Jam Tomorrow

F.M.L. Thompson

  • Clichés of Urban Doom, and Other Essays by Ruth Glass
    Blackwell, 266 pp, £25.00, November 1988, ISBN 0 631 12806 9
  • Cities of Tomorrow: An Intellectual History of Urban Planning and Design in the 20th Century by Peter Hall
    Blackwell, 473 pp, £25.00, November 1988, ISBN 0 631 13444 1
  • London 2001 by Peter Hall
    Unwin Hyman, 226 pp, £17.95, January 1989, ISBN 0 04 445161 X
  • The Big Smoke: A History of Air Pollution in London since Medieval Times by Peter Brimblecombe
    Routledge, 185 pp, £12.95, March 1989, ISBN 0 415 03001 3
  • New York Unbound: The City and the Politics of the Future edited by Peter Salins
    Blackwell, 223 pp, £35.00, December 1988, ISBN 1 55786 008 4
  • The Idea of a Town: The Anthropology of Urban Forms in Rome, Italy and the Ancient World by Joseph Rykwert
    MIT, 241 pp, $15.00, September 1988, ISBN 0 262 68056 4

Time was when planning was the watchword of all radical, progressive or revolutionary opinion. Whether it was a matter of the wall-to-wall planning of the fully nationalised socialist economy, the liberal and pluralist arrangements of the welfare state with Keynesian economic management, or simply the protection and improvement of the environment, all schemes for making the world a better place to live in – or at least the advanced, industrialised world – assumed that this would happen when a body of professional experts were given the power and authority to devise and enforce appropriate blueprints. Then, in the Seventies, planners got a bad name. In Britain, national economic planning, for years ceaselessly battered by the stop-go waves, finally collapsed in a shambles of vacuous incomes policies and relentlessly rising unemployment, to be replaced by the strident invocation of non-planning and by apparently deliberate further increases in unemployment and massive de-industrialisation. In France, central indicative planning, which had seemed almost miraculously successful with the enormous economic growth of the Fifties and Sixties, was discredited when it proved unable to withstand the buffetings of inflation. A little belatedly, the Soviet Union discovered that its planned economy – once feared in the West (though admired by some) for its awesome efficiency as well as its achievement of equality – was ramshackle, corrupt, backward and thoroughly inefficient. The United States, which had not admitted to having any truck with planning since the days of the New Deal, beyond the level of freeways and land-use zoning, found that urban free ways were gumming up and that zoning had neither improved inner-city ghettoes nor prevented the endless spread of subtopia. Above all, planning, to the British public, meant town planning. This was widely perceived to have done little more than create instant new slums in unloved and unhabitable tower blocks, or stifle initiative with the red tape of regulations and restrictions.

Everywhere, the legendary prophets of the earlier 20th century, and the trusted guides who claimed they knew the way to the promised land after the holocaust of the Second World War, have turned into scapegoats for the economic mess and social disasters of the Eighties. Inquests on what went wrong have been legion. Economists, never much interested in institutions and even less interested in history, have concentrated on producing mathematical theories. Half-baked versions, dimly understood by politicians, have provided governments with a series of talismen from Public Sector Borrowing Requirements to exchange-rate target zones, via money supply targets and fiscal enterprise incentives – philosophers’ stones which have turned to dust, leaving interest rates as the sole means of communicating to the outside world the presumed intentions of the ‘unseen hand’. Regulation by the ‘unseen hand’ of the market – a market worked by traders of grossly unequal power and wealth – has been erected into a substitute for economic policy. The physical planners, meanwhile, who have never cared much for economic theories or grand economic policies, have tried to ignore all this. They have kept their heads down, hoping that, with a low profile and a less authoritarian touch, they might do a little good here or prevent a little harm there – and perhaps the non planning or anti-planning nightmare would one day go away. They have not thought it their province to think seriously about a planning theory for a free-market economy; nor have they made effective use of the fact that even a commitment to residual planning controls is incompatible with a whole-hearted return to laissez-faire.

