Where should Britain's homes go? Should we favour suburban expansion or inner city redevelopment?by Colin Ward / July 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
Published in July 2000 issue of Prospect Magazine
I am one of the few people I know with an interest in cities who has not visited Barcelona. It’s an accident of timing. For decades, I used to say that I would not go until I could sit at a café table on the Ramblas, arguing loudly about sex and freedom with my anarchist friends. By the time this had become possible, in 1975, we met at a café table in the Campo San Polo in Venice instead, laughing over their magazine Bicicleta and arguing about what should happen to the shanty towns on the fringe of Barcelona, housing rural immigrants. Should there be dweller-controlled upgrading on the Latin American model or new municipal estates on the north European pattern? There was nothing to say about downtown renovation, because, like the propped-up Venice which surrounded us, it was only for the benefit of us tourists. These discussions came to mind when I read Michael Eaude’s TLS review of two Barcelona novels by one of Spain’s best-known writers, Manuel Vásquez Montalbán. “Montalbán,” says Eaude, “is a strong critic of the message successfully sold by Barcelona’s elite that their city is a haven of fine urban planning and good living.” Barcelona is not the only city to sell itself well. Ten years ago, a procession of British government ministers filed through downtown Baltimore, the Barcelona of those days, and I followed in their footsteps. Kenneth Clarke was thrilled, as he remembered the place as “the ultimate rust-bucket dump.” I was impressed, too, by the redevelopment of the inner harbour, with three new shopping pavilions on what used to be the waterfront. Grady Clay, an acute observer of the US urban scene, told me of the incredible sums from the federal treasury that had been pumped into Baltimore’s Charles Centre and Inner Harbour redevelopments. Meanwhile, the inner city, from which the poor were being squeezed out, had at least 5,800 empty houses awaiting rehabilitation. Less than half a mile from the city’s downtown miracle I met some of the hard-pressed people struggling to establish the rights of the poor majority to live decently in their own city. Reading Montalbán on the tedious routines of getting by in Barcelona makes me wonder whether, just as Thatcher’s ministers were seduced by downtown Baltimore, so Blair’s advisers have been bought by a few delicious urban experiences at open-air Barcelona cafés. My suspicion is heightened by the news that in 1999 the RIBA gave its gold medal not to an architect, but to the city of Barcelona, and by the fact that Towards an Urban Renaissance, the report of the government’s urban task force which reported one year ago, contains a foreword by the former mayor of Barcelona. Now I know perfectly well that if I were at last to visit Barcelona I would fall in love with the place. And I could already list a dozen lessons for Britain from the few continental cities that I do know, such as Amsterdam, Zurich or Bologna, in particular the blessings of efficient, safe, cheap public transport. But the main lesson of Barcelona for architect Richard Rogers, chairman of the task force, is found in one sentence on page 59: “The most compact and vibrant European city, Barcelona, has an average density of about 400 dwellings per hectare.” That is about twice as dense as central London. Government research suggests that, thanks to longevity, divorce and the growth in single person homes, we shall need some 3.8m additional households in England alone over the next generation. No wonder that partisans for urban (“brownfield”) sites as opposed to rural (“greenfield”) ones embrace the Barcelona story. we have been here before; our great-grandparents had their own task forces to show for it. In 1891, Lord Rosebery, speaking as the Liberal chairman of the young London County Council, used language more forthright than anything we recently heard from the candidates for the office of mayor: “I am always haunted by the awfulness of London: by the great appalling fact of these millions cast down, as it would appear by hazard, on the banks of this noble stream, working each in their own groove and their own cell, without regard or knowledge of each other… the heedless casualty of unnumbered thousands of men. Sixty years ago Cobbett called it a wen. If it was a wen then, what is it now? A tumour, an elephantiasis sucking into its gorged system half the life and the blood and the bone of the rural districts.” Those rural districts were sunk in a depression lasting from the 1870s until the second world war. Charles Booth’s Life and Labour of the People of London (1889-1903) was a 17-volume urban task force report for the 1890s. The