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21 April 2003updated 24 Sep 2015 12:16pm

Make our cities green

Schemes for tower blocks are being dusted off - with parks rather than streets in the sky. But David

By David Nicholson-Lord

For anyone who values quality of life in Britain, these are unsettling times. According to UN projections, the UK population is set to rise by seven million to 66 million by 2050. Between now and 2020, we are told, another four million homes will have to be built in England to cope with household growth. London alone faces accommodating nearly 750,000 more people over the next 15 years, with at least 23,000 new houses needed each year.

These are big, distant and somewhat hypothetical numbers, which perhaps explains why not many people seem to be worrying about them. As Scarlett O’Hara remarked, tomorrow is another day. Sporadically, when some particular piece of countryside or green space is threatened, there is a flare-up, but even that usually remains local. The impact on national headlines, and on national consciousness, has been slight.

Seven million people is equivalent to a city the size of London. Where will they go? We can make some fairly good guesses. First, it seems likely that the majority will end up in England – and in southern, lowland England at that. The government lacks a regional policy worth the name, London is increasingly seen as the engine of the new service-based economy and the drift from north to south continues. Most roads that lead to power and influence also lead to London, and while this remains the case – while the UK government retains the autocratic and centralised character that has sucked the life out of local government and the regions – this seems unlikely to change.

Second, most of the extra people will end up in towns and cities. We are already a highly urbanised society and cities are part of our culture. But to an attitude that is at least partly rooted in classical urbanism – a fondness for cities born of the piazzas and pavement cafes of Tuscany and the many delightful bottles of Chianti consumed there – a new and altogether fiercer orthodoxy has been added. This is the passion for “compact” cities that has seized hold of the UK’s environmental, architectural and planning establishment – and has now been swallowed whole by the government. And a very dangerous passion it is.

Look through urban literature of as little as a decade ago and you will find little mention of compact cities. But as successive housing forecasts suggested that green fields could disappear under concrete on a novel and alarming scale, the countryside lobby, notably the indefatigable Council for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE), began to highlight the apparent absurdity of building low-density housing on greenfield sites when, in urban areas, post-industrial “wasteland”, or brownfield sites, were growing.

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Climate change added a new dimension: sprawling settlements meant more cars, less walking or biking or public transport, more carbon dioxide emissions and more global warming.

Finally, Britain’s best-known architect, Lord (Richard) Rogers of Riverside, drew all these threads together in his 1995 Reith Lectures, and in the book that followed, Cities for a Small Planet, as well as in his urban task force report to the government in 1999. Less predictably, perhaps, the government’s newly appointed commission of advisers on sustainable development, chaired by Sir Jonathon Porritt, said the same thing – a rare example of greens (environmentalists) agree- ing with greys (architects). If the planet was compact, tight and lacking in lebensraum, cities had to reflect this.

Compact cities are now, in effect, government policy. The drive to turn brownfield land back into “productive” land – to use it for building of one sort or another – is backed by the full panoply of targets and indicators. As a result, the proportion of new housing on brownfield land has risen, from 38 per cent in 1985 to 61 per cent in 2001. In London, it is already around 90 per cent. Last autumn John Prescott, now in charge of planning, singled out the south-east of England for new rules specifying higher densities; and earlier this year he announced his plan for “sustainable communities”. These represented the “new urbanism”, he declared, and a rise in densities was essential to delivering it.

All very laudable, one might think. Who could object to building on wasteland or creating sustainable communities? What could be wrong with minimising sprawl and therefore energy use? Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as that.

For a start, many urban brownfields are green and many rural greenfields are brown. This is more than an aesthetic point. Urban wastelands, having been left to their own devices, are often rich in nature and wildlife (now known as biodiversity), while rural greenfields, having been subject to the uninterrupted attentions of EU-subsidised farmers, have been ruined, both as landscapes and as ecosystems. More critically, 80 per cent of us live in towns and cities. If you wanted to give city-dwellers a taste of nature, where would you start – with a ready-made patch of greenery nearby or an ecological desert a few hours’ drive away?