Yet the sanctity of the Green Belt is a mainly South-Eastern shibboleth which has been more warmly defended by a vocal public opinion than has any article of faith in a free economy, even though that same public is quick enough off the mark in chasing the best bargain buys in the nearest hypermarket. The Green Belt is evidence not so much of public support for planning restrictions, because they promote the common good, as of the use of planning regulations to protect property values and private interests. It is the British counterpart of an American practice enthusiastically adopted in 1916. These manoeuvres illustrate the propensity of vested interests to appropriate the instruments of planning and incorporate them into the set of rules under which the property game is played.

Public, and political, disillusionment with planning has, in fact, been rather swiftly followed by mounting public concern – dragging in its wake a political concern that would be sheepish if it were not brazen – with the protection and preservation of the environment. Green issues range from the global to the parochial, from ozone hole, Amazonian rain forest and greenhouse effect to acid rain, nuclear waste, leaded petrol, motorway menace, airport noise or railway intrusion. All of these problems require regulations, restrictions, government intervention and public investment, if they are to be contained or ameliorated. Whatever the casuistry of freemarket apologists may suggest, investments to reduce acid emissions from power stations or to bury railways out of harm’s way are public investments undertaken in the public interest, and not in order to maximise profits. At the same time, regulations are regulations, enforceable only through an apparatus of bureaucrats and courts, even if their purpose is said to be environmental. The claim that such regulations are merely additions to the framework of laws and rules within which any market has always operated may be allowed up to a point: but when the object of market laws is not to enable individuals and corporations to compete fairly, but to ensure that their actions do not damage the public good, then the way has been re-opened for all manner of planning controls designed to conserve the environment.

In the introduction to the collection of her reprinted essays Clichés of Urban Doom, Ruth Glass offers a forceful, eloquent and polemical expression of the view that planning, along with all the basic values and institutions of the modern democratic welfare state, has been uprooted and up-ended since 1979 by a gigantic conjuring trick which has kept the public mesmerised, waiting for something called ‘enterprise culture’ to emerge from the hat. As a result, the devastation of the familiar social policy landscape has barely been noticed. Some of the devastation has been literal. Demolition of tower blocks for offices in the private sector has been praised and encouraged. ‘The dramatic assaults on the tower blocks,’ Ruth Glass observes, ‘are part of a general scheme to turn social objectives upside down in all fields of social policy, not least in the field of housing. We are being brainwashed. A society that had been justifiably proud of the quantity and quality of its public housing sector was ordered to turn praise into condemnation almost overnight, and henceforth to embrace the official Thatcherite view that public housing was sickly, slummy, sinister; the work of the devil; peopled by the zombies of the welfare state.’ There is much more in the same vein. It reflects accurately, and pungently, the deep anger of the professional and intellectual classes, and also their impotence: for they are secretly dismayed by the success of Thatcherite lower-middle-class populism, with its appeals to greed and to the wish to feel superior to ‘the zombies of the welfare state’, and its knack of dividing and neutralising the opposition.

