We Built this City on Rock ‘n’ Roll

Opinion piece
Pondering the reasons why the world’s great songwriters have generally failed to grasp the lyrical opportunities of great urban design, Richard Crutchley – Associate at Tibbalds – reflects on the changing cityscapes and hopeless nostalgia found in an ancient Glaswegian long-player.

Between the anarchic and alcoholic study trip to Montpellier and the much more placid Urban Design and Development module (“…just because you put seats in, doesn’t mean people will sit there”), one of the more memorable moments of my five years at University at the front end of the 1990s was my flatmate’s attempt to reconcile with his girlfriend through the purchase of Del Amitri’s 1992 album, ‘Change Everything’. You’d be hard pushed to find a more downbeat and world weary view of love and romance, and the relationship inevitably collapsed shortly afterwards.

However, ‘Change Everything’ still provides my all-time favourite song about planning and regeneration. ‘Surface of the Moon’ is a lament about change, about a connection to a place and how that can so easily be thoughtlessly removed, and about how our memories and feelings are inextricably linked to the landscapes in which we live out our lives. And so, our protagonist wanders through his home town, wondering what happened:

From the well-swept streets of Jackson Heights to the dockside drudgery

Everything's now a replica of what it used to be

And since they tarted up the trenches and painted the bridges blue

It seems less like a home to me than just a place they bury you

Coming across the places he used to sneak kisses, the unfamiliar surroundings surprise him, leading to an outstanding couplet about gentrification:

So on the ancient trails of our coupling in the places we used to meet

I am amazed by the lack of memories that I thought would flood through me

And the riverside where we first kissed has now been reduced

To a phoney old world market where only shoppers get seduced

Without even mentioning masterplans and public engagement, I find the impact of redevelopment on communities is central to the lyrics, and the disappointment of change and the removal of the sense of belonging is made to feel almost inevitable. I’ve found it a useful reminder in my work over 25 years and regularly go back to it.

I mentioned above that ‘Surface of the Moon’ was my all-time favourite song about planning and regeneration. This was achieved by default, as my list only runs to one song. Development management and plan-making is shockingly under-represented in the pop charts.

Or so I thought.

Non-curricular research has reached me from the corridors of a north London planning department which suggests that the pop charts may, in fact, be alive with references to planning and development, albeit usually lyrically tangential. I give you, therefore, a brief overview and ask you for your suggestions…

The Darkness // Planning Permission

I'm a man with two good hands, two good hands and a plot of land

And I'm on a mission, I've got a vision and a planning permission


Joni Mitchell // Big Yellow Taxi

They paved paradise and put up a parking lot


Pet Shop Boys // Suburbia

Stood by the bus stop with a felt pen in this suburban hell


Living in a Box // Living in a Box

Am I living in a box?


The Housemartins // Build

Clambering men in big bad boots dug up my den, dug up my roots

Treated us like plasticine town, they built us up and knocked us down


Sophia Anne Caruso // No Plan

This is no place, but here I am


Pete Seeger // Little Boxes

Little boxes on the hillside

Little boxes made of ticky tacky

Little boxes all the same


Honorable mentions:

Arcade Fire // The Suburbs

Dolly Parton & Porter Wagoner // Making Plans

Madness // Our House

The Members // Sound Of The Suburbs

Fifth Harmony // Work from Home

XTC // Making Plans for Nigel

Queen // One Vision

Dexys Midnight Runners // Plan B

Starship // We Built This City

Oasis // The Masterplan

And with that, back to Gary Davies.