made are neatly positioned on the blades of knives.

If there is a place where The Planners falls short, it’s the absence of a Judge Bone to rule with wisdom and curt certitude.  Although many of land-use decisions are ultimately reasonable, the planners often seem overly confined by the rule book and the planning councils (what we call planning commissions in California) often seem arbitrary, perhaps beholden to political interests that we don’t see.  But that’s often the nature of land-use reality.

Episode three of season one meets the standards established in the first two episodes, and perhaps even raises the show to a new level.  I highly recommend enjoying it while awaiting sandwiches of leftover turkey and dressing.

The four stories in the episode are summarized below, although you’ll have to watch the video for the decisions.

A family-owned development company owns a small brownfield site about a mile from an English village.  On several earlier occasions, they proposed a small housing project and renovation of the abandoned pub on the site.  The planning council rejected the earlier proposals because of a lack of transportation options to the village except for driving on the busy highway.  The council argues that the absence of a bicycle/pedestrian alternative makes the development “unsustainable”, a very different definition of sustainable than is typically found in the U.S., but one that I endorse.

The family is now proposing the same project, but with a mile-long footpath along the highway.  Rejection might cost the family their business and home.  Confounding the situation further, several national builders are proposing residential subdivisions on greenfields closer to the village.

An overcrowded mosque is proposing a major expansion.  But the addition would be architecturally banal and only provide three parking places compared to the 115 required under the code.  The members of the mosque argue that their use is primarily evenings and weekends when the adjoining industrial uses are quiet, so shared street parking would work fine.  The planner responds that the mosque could sell the building to another user who would need daytime parking.

A mechanical hobbyist has built, without planning approval, a backyard shed for his overly large toys.  Some neighbors are convinced that he must be running a truck repair business in his backyard, which is forbidden under the code.

A homeowner has replaced a four-foot high hedge with a two-foot tall picket fence to better contain his rambunctious toddler.  A by-the-book neighbor notes that fences are prohibited under the rules governing the homes.

All four are good planning conundrums.  And all four offer compelling television, at least for land-use geeks.  Enjoy.  There are lessons to be learned that can be applied to arguing effectively for urbanism.

Next time, I’ll talk about a holiday season plan to explore the best streets in the North Bay.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at

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