Peter Hall is part of the opposition that has been neutralised. His kind of planning was, of course, never the same as Ruth Glass’s in the first place. Cities of Tomorrow is chiefly an account of what planners have thought and have done, since the late 19th century, in Britain, the United States, and in Western Europe, meshed with a concise description of what has actually happened to the socio-economic fabrics of the major cities of the world. There are vignettes on New Delhi (the city beautiful), Chandigarh and Brasilia (tower cities), Indore, Lima and Baltimore, as well as copious material on the more conventional textbook world cities, and arresting chapter titles like ‘The City of By-Pass Variegated’ and ‘The City of Sweat Equity’. ‘Sweat equity’, which sounds gritty but is not instantly intelligible, encompasses the kind of anarchist, anti-authoritarian, self-help, do-it-yourself, William Morrissy, anti-urban, individualistichomemaking that Peter Hall greatly admires. In its original Baltimore setting, it meant virtually giving away run-down and semi-derelict housing to anyone who would rehabilitate it by their own sweat. Usually, those who snap up such bargain gifts can bring wealth as well as labour to the task, and ‘sweat equity’ solves the problem of inner-city decay by gentrification: which is to say that it simply exports the original problem to somewhere else. This was already evident in the 1890s, in the life-style of another Peter Hall hero, Patrick Geddes, founding father of what is termed the anarchist strain of planning thought. Putting theory into practice, Geddes moved into a flat in one of Edinburgh’s poorest and filthiest tenements, determined to show how it could be cleaned up and redeemed by colour-washing the walls, brightening the windows with flower-boxes, and filling the rooms with good Scots 18th-century furniture to show what things had been like ‘before the factory system had divorced the fine arts from production’. Not surprisingly, the inhabitants of Edinburgh’s courts did not grasp the relevance of the professorial example, for although it may be true that people like to create their own home surroundings with their own individual touches, they like even more to have enough to eat and drink.

The heroes in Hall’s story, besides Geddes, are Ebenezer Howard, Raymond Unwin and Patrick Abercrombie. The baddies, apart from hosts of anonymous speculative builders and town hall bureaucrats, are exemplified by Lutyens and Corbusier: Lutyens because his cult of the monumental turned the official city (New Delhi) into a huge façade behind which the rest was left to its own devices, and Corbusier because his modular ideas carried regimentation and conveyor-belt living to extremes. Ebenezer Howard, by contrast, is hailed as the prophet of an entire new social and economic order, a kind of co-operative commonwealth which would turn its back on the wicked old capitalist system and its incorrigibly awful towns, and start afresh in green fields with pleasant garden cities as the social cells of the new society. Unwin is the architect who broke the dreary stranglehold of gridiron bye-law housing by devising a vernacular domestic style, with heavy borrowings from Medieval German examples. Abercrombie is the favourite disciple, the pragmatic idealist who adapted the garden city idea to the real world of 1945, and, translated into the New Town formula, employed it as a path to salvation through green belt and the abolition of slums and overcrowding.

These characters look rather different as seen by Glass in some of her earlier essays. The one on ‘Urban Sociology’, written in 1955 and reprinted here, reads as freshly as ever in its hammering of Geddes and Howard as unsystematic and incoherent Utopians, frightened by the menacing aspect of the large Victorian towns, as anti-urban escapists scheming ‘to shape the town in terms of idealised rustic images’ Abercrombie, praised by Hall for his wonderful economy and efficiency in producing the Greater London Plan of 1944 in double quick time with a minute staff of eight assistants and eight cartographers, was taken to task by Glass, in essays of 1964 and 1973, for blithely ignoring any need to ‘take either demographic or economic facts of life into account’, and for making the Plan on the unverified assumption ‘that there would be a stationary population, economy and culture.’ ‘The Abercrombie plans for London,’ she concluded, ‘had a very slender factual basis, and got by without bothering with elementary demographic and socio-economic data about which planning students are nowadays supposed to be informed.’ When Hall commends the 1944 Plan for ‘its insistence on Geddesian survey methods to tease out the elusive community structure of London’, it is apparent that his history of planning is far from being uncontroversial.

Hall believes that there is a future for planning as well as a past. In Cities of Tomorrow he is convinced that the Thatcher regime was ‘anti-long-term strategic planning, anti-al-most-any published plan at all; freewheeling, freebooting ... concerned only to exploit opportunities as they arose’. ‘Planning as property development’ has been the cry, and this is ‘not planning as anyone had ever understood it for the previous forty years’. Yet when he takes his peek into the future, London 2001, he backs his hunch that history is cyclical, and that planning, real long-term strategic planning, so much decried since 1979, will shortly swing back into fashion. No argument is adduced, beyond an observation that there have been cycles before – and the unspoken argument that any intelligent and rational person can see that London’s enormous problems of housing, jobs, traffic, public transport, education and public utilities will not simply solve themselves, nor will they go away without someone proposing a reasonably coherent and integrated solution.

