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12 February 1999

You can’t plan a good city

Enterprise will create a more civilised urban life than "regeneration", argues Paul Barker

By Paul Barker

Live cities are always in chaos. Those that aren’t are either stone dead (like Carthage or Pompeii) or mummified for the tourist trade (like Venice or York). In The Richness of Cities – the thoughtful final report of studies into “urban policy in a new landscape” – Ken Worpole and Liz Greenhalgh say “the only thing we can be certain of is the protean character of cities, their resistance to top-down planning or prediction”.

London, in particular, has been saved from many disasters by a shortage of planning. If you think the strategic powers of the new Greater London Authority will bring sweetness and light, take a walk round those swathes of east London destroyed by the London County Council and the Greater London Council, in unholy certainty about what made the good city. I lived there with my family, while this was going on. It is far worse than anything in Docklands.

Many of these disasters looked very pretty in “artist’s impressions” and balsa-wood models with green-sponge trees. So do today’s snazzy computer graphics and the glossy regeneration prospectuses, huckstering the competitive boosterism of urban action entrepreneurs. Yet, as Worpole and Greenhalgh point out, too much of this is still about aesthetics, about appearances: “The public debate about urbanism is conducted invariably as a debate about architecture, by architectural writers, with an over-concern for the built form.”

Often, it doesn’t matter a damn what buildings look like. In Manchester at Castlefields, and in London at Shoreditch, a new urban liveliness sprang up because the shells of dying industry were in the right place at the right time. And they were cheap. One sure-fire sign of disaster is when a new firm spends its money on bright, fashionable offices (like the original TV-am) rather than making do in a modest shed (like Sky).

Jane Jacobs, pioneer of scepticism about the wonders of planning, wrote: “Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must come from old buildings.” One reason why Stevenage and Milton Keynes feel so strange is that they haven’t yet acquired this useful downside. (They will.)

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Neighbourhoods like these should stay small and not become deserts of dereliction, like New York’s South Bronx or Chicago’s South Side, where you get an unstoppable spiral of decline. To her great credit, Margaret Thatcher – prodded by Michael Heseltine – was determined to avoid this in the London Docklands. She succeeded. The suggestions tardily put forward by the local boroughs and the GLC weren’t worth the paper they were written on.

But Shoreditch, for example, can only go so far in its renaissance. Its old warehouses and factories are locked in, on three sides, by council housing of the dreariest kind. The only hope lies on the fourth side – the City of London. No one can predict how many finance offices will dwindle into flats. One of the charms of cities, especially a metropolis like London, is that prediction is impossible. A city is not a computer program. It has its own dynamic.

One curiosity in The Richness of Cities is that the word “suburban” only occurs, I think, once. Yet almost all the cities in Britain are a rag-bag of present and former suburbs. They are not like Florence or Paris which, till fairly recently in historical terms, crammed themselves inside a city wall. Cities here have added onion ring after onion ring of suburbs. Each ring has flourished or decayed. Shoreditch, Islington, Hackney: all these were built as suburbs, not as “inner city”. Suburbs slip out of the grip of the urban moralists and live their own lives.

The most vigorous urban inventions recently have happened in suburbs. They give most of the people, most of the time, the sort of life they want. Too often, as Worpole and Greenhalgh argue, “bold appeals to aspirational city living are now often confined to the glamour of the city loft or penthouse, and the lifestyles of young, single and high-paid executives”. (See any issue of the Guardian‘s weekly “Space” supplement.)

I see it as a mixed blessing that the Civic Trust and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation have now decided that suburbs, like the city, are one more “problem”, in another new report, Sustainable Renewal of Suburban Areas. They may be best left alone.

Inner London is no longer losing population. But this is probably an oddity, with no clear message for other, narrower-based cities. The increase in London’s population stems from a rich-poor combination: on the one hand, those high-paid young singles, who often meld into dinkies (double income, no kids yet) and who all want somewhere close at hand to collapse into after working ludicrously long or erratic hours; on the other hand, some migrant families with a high birth rate, especially the Bangladeshis of Whitechapel and King’s Cross. One of the topmost-earning groups, and one of the poorest. The rest – the great majority – are in suburbs.

Neither aesthetics nor regeneration programmes are enough. Too much of the money from “regeneration” ends up in the pockets of professionals who spend it somewhere else (mainly in suburbs, or small towns just across the Green Belt, with good schools). Too much “aesthetics” is merely dolled-up snobbery.

The case for Non-Plan gets stronger by the hour. Plan as little as you can. Rely on human ingenuity and enterprise. And cross your fingers.

Paul Barker is a senior fellow of the Institute of Community Studies. “The Richness of Cities” is published by Comedia and Demos (£15)

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