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.

There’s something of the technological optimism of Buckminster Fuller in this scheme and of Fuller’s declaration that we had two choices, ‘utopia or oblivion’. In Architecture: A Modern View (1990), Rogers praised Fuller as ‘perhaps the most brilliant environmental philosopher and engineer of this century’. Fuller was the designer of the aluminium and glass ‘geodesic dome’ – in a wild moment he envisaged a dome two miles in diameter, large enough to cover 50 blocks of Manhattan. He also dreamed of ‘cloud structures’: floating cities in spheres a mile in diameter which would rise as the result of the sun heating the air inside them and which could be anchored to mountain tops. Rogers’s own plans were less fanciful; and though they were never likely to be implemented they placed him at the head of the movement for reform in London. (They also led to A New London, a book written with Mark Fisher, then Labour’s Shadow Minister for the Arts and Culture, which was essentially the Labour Party’s environment manifesto for the 1992 election.)

In 1995, Rogers became the first architect to deliver the Reith Lectures. He spoke about the radical opportunities offered by telecommunications – in his opinion, an environmentally benign, non-polluting technology. There are those who think that information technology will bring about the dematerialisation of cities, the population preferring to telework from the electronic cottage, but Rogers believes it will contribute to urban sustainability, ‘to cleaner, more prosperous, more interconnected cities’. In Cities for a Small Planet (1997), the book based on the Reith Lectures, Rogers paints a bleak picture of London as an insatiable and polluting Gargantua, ‘one of the least sustainable cities in Europe’. In one year it gets through 100 supertankers of oil, 1.2 million tons of timber, 1.2 million tons of metal, 2 million tons of food, plastics and paper, and 1 billion tons of water. And it produces 15 million tons of rubbish, 7.5 million tons of sewage and 60 million tons of carbon monoxide. Although the city covers only 400,000 acres and contains only 12 per cent of the UK’s population, it requires 50 million acres, all around the world, to sate its appetite.

Against this monstrous backdrop, the book outlines Rogers’s plans for ‘a humanist city’: building work, guided by strategic master plans, would transform the polluted centre; congestion taxes would reduce traffic; public transport would be free; people would use new cycle routes and squares would be pedestrianised; avenues would be lined with trees and the Thames would become ‘London’s necklace’, fronted by new gardens and crossed by new bridges, with the Greenwich Dome as the necklace’s ‘clasp’.

There is something a little too perfect about this imagined collection of ‘urban villages’: it evokes an architectural model rather than a real city. Rogers’s London is an entirely foreign place, a middle-class urban utopia. But he has always had an infectious optimism and is still the Government’s favourite architect. In 1998 he was appointed chair of the Urban Task Force – a body set up to consider how brownfield sites could be used more effectively. He is a member of Ken Livingstone’s advisory cabinet and a consultant to the Greater London Authority, a two days a week position which commands a salary of £130,000. (The London Assembly, worried about potential conflicts of interest, has queried his appointment.)

The Task Force delivered its final report, Towards an Urban Renaissance, in 1999; Anne Power, a professor of Social Policy at the London School of Economics, was one of its members. Cities for a Small Country is ‘a follow-on’ to that report and to Rogers’s earlier book. Part manifesto, part geography textbook, it aims to bring the Task Force’s vision of urban regeneration to a wider audience, and largely reiterates its recommendations.

The Task Force report put forward a 105-point plan of action to tackle Britain’s housing crisis and encourage the middle classes back into the ‘compact city’ which Rogers thinks ‘can provide an environment as beautiful as that of the countryside’. It recommends that higher council taxes be imposed on property owners who leave buildings empty and that ‘density bonuses’ be awarded to developers who in the past might have been refused planning permission for high-density schemes. It suggests setting up a series of national public-private investment funds to pump money into mixed-use developments and a £500 million ‘Renaissance fund’ to contribute cash to community-led developments. Local authorities would be able to fund regeneration programmes by bidding for the status of an Urban Priority Area. They would have to submit a master plan that would be judged for its sensitivity to a community’s particular needs; if the bid were accepted, a local authority would be entitled to simplified planning regulations and could exercise powers of compulsory purchase. It could also introduce tax incentives and lower residential rates, a share of which could be clawed back to help maintain the priority area. ‘Home Zones’ would also be set up, with traffic-calming measures and pedestrian precincts, promising cleaner air and safer streets. VAT, which isn’t charged on new buildings, would be removed from renovations and conversions. The report also tentatively suggests a ‘greenfield tax’ on out-of-town sites.

The theoretical origins of this urban renaissance are to be found in Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961). When Rogers and Power write of a major shift in attitude in the 1960s, ‘against clearance and new building and in favour of inner-city renovation and the protection of traditional communities’, it is to Jacobs that they refer. Jacobs, a journalist and community activist, was savagely critical of the way utopian projects, such as Howard’s garden cities and the ‘vertical garden cities’ of Le Corbusier, imposed a paternalistic framework on the fabric of the city, destroying its identity. By conducting an ethnographic study of Greenwich Village she showed that there was order behind the apparent chaos. While Robert Moses was proposing to carve up New York to make way for the car and expressway she called for the rich process of interaction that defined the city to be nurtured rather than destroyed. She envisaged a large residential population living in mixed-use developments, with shops fronting streets to attract people into the area at all hours of the day. Animated streets deter crime. For Jacobs, stagnation preceded decay, and the emptiness left behind in a city centre vacated at night by suburban commuters had to be filled.

