How to Save the City-Dweller

Andrew Saint

  • Cities for a Small Planet by Richard Rogers
    Faber, 180 pp, £9.99, December 1997, ISBN 0 571 17993 2

‘Cities that are beautiful, safe and equitable are within our grasp.’ So says Richard Rogers at the end of this reworking of his Reith Lectures of 1995, and we must do our best to believe him. Suppose, however, that the lecturer had pronounced instead on another of the basic building-blocks of society – the family, for instance. We might admit that he was right to exhort us, but we should know at once that he was a moralist and a preacher. And our unregenerate selves would remember that families reflect the good, the bad and the inconsistent in human nature. Must it not be the same with cities, where most of the race now dwells?

A heart-warming side to the culture of cities is its idealism. Not content with building heavenly Jerusalems, people try to construct real ones, with eccentric, even sinister, but always fallible results. More’s Utopia, with its Platonic stress on the other-worldliness of nowhere-land, is forever being transmuted into Eutopia, the place to live the good life, which social and architectural reformers rally round to invent. This year marks the centenary of Ebenezer Howard’s Tomorrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform, perhaps the most humane blueprint ever set down for new communities. Go today to Letchworth, the first Garden City and fruit of Howard’s urbanistic fancies, and what do you find? A pleasant, peaceable place, with pockets of architectural imagination – in truth, an English town much like any other. Time, in the guise of the universal levelling forces of modern transportation, employment and consumption, has ironed out Letchworth’s utopian creases.

There are new reasons these days for being totalitarian about the world’s conurbations, and Cities for a Small Planet makes the most of them. With a quarter of a million people moving to live in cities every day (the near-equivalent, as Rogers puts it, of a new London every month), we cannot not act. Laissez-faire will not do, for the crisis of diminishing resources and increasing pollution refuses any more to be gainsaid. Incontinent, incompetent urbanisation is the biggest culprit. The problem begins at home, not in Latin America or Africa or China. We use cars too much and will not get out of them. We fail to turn off the lights. We live in smaller and smaller family units, profligate of energy, because we can no longer stand being so close to one another. Most of us (and this is as true of South Africans stuck in townships as it is of affluent Americans) want individual houses with gardens – in other words, the suburb or low-density city. It is like sin: we are all guilty and we know it, but we have no intention of stopping. Back comes the preacher.

Who then should the preacher be? Must we have one at all on the text of the modern city? For over a hundred years we have had statisticians, doctors, sanitarians, engineers, economists and, now, ecologists setting out how city-dwellers in the developed world might be saved. So healthy, cosy and, above all, busy have these wonder-workers made the majority of us, that our cities are joy and freedom compared to savage, noxious, Georgian London, Imperial Rome, or even (it is too probable) Periclean Athens – here touted once again as an urban model. No wonder that a quarter of a million cluster in daily from the developing world’s arduous and lonely countryside to join the party. The fact that most modern cities look ugly and cruel, and contain a visibly miserable underclass, hardly matters. They work better than the places people are leaving. The difficulty is that now, not only the millenarians but also the urban professionals tell us the party can’t go on.

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