London 2001 is, in fact, just such a proposal, which wistfully seeks to improve its chance of a hearing with the curious claim that ‘this book is apolitical.’ It does not play the green card, probably because the writing of the book was finished in June 1988 and since then the greening of politics has happened with astonishing opportunistic speed. If only he had guessed, Hall could certainly have launched his plans for London on the environmental ticket. There is a lesson here in the history of one great green issue which was brought to a successful conclusion before the terminology even became current, and it is told in The Big Smoke.

Peter Brimblecombe is an atmospheric chemist by profession, and he has written a history of air pollution in London since the 13th century which is strong on science and technology, on meteorological history, experimental observations and analysis of London’s air and smoke, and on the history of fuel-burning appliances, but which is also rich in anecdotes and foggy stories. He introduces us also to the Ringelmann lattice charts for standardising the measurement of the blackness of smoke emissions, which might have become as familiar as the Beaufort or Richter scales if smog had not gone away. It was banished, he says, as a result of the great scare over the Great Smog of 1952: the consequent pressure of public opinion produced the Clean Air Act of 1956 and the effective policing of smokeless zones. Legislation and administrative action were undoubtedly important in ridding London of visible air pollution (the less visible pollutants still circulate freely), although the 1956 Act did not differ radically from Victorian legislation on smoke abatement, which had been ineffective. What was different in the Fifties was the decline of smokestack industry in London; and that of the domestic coal fire because the domestic servants to carry coals and clean the grates were vanishing from middle-class households, and because gas and electricity, or oil, were in any case more convenient. This is to say, not that smog would have disappeared anyway by the Sixties thanks to ‘market forces’, but that the fact that economic and social changes were working in the same direction as ‘green’ legislation was probably crucial to the outcome.

Peter Hall takes care to frame his plans for London 2001 so that they go with the grain of current trends and try to exploit, codify and channel the movements of people, jobs and houses which are already under way, into Roseland (the Rest of the South-East outside Greater London), and beyond that into the fringe territories of the Greater South-East. In a way, this accepts what is happening already – commuting from Grantham or Bournemouth, as it may be – and blesses it with the name of a plan, thus going a long way to ensuring that the plan is carried out. Abercrombie did much the same. Globally, this looks like planning by nudge and fudge: in detail, the nudge has some sharp teeth – although some of them turn out to be false. Current proposals from the building industry – responding to what is perceived to be government policy on enterprise – for major new satellite developments at Tillingham Hall near Tilbury, Stone Bassett near Oxford, and Foxley Wood near Reading, are thus roundly condemned for not representing ‘any kind of planning process’. This promising start is, however, somewhat compromised fifty pages later when, with reference to the same proposals, it is suggested that ‘the volume builders ... seemed to be the last believers in the principles of strategic regional planning left in the South-East.’ Any confusion in the reader’s mind about the meaning of strategic regional planning is laid to rest before long: it is thinking big and producing a long list of places suitable for building small new towns or expanding round existing small settlements, and adding to the larger towns of the fringe – Bournemouth, Swindon, Milton Keynes, Peterborough and Ipswich are the chosen few. Those who sense that this book may become a real plan will hasten to consult the list of 25 sites for smaller-scale new development, to make sure they are not in or to decide where to snap up potential building land.

