Town-Cramming

Christopher Turner

  • Cities for a Small Country by Richard Rogers and Anne Power
    Faber, 310 pp, £14.99, November 2000, ISBN 0 571 20652 2
  • Urban Futures 21: A Global Agenda for 21st-Century Cities by Peter Hall and Ulrich Pfeiffer
    Spon, 384 pp, £19.99, July 2000, ISBN 0 415 24075 1

‘A folk memory of industrial squalor and urban overcrowding persists in the minds of public and planners alike,’ Richard Rogers and Anne Power argue in Cities for a Small Country, ‘and fuels an almost obsessive desire for low-density, suburban homes.’ What happened, they ask, to ‘the English love of cities’? Should we blame the town planner Ebenezer Howard for the love affair with suburbia that replaced it? Howard imagined that the problem of London could be solved only by its extinction. He hoped that the development of new satellite suburbs – clusters of interconnected, self-sufficient, ‘slumless, smokeless cities’ – would slowly empty out the capital. London’s property bubble would burst; rents would fall; and the slums would be pulled down to make way for parks, gardens and allotments: ‘the country,’ Howard wrote, ‘would invade the city.’

In Howard’s lifetime, building work began on two garden cities, Letchworth and Welwyn, which served as models for the 32 New Towns built in Britain in the second half of the 20th century (28 are in England). But as Rogers and Power see it, we are ‘only just waking up to the damage’ of a postwar urban policy which aimed to thin out the city with inner-city slum clearance programmes and subsidised suburban building. In Howard’s day the countryside was losing people to the city at an alarming rate, but over the last century there has been a haemorrhage of people to the countryside and suburbs, while the city has been left to decay. Inner London’s population fell by a half; Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle and Glasgow’s by two-thirds – they have started to rise again only in the last four years. Four million extra houses will need to be found in England alone over the next twenty-five years, nearly three-quarters of them for single people. The aim is to build 60 per cent of these homes on reclaimed, urban ‘brownfield’ sites. Between 1991 and 1996, however, the percentage of new houses built on such land was closer to 40. The Mayor’s Housing Commission estimates that London requires an extra 43,000 homes a year, more than twice the number that are currently being built.

It was in 1986, following the success of the Pompidou Centre and the Lloyd’s building (and the failure of his proposals both for the National Gallery extension and the office development on Coin Street), that Rogers turned his attention to urban planning. Invited to contribute to the exhibition New Architecture: Foster, Rogers, Stirling at the Royal Academy, he chose to submit designs for ‘London as it could be’. The plan resembles a science-fiction utopia in which spiky towers sprout from new islands, modelled on North Sea oil rigs, afloat on the Thames. The Hungerford Railway Bridge is demolished, the trains terminate at Waterloo East, and Charing Cross has been redeveloped. A rapid transport system shuttles backwards and forwards from the South Bank to Northumberland Avenue, which leads into a pedestrianised Trafalgar Square. A new high-speed road tunnel runs underneath the Embankment, freeing up the congested riverfront for a bankside garden.

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