Let them live in flats!
Radical Economics, September/October 2002
If you go back only a decade, and look through the shelves of unacted-upon reports by the green movement that decorate many of out homes, you will find that the tone of environmentalists writing about cities was very different.
Chris Baines, the much-missed Joan Davidson and her books on green cities – even the environmentalists who briefly held sway over the Royal Institute of British Architects – all agreed on one thing at least: we need more space in the cities.
They urgently wanted people to cultivate gardens, to encourage wildlife, to make cities into the kind of cleaner, greener places people wanted to live to attract them back. And I agreed with them.
But ten years on, green policy has taken an opposite path. Led initially by the transport campaigners, environmentalists have since made common cause with architects like Richard Rogers to call for denser cities, on the grounds that it made public transport more economic and because people could then live nearer shops and work.
The result has been a powerful alliance between greens and architects, who have always rather disapproved of the English delight in small green spaces behind their homes, and have consistently urged us all to live in flats.
The result is that high densities are now enshrined in public policy at all levels, almost nobody speaks against it, and the days of skyscrapers and prefabs look set top return – except this time they are called something different.
London looks set to revisit the 1960s, and for very similar reasons – a powerful alliance of conservationists, architects and urban politicians who believed that gardens were somehow ‘middle class’ and would attract in voters who might puncture their cosy power bases.
What’s wrong with this? Well, for one thing, the relationship between densities and energy use is not clear, except at either extreme. Dense cities like Manhattan and Tokyo actually use considerably more energy than many which have a more leisurely design.
For another thing, high densities are simply not compatible with wildlife and green cities. We are endlessly reassured that they are, but not told how – while we watch the infilling of so-called ‘vacant’ green spaces near where we live. Of course, the new London Plan promises to protect green spaces: but they also provide a map of them – including Clapham Common and Regent’s Park – but the vast majority of pockets of green that make life for poorer people worth living simply don’t appear. It’s ominous.
There is a terrifying snobbery about this. The urban poor were herded into high-rise a generation ago primarily because the chattering classes disapproved of the homes they lived in, but which they have now done up and live in themselves. “We are dealing with people who have no initiative or civic pride,” said a leading planner from Newcastle in the 1960s. “The task, surely, is to break up such groupings even though the people seem to be satisfied with their miserable environment.”
There is more than a whiff of that kind of hypocrisy around today. Let them live in flats, they imply.
But worst of all, high-density cities hark back to an old-fashioned idea of what cities were for – with factories and homes kept firmly separate and food trucked in from distant rural farms.
That kind of city is unsustainable now. Future cities use their waste as their raw materials. They produce their own food, and provide jobs by doing so. They connect everybody – not just the wealthy – with nature. That means a different kind of urban form altogether, with space for workshops, urban agriculture and space to co-exist with a few other species.
So let’s start questioning this unsustainable, creaking old conception of cities – and do so quickly before we revisit the 1960s and it’s too late.