A cynic might regard the whole book as a mixture of a gigantic recipe for planning blight and a colossal speculator’s manual, for it is indeed seriously advanced as a one-man updated Abercrombie plan, a single-handed attempt to discharge the strategic planning function which the defunct Greater London Council funked, allegedly in favour of promoting fringe activities closer to home on the South Bank. That would be a mistake. Peter Hall is not only an outstandingly resourceful urban geographer, but also a good historian and applied economist, fertile with administrative and fiscal devices to squash speculative windfall gains and to get the consumer to pay for desirable improvements. The question of development values, which has hitherto crippled all land-use planning, and which harks back to the days of Henry George’s single tax and the Edwardian site-value taxers, is to be dealt with by holding auctions of planning permissions. Auctioning development rights would make the developer pay the development value to the public rather than to the property-owner; it would, therefore, presumably be just as much resented as ‘confiscation’ as were the 1947 provisions that sought to nationalise all future development values at a stroke. It might end the charade of pretend-planning, in which major planning decisions have long been dictated by, or fettered by, the constraints of the huge property values they either create or destroy. But this could also have been said of all the earlier, abortive devices for taxing betterment.

And so to the heart of Hall’s vision for the future of Greater London: an integrated transport system largely improvised by making imaginative use of what already exists. There is a brilliant outline for a seven-line RER network for London, copying Paris and the S-Bahns of German cities, conjured almost out of thin air by knitting together existing tracks with the odd spot of fresh tunnelling. There are schemes for modest tube extensions, and for further applications of the Docklands Light Railway concept. Above all, there are proposals for urban motorways, picking up the motorway box which the GLC dropped like a hot cake in 1975, but modifying it in a way thought to be environment-friendly. His idea for a South Circular motorway, sunk in a tube in the Thames for a while, burrowing under Richmond Park and Wimbledon Common, soaring on a viaduct here, running double-decked on or under the line of disused or little-used railways there, proceeding by Croydon, Addiscombe and Beckenham to the Sidcup Bypass, could indeed be far less disruptive than the abandoned box. This, and other new inner-city motorways, are proposed as toll roads, a concession to the market-driven flavour of the month that is particularly ill-suited to urban traffic flows with the artificial log jams at toll bars which it implies. The road-building programme sketched in a few pages is definitely expansive. It is topped out with a rapid sketch of an outer M25 ring motorway at a distance of about forty miles from the centre, linking places like Reading, Luton, Stevenage, Chelmsford, Maidstone and Guildford, plus a fringe motorway box at fifty to seventy miles from London.

This vision is certainly a great deal more pragmatic and politically thinkable than the Utopian brutalism fashionable in the Sixties and earlier, which envisaged sending in the bulldozers to rip the city apart in order to create a Buchanan-style motorists’ urban desert. But that is not saying a lot. Even when greened at the edges with ideas for applying German techniques of ‘traffic calming’ – humps, bumps and artificial bottlenecks – to non-arterial urban roads, and even when equipped with the latest electronic devices for charging motorists for the use of scarce urban road space, the grand design cannot be made proof against the howls of protest which can almost be heard rising already in Richmond and Wimbledon, let along in Head-corn, which is cast as one of the brave new towns.

New York Unbound is a further collection of essays which looks, as its subtitle indicates, at ‘The City and the Politics of the Future’. This is a city which has already experienced all the benefits of almost unlimited urban freeway building – although admittedly never having had quite such a large helping of them as Los Angeles – and the result has been greater traffic congestion than before. The lesson drawn in this volume is that the only remaining solution is to introduce savage price disincentives to the use of cars, and to beef up public transport. We could say of New York, and Los Angeles, that we have seen the future and it does not work. Perhaps London ought to skip the massive road construction phase, and go directly for the disincentives: then the reduced traffic flows could be surveyed to see what new roads still remained necessary. Otherwise, London 2001 is a blueprint for a government with dictatorial powers and the political will to disregard the protests of rather large parts of the electorate of the South-East. That makes its studiously Thatcherised presentation rather a contradiction in terms. It would have done better to make an appeal to the Midlands and the North to impose their will on the South-East; or best of all, it could have invoked the return of the Roman leaders whose stamp on the urban forms of the ancient world is examined in The Idea of a Town. At the end of the day, planning is about authority and about imposing a sense of the common good on recalcitrant minorities.