government also appointed the novelist Rider Haggard to serve as a one-man rural task force with his Rural England (1902). But the decade saw other independent franc-tireurs firing their own magic bullets at the linked horrors of city and country. There was Booth’s namesake, General William Booth of the Salvation Army, who published In Darkest England, and the Way Out (1890) recommending rural colonies to prepare the urban unemployed for a new life on the land or in Britain’s overseas possessions. William Morris’s News From Nowhere described a post-industrial Britain, and Robert Blatchford’s Merrie England (1893) explained the evils of monopoly landlordism in both city and country and advocated a revival of small-scale horticulture by ex-urbanites. His book sold almost 1m copies before the end of the century. But the most influential of these testimonies was Ebenezer Howard’s Tomorrow! A Peaceful Path to Real Reform (1898). A century ago the Garden Cities Association (now the TCPA) was founded to propagate his message. His book was reprinted in 1902 as Garden Cities of To-morrow and has been in print ever since. His home-made illustrations are the most famous planning diagrams in the world. In spite of this, Howard is often misinterpreted. It is suggested that he wanted the suburbanisation of everywhere. In fact his concept of the Garden City, like the New Towns after the second world war, was an alternative to suburban expansion of existing cities. He had no connection with Hampstead Garden Suburb. Nor did he recommend low residential densities. With the typical family of five in 1898, his suggestions work out at 90-95 persons per acre; and with the family sizes of the period after the second world war it would be about 70 persons per acre. Howard was convinced that once the inner city had been “demagnetised,” once large numbers of people had been convinced that “they can better their condition in every way by migrating elsewhere,” the bubble of the monopoly value of inner city land would burst. “But let us notice,” he wrote on the future of London, “how each person in migrating from London, while making the burden of ground rents less heavy for those who remain, will make the burden of rates on the ratepayers of London yet heavier.” He thought that the change to more humane urban densities would be effected “not at the expense of the ratepayers, but almost entirely at the expense of the landlord class.” (Howard would have been shocked to learn that, a century later, we had failed to regain that “unearned increment” in site values that the community had created by clustering together. He would have been further saddened by the fact that we no longer even talk about this issue.) The century which has passed since Howard asked the question “The People-Where Will They Go?” has seen the re-population of the countryside. By the 1960s, the map of population change was the reverse of the 1890s, with the areas then suffering the biggest population losses-in particular, East Anglia and the south west-becoming the areas with the biggest gains. But, 85 years after Howard foresaw the great exodus, John Prescott, deputy prime minister, tells us that the “exodus from inner cities” has been “driven by a lack of confidence in schools, fear of crime, an unhealthy environment, and poor housing.” And he declares that, “This is bad for our people, bad for quality of life, bad for our economy, and bad for society.” This is taken from Prescott’s preface to the urban task force report, while a few pages later, in the introduction, Richard Rogers explains that several essential issues-education, health, welfare and security-fall outside the remit of the report. This leaves only one of the factors listed by John Prescott: housing. And neither Prescott nor Rogers mention jobs-even though our cities were the product of the industrial revolution, and despite the fact that the pressure on housing in the south of England is partly the result of the loss of work opportunities elsewhere. In Victorian Cities, Asa Briggs noted how in 1837 “England and Wales boasted only five provincial cities of more than 100,000 inhabitants: by 1891 there were 23 and they housed nearly a third of the nation.” The late 20th century collapse of industry has reversed the mushroom expansion of the 19th century. Anne Power and Kathleen Mumford, in their report The Slow Death of Great Cities? Urban Abandonment or Urban Renaissance (Joseph Rowntree Foundation 1999), studied Manchester and Newcastle, which have lost a fifth of their population since 1961, and where “Good quality, modernised homes are being abandoned in some inner city neighbourhoods. House prices have fallen in some cases to zero, and some blocks and streets are being demolished…. Whole areas have virtually no demand for housing.” Such places will only revive when they