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In Perspective: Remembering Sir Colin Buchanan

Sir Colin Buchanan

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With rising population levels and greater numbers of people choosing to live and work in town centres, the question of how to accommodate these trends and, at the same time, deal with the resulting issues of congestion has become a crucial source of debate. Here, we look back at the life and career of Sir Colin Buchanan – arguably Britain's greatest town and transport planner, and the man tasked by the UK Government with resolving many of these issues over 50 years ago and whose influential 1963 report, Traffic in Towns, would form a reference point for all future debate on these issues.

Born in 1907, in Simla, India, where his father was a water engineer, many would have expected Colin Douglas Buchanan to have followed in the footsteps of his father and previous generation of Buchanans to find success primarily as an engineer. Indeed, Buchanan's career started out this way, undertaking engineering training at Imperial College London (1926-1929), before moving to Sudan upon graduation to work on highways and bridges in the public works department (1930-1933).

However, this early dalliance with engineering (notwithstanding Buchanan's service as a Royal Engineer in World War Two, where he found himself stationed in, amongst other places, back in Sudan) delayed Buchanan's true talents as a town planner, where he would spend the majority of his career, as a deviser and consultant, to town projects internationally where, more commonly, he would be engaged in the planning and management of traffic flows in urban centres.

His international renown in this area stems from the 1963 publication of 'Traffic in Towns', which was also known as 'the Buchanan Report', a report commissioned by the UK Ministry of Transport which sought policies for the development of the existing post-war urban infrastructure to cope with the impending production of the modern car.

Buchanan was praised for his report, and the way in which the multitude of different policy proposals were framed as choices led to a much more inclusive debate about town planning and resulted in the publication of a shortened version of the report by Penguin Books in 1964. In addition, Buchanan's support for the 'special importance of the countryside' in a guard against urban sprawl was popular among environmentalists. Despite the report's futuristic undercurrent, practical measures such as bypasses, parking restrictions and multi-story car parks (in certain conditions) formed part of the proposals suggested to the Government, yet many never came into being as funds were largely directed towards inter-urban motorways.

Nevertheless, the report and resulting book had confirmed Sir Colin Buchanan's status as the country's most famous town and transport planner. He returned as the new Chair of Transport at Imperial College London, and in 1971, delivered a minority opinion on the Roskill Commission against the building of the third London airport on a site at Cublington, apparently borne out of the same environmental convictions that influenced 'Traffic in Towns'. In 1972, he was knighted, and latterly became President of both the Council for the Protection of Rural England, and the Royal Town Planning Institute, before his death at the age of 94 in 2001.

Today, Buchanan's legacy can be felt all over the world. The partnership he established to capitalise on the success of 'Traffic in Towns' has consulted on planning issues in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, New Zealand, France and the Netherlands. His concern for what he termed the 'human environment' is now a characteristic among many Government planning policy papers, and the forecasts he made over 50 years ago on levels of car usage have proved to be accurate, and may help explain why he chose to call his autobiography, 'I Told You So'. Many of the issues that Buchanan discussed are still widespread today, and the greatest testament to Buchanan and his enduring legacy is that the 'Buchanan Report' still forms the pivot point for policy proposals on traffic flow issues in town centres.

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