Jacobs’s ideas have been implemented all round the world. On the whole, however, they have resulted in the Disneyfication of space – in islands of social fantasy which stand out from their surroundings (think of Covent Garden). Despite this, Rogers and Power adopt Jacobs’s nostalgic rhetoric of the ‘traditional city’ and follow her, too, in criticising Modernist architects for having created spaces that are clean and orderly but socially and spiritually dead. And, like Jacobs, they argue that the effects of half a century of decentralisation must be reversed: that inner-city estates – the ‘modern slums’ built in the 1960s and 1970s to replace the Victorian ones – must be helped to discover their own forces for regeneration.

They urge us to reconsider the ecological and social advantages of housing proximity. Howard planned his garden cities at a density of 30 homes per hectare – less than one-eighth of the density of the traditional city street. Rogers and Power would prefer to see an average density of 50 homes per hectare in built-up areas. They want all the abandoned, derelict and contaminated industrial spaces in existing cities to be reappropriated for high-density and mixed-use living. ‘If we reached a density of 50,’ they write, ‘we would have enough brownfield sites, windfalls, empty buildings and capacity within existing buildings to carry us for twenty years.’

Since the publication of Cities for a Small Country the Government has published an Urban White Paper, the first for 23 years, which proposes £1 billion of tax incentives, spread out over five years, aimed at encouraging people to buy homes in disadvantaged areas and to clean up contaminated land. The White Paper endorses some, but not all, of the recommendations discussed in Rogers and Power’s book. Controversially, the Government failed to equalise VAT on refurbishments and ‘new builds’ or to impose an environmental impact fee on greenfield development. Many of the proposals included in the White Paper are vague, dependent on the will of individual ministers, and have no timescale attached to them. ‘I call on the Government to follow aspiration with legislation,’ said a disappointed Rogers.

In Britain, Rogers and Power tell us, nine out of ten families live in single-family houses with gardens. It would require an enormous shift in the way people think about their lives to change this. Politicians are understandably reluctant to begin the process. They could also, with some justice, turn the spotlight on Rogers’s own arrangements. He lives opposite Christopher Wren’s Royal Hospital in Chelsea, in a huge property which consists of two Victorian five-storey houses knocked into one – hardly the best example of high-density living (his friends call the double-heighted central living area ‘the piazza’ because it is so big). He also features in George Monbiot’s ‘Fat Cats Directory’ of the 45 most influential hypocrites in Britain (see Monbiot’s Captive State). Rogers accepted the chairmanship of the Urban Task Force, which sought to reduce pressure on greenfield sites and to encourage social cohesion, despite being the architect of Heathrow’s new, and much opposed, Terminal Five – the biggest greenfield development ever proposed in Britain. His practice has also built the sumptuous Montevetro Tower on the banks of the Thames in Battersea: ‘London’s most exclusive building’, according to Monbiot, ‘whose flats are priced at up to £4.5 million, with private sports facilities and secure grounds, from which the public is excluded’.

Peter Hall, who was also a member of the Urban Task Force, considers high housing densities to be unachievable without a sharp deterioration in the quality of urban life and argues that the removal of pressure on the countryside by means of ‘town-cramming’ is less sustainable than greenfield development. This fundamental disagreement suggests that, despite the ‘sense of common cause’ that Rogers claims inspired the Task Force, there must have been some fierce arguments at the round table. In London 2000 (1963), Hall predicted that Greater London would sprawl over the entire South-East and that effective regional planning, specifically the construction of New Towns, was necessary to contain it – a view he still holds in Urban Future 21: A Global Agenda for 21st-Century Cities. Unlike Rogers and Power, Hall believes that the ideas of Ebenezer Howard are still relevant and that the model of interconnected garden cities offers the best solution to our urban problems. Rogers and Power, on the other hand, dismiss Hall’s idea of a network of ‘sociable cities’, and warn of the environmental and social impact such growth would have, though they undermine their apocalyptic conclusions by admitting that if housing development continues at current rates, 70 per cent of Britain will still be unbuilt on in fifty years’ time.

They have replaced the ‘social problem’ that Howard tackled with a more fashionable ecological threat. Although many of the chapters in their book begin with a celebration of European cities (Barcelona, Bilbao, Copenhagen, Rotterdam) which they encourage Britain to emulate, there is no indication of the sprawling suburbs, problem areas and poor social conditions these cities have in common with ours. Rogers once wrote that while working in European cities, ‘as I do a great deal, I get a sense of what it must have been like in quattrocento Italy, with Lucca emulating Siena, Siena striving to outdo Florence and Florence aspiring to upstage Rome’. But not everybody benefits from the flashy results of this quest for civic prestige and status: it’s simply a form of pacification by cappuccino.

Cities for a Small Country places too much emphasis on physical development and too little on social and economic issues. Rogers and Power believe that good design is the determinant and not the result of a well-functioning society: ‘successful urban regeneration,’ they write, ‘is design led. Promoting sustainable lifestyles and social inclusion in our towns and cities depends on the design of the physical environment.’ They are sure that building pleasant cities is the key to creating an ideal society. But will those who have left the cities to seek better schools and an improved quality of life really be tempted back by high-density housing? And don’t the residents of inner cities have more pressing problems than aesthetic ones?