Second, the compact cities ideology is underpinned by an overwhelming preoccupation – some would call it an obsession – with energy and climate change, and by extension the role and impact of the internal combustion engine. One might call it technological environmentalism. But technologies change rapidly; design too closely oriented towards a particular technology may date with equal rapidity. Most American cities were designed under the misapprehension that the internal combustion engine and fossil fuel would last forever: hence their interminable low-density sprawl, and hence the countervailing push for compact cities. But the arrival of the fuel-cell engine, a decade or so away, will begin to decouple the link between, on the one hand, cars; and, on the other, energy use, climate change, air pollution and noise. The private car may then enjoy a partial rehabilitation. At the very least, the technical equations that lie behind compact cities will have to be rewritten.

But the most potent factor is what human beings themselves aspire to. One might call this human environmentalism. For the past 200 years – and possibly for much longer – people, where they could, have escaped from compact cities, at least in the developed world. Suburbanisation is as old as cities, but took on extra urgency when cities began to expand and concentrate in the 18th century.

In the 1960s, with the arrival of new communications technologies and the decay of old urban smokestack industries, it changed into the far more dramatic phenomenon known as counter-urbanisation, which saw the major urban areas emptied of population (a net loss latterly of roughly 90,000 a year) and gave us the inner-city crisis. It remains the dominant demographic trend within the UK. Counter-urbanisation not only represents an unequivocal aspiration to a higher quality of life; it is peculiarly and pointedly, as its name suggests, anti-urban. The bigger the city, the greater has been the loss of population – partly because larger cities have higher densities. In 1998, a research review by Newcastle University for the CPRE found that high-density areas “have a greater tendency to lose their residents to non-metropolitan areas”: people are pushed out by crime, poor schools, litter and pollution, and pulled to the country by a physically attractive environment and the search for a different kind of community and lifestyle.

In London, green space is vanishing as development pressure intensifies. In at least one of Prescott’s sustainable communities, his announcement last autumn has already prompted an increase in housing intensity of 80 per cent, making the development nearly three times as dense as Islington, the most space-starved London borough. Indeed, we are already moving back towards the notorious high-rise solutions of the 1960s. Schemes for tower blocks are being dusted off and buffed up – this time, however, they have parks, rather than streets, in the sky – while new “eco-villages” turn out to be 12 storeys high. Compact-city architects enthuse about Georgian London and the return of the five- or six-storey terrace, forgetting that an alternative, green and spacious world beckons enticingly from beyond the urban horizon. And when sustainable communities bring rich and poor together in a no doubt valiant attempt at social mixing, guess who gets the garden and who ends up on the 12th floor?

The truth is that, faced with a choice between the country and a compact city, people will overwhelmingly choose the country. It’s an almost elemental phenomenon – like wind flowing from a high-pressure to a low-pressure area. Yet the government supports policies that will sharpen the divide between town and country, not relieve it. We need a strategy to incorporate into cities precisely those features that make the countryside attractive to counter-urbanisers – space, nature, environmental quality. This would make them less like cities and more like countryside. With hiccups here and there, something like this has been happening for a long time, because it is in tune with human nature and is therefore, fundamentally, far more “sustainable”. Indeed, as Prescott himself told last autumn’s urban summit: “What we want are places where people want to live, not leave.”

Seven million more people over the next half-century could well, on present trends, mean another nine or ten million homes on top of the current 21 million. Making cities more green and spacious will entail more building in the countryside, and most people would agree with the CPRE’s strictures on the red-brick sprawl of “executive” homes that has characterised much greenfield development. Equally, successive governments have been largely non-interventionist on the social forces behind the numbers – natural population growth, immigration, family break-up and the consequent increase in one-person households.

But even if we fail to tackle these bigger issues, many humbler possibilities suggest themselves, from new rural eco-settlements to better (stronger) planning and enforceable improvements in building design. What the evidence of both history and human nature strongly suggests is that cramming ever more of us into cities, however convenient in the short term, is not a solution that will endure.

David Nicholson-Lord is a member of the Unesco UK Man and the Biosphere Urban Forum. His Green Cities: and why we need them (£4.99) is available from the New Economics Foundation (020 7089 2800) or Central Books (020 8986 5488)