provide incomes. But regional job creation remains out of fashion, and enthusiasts for the new cyber-economy fail to migrate to Sunderland. it used to be said that for a carpenter, all problems call for a nail and a hammer. Perhaps, for an architect, all issues are design issues. The task force led by Rogers tells us that “successful urban regeneration is design-led. Promoting sustainable lifestyles and social inclusion in our towns and cities depends on the design of the physical environment.” This elevation of the role of the designer has been used to promote every new architectural ideology since 1945. For decades after the war (under the slogan of comprehensive redevelopment) urban regeneration was design-led. It tore the cities apart. This is now well documented. I myself wrote six books describing its terrible results. In London, the LCC’s former chief strategic planner, Graham Lomas, found that in the post-war decades, as councils sought high-density solutions in system-built tower blocks, more fit housing was destroyed than was provided. Twenty years ago, when Peter Hall described in the Architects’ Journal the enormous expansion of the profession after the second world war, he asked: “Didn’t it, unbelievably, result in an environment much worse than the one we had before?… It’s chastening to ask what would have happened if we’d never trained the architects, but had spent all that slum clearance money quite differently. Suppose, in the Liverpool of 1955, we hadn’t said: ‘A problem of replacing 88,000 unfit houses,’ but rather: ‘a problem of making 88,000 houses fit,’ we could have given generous improvement grants, encouraged small builders, opened DIY shops. The environment would have been improved piecemeal. It wouldn’t have been very efficient-small-scale work never is-and a good deal of the basic infrastructure would have had to be renewed. But it would have involved people in fixing up their own houses and helping improve their own neighbourhoods. It wouldn’t have caused the enormous disruption, physical and social, that gave us the Everton Piggeries and the vandalised streets of Kirkby.” Giving the Rogers’ report a cautious welcome in Prospect last year, Anatol Lieven said that “for the first time since 1945 a humane consensus of ecological, aesthetic and civic values” enjoy a powerful new voice among those working in the field. The date he gave was well-chosen, because from that moment on the mysterious Hubert de Cronin Hastings, the owner of the Architectural Review, aided by the draughtsmanship of Gordon Cullen, was propagating the ideology of Townscape. This ideology is illustrated in the Rogers’ report by a drawing of “a mixed-use urban centre” and by a photograph of the streets north of the old market at Covent Garden and another of The Lanes at Brighton. All three illustrations bear that imprimatur of well-heeled urban hedonism, the open-air café table. I confess that I too have sat contentedly drinking at such tables, but a lifetime of hearing architectural propaganda tells me that the praise for all that bustling street life is always accompanied by the advocacy of high density living for other people. In 1945, when postwar housing policy was taking shape, Frederic Osborn wrote to Lewis Mumford: “I don’t think philanthropic housing people anywhere realise the strength of the impulse towards the family house and garden as prosperity increases; they think the suburban trend can be reversed by large-scale multi-storey buildings in the downtown districts. This is not merely a pernicious belief from the human point of view, but a delusion… In a few years, the multi-storey method will prove unpopular and will peter out… Damage will be done to society by the trial… the damage may amount to a disaster.” The damage amounted to several disasters and hideous expense, but 50 years on, we find the Rogers’ report telling us how some of the most lively inner city areas, such as Bloomsbury and Islington, can rise as high as 100-200 dwellings per hectare. Alongside this comment is a photograph of mansion flats near the Albert Hall, captioned “A different take on high rise living.” In the early 1960s, I used to lecture to final year architecture students on human aspects of high densities, and always pointed to the arrogant folly of generalising from the lives of the affluent. “They are out of the house more, because they can afford to be. Mum isn’t isolated at home with the babies, she is out shopping at Harrods. The children, when small, are taken to Kensington Gardens by Nanny. At the age of eight they go to a prep school, and at 13 to a public school, both of them residential. And during the holidays they are either away in the country, or winter-sporting, sailing and so on… At any rate they are not hanging around on the landing or playing with the dustbin lids.” The