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A British tug of war

technical & practice

In the quest to make our cities more desirable places in which to live, two opposing parties continue to battle it out A tug of war is under way for the hearts of Britain's cities. Pulling on one end of the rope are teams of developers, architects and city officials all intent on an 'urban renaissance'. Pulling on the other are legions of traditional Britons dreaming of a house in the suburbs or even a cottage in a village with roses around the door.

The contest is not an even one. The urban renaissance team may have Lord Rogers, a powerful advocate at Westminster and Whitehall, but its members, while pulling their rope with one hand, have, with the other, to try and combat the negative influence of street crime, rundown schools, poverty, ethnic tensions and general urban grottiness.

Radial cities The suburban and exurban team, by contrast, is not only offering what has for centuries been a normal path to social improvement, but it has allies at the Highways Agency and the railway companies. As Professor Sir Peter Hall and Dr Stephen Marshall pointed out in a recent report for the Independent Transport Commission, investment in roads and railways radiating from the main cities is in competition with an urban renaissance.

To be more specific, firms like Urban Splash may be working hard to make downtown Manchester a desirable place in which to live, but in the coming two decades, investment in roads and railways will make it quicker and easier for Mancunians to get to the Lake District and North Wales.

Furthermore, as the Independent Transport Commission pointed out, there is precious little indication in the Urban White Paper or the 10 Year Plan for Transport that the government is alive to this conflict between its urban and its transport policies.

When ministers authorise the widening of the M6 or the railway reconstructs Leeds station, they tend to see it as supporting inter-urban travel. The role of the same infrastructure in promoting commuting is underplayed. Yet if the boost given to commuting and to urban dispersal by new motorways in the 1970s and 1980s is anything to go by, this is a mistake.

The tug of war metaphor does, however, have its limitations. There is not going to be an outright winner. A significant urban renaissance is under way in all of Britain's major cities and nothing is going to stop it.

The expansion of suburban and exurban Britain is, likewise, part of life and set to go on being so.

Nevertheless, questions remain.

How many people will find Lord Rogers' image of sipping cafe latte in a canal-side Carluccio's irresistible?

Attracted by such delights, how many inner-city residents will forsake their suburban dreams, and how many suburbanites will be lured back to urbanity? And who will these loftliving residents be? Will most be young singles and couples who, if they start having families, move out?

Will many be inward-moving middle-aged singles, divorcees or couples who have grown tired of life in a suburb or village? Or, as incomes rise and the cost of broadband telecoms fall, will many choose (as the well-todo have long done) to have a foot in both town and country?

Plus ça change

In seeking answers to such questions it seems unlikely that the future will be the same everywhere. Merchant cities such as Edinburgh, Bristol and London - with attractive, long-established inner neighbourhoods, and a tradition of gentrification - seem likely to go from strength to strength.

Industrial cities such as Manchester and Birmingham, by comparison, will only succeed on a large scale if they can transform the quality of life in the mean streets and 1960s council estates that dominate their inner districts.

Places such as rural Lincolnshire and East Kent will, meanwhile, benefit from cheaper property, uncongested roads, the geographical flexibility given by digital technologies, and the romance of community.

Numbers of both residents and jobs will grow.

The suburbs and 'home counties' of the bigger cities will, by contrast, face worsening traffic congestion and enduring frustration. As in Los Angeles, people will try to avoid it by earlier commuting (speeds on the LA freeways drop from 60 to 18mph at 5.30am) and employers, rather than offering car allowances, may start to assist staff to move to within cycling or scooter distance of their jobs. Yet congestion notwithstanding, the social standing of suburban and exurban living will continue to exert a strong pull.

What this hints at is that social standing and not urban design seem likely to be the key to success in the urban renaissance. Notting Hill, bathed in an aura of Hugh Grant, has got it. Hoxton, with its Jamie Oliver restaurant, is on the way to having it.

As with so many things in the coming decades, so with the urban renaissance, much will depend on projecting a trendy, upwardly mobile social image. For inner cities to flourish, marketing men and resident celebs will be as important as architects and civic designers.

Terence Bendixson is secretary of the Independent Transport Commission, a business, transport, academic thinktank under the aegis of the University of Southampton lThe Land Use Effects of 'The 10 Year Plan' can be downloaded from www. trg. soton. ac. uk/itc or requested from the ITC secretary on tel 020 7352 3885.

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