reason for all this talk about densities is the search for an answer to the question Ebenezer Howard asked a century ago: “The People-Where Will They Go?” Both the present government and the last one have been blown by every wind in the political micro-climate in the game of deciding whether 40 per cent, 50 per cent or 60 per cent of the required new housing should be built on recycled urban land. Howard anticipated that the relief of the pressure on urban land through falling site values would enable the greening of the city. But of course some brown fields are browner than others, and it is cheaper to redevelop urban allotment sites and playing fields than industrial land. In the 1980s central government put great pressure on local government to release such sites for profitable development, and this can happen again. And yet, notwithstanding its trendy disdain for the home-centred culture of the lower middle classes, the Rogers’ report did raise some important issues. It rightly stressed the crucial importance of maintaining public spaces. The 1980s saw not only the return of mass unemployment, but also pressure from central government on local councils to spend less. To do this they cut many of the things that made inner city life civilised. One thing that is certain about mobile caretakers on housing estates is that they don’t take care; similar observations can be made about street-cleaning and park-keeping. The work of Ken Worpole and Liz Greenhalgh, summed up in their report on The Richness of Cities: Urban Policy in a New Landscape (Comedia 1999), and in particular Worpole’s paper Nothing to Fear? Trust and Respect in Urban Communities, go a long way towards explaining why people don’t enjoy living in cities any more. One-person operated buses make bus travel even less attractive. Removal of the park keeper can be disastrous for parks. Parks, Worpole has argued, are still places where “the indeterminacy and inconclusiveness of daily life is suspended” and where “people’s behaviour changes once they step into the park from the surrounding streets, becoming much more relaxed, gregarious and sociable.” Similarly Worpole’s study of public libraries, the urban facility used by a wider cross-section of the public than any other, shows how they can reinforce good citizenship. “In such settings most people do still subscribe to the values of respect for other users’ interests and needs, waiting one’s turn, not greedily dominating particular resources.” The task force would presumably endorse these observations, as Howard would have a century ago, but nowhere in the report is it spelled out that the insecurity that people associate with city life relates to the fact that our rulers think that it is bad business to have people standing around being helpful. twenty years ago, Stephen Holley, who was for years the general manager of Washington New Town in County Durham, and watched with growing exasperation the shifts in central government policy-expressed his feelings in a sharp little verse: Isn’t it a pity about the Inner City? People leave who shouldn’t ought And that affects the rate support. If only those who stayed behind had left instead, no one would mind. Nowhere in the task force report do I find endorsement of those struggling initiatives of self-help and mutual aid which penetrate areas that other urban solvents fail to reach. I am thinking not only of successes against the odds, like Coin Street on the riverside in central London, but of housing co-ops like the Eldonians in Liverpool and those self-build housing groups such as See Saw and The Diggers at Brighton, which were enthused by the simple building method propagated by the Walter Segal Self-Build Trust. For me, nurturing these precious shoots is more important than the succession of old policies under new names in the task force report. So where should the people go? The new households should go into new and expanded settlements along viable public transport corridors in the places where people want to live (or have to live, for their jobs). This is where they are going, mainly in the south east. Behind all the rhetoric and posturing about rural values, the planning authorities are working together to accommodate the new households around towns such as Milton Keynes and Ashford, or along the M11 corridor and the Thames Gateway extending to Southend. Many of these new growth zones cluster around New Towns like Milton Keynes, Corby, Harlow and Basildon. Indeed, one of the best-kept secrets of social policy is that the postwar New Towns, by comparison with suburban expansion or high-density inner city redevelopment, were a social and financial success and were far more economical in land use than any other form of urban expansion. Let us build on what has worked-not on the high density living which has not.