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A mountain to climb: John Prescott's Urban Summit


See if you can recognise yourself in the following description: You're stuck in a timewarp, a fantasy land.

Your self-image is based on the romantic dream of the lone artistic genius, sacrificing himself for his art. You are misunderstood by society, surviving on the patronage of an enlightened client, and you heroically overcome the barriers of philistinism and bureaucracy.

If you recognise this in yourself or your colleagues, you are not alone. As the Urban Summit kicks off in Birmingham, this is how architects are being described by 'urbanists', intent on kicking up a fuss and getting things changed 'radically' in Britain's urban landscape.

If that image is as 'endemic'as they think, one hopes that 'urbanist'speakers like Lord Best (see pages 18-19) can offer balance. But similarly, we must also hope that the summit transcends a talking shop to deal with some of the problems the 60 leading urbanists have pinpointed.

They want new planning tools to deal with issues which require a range of holistic methodologies, so they can do more than simply apply 'sticking plasters'. Cities must get 'good urbanism', where planning is replaced by a set of principles called the Charter of Urbanism. Education in urbanism - not just the isolated professions - must be made widespread. 'New planning'must have a town or city plan at its heart. Sustainability must be supported only when it is more than an airy, ill-defined buzzword.

People must respond to urbanism in the same way that they have embraced the notion of environmentalism.

And, finally, the 'urbanists'challenging this week's Urban Summit also want more attention to detail, be it streets or street furniture, ill-thought through traffic measures or dizzying, ugly signage.

The list is long and ambitious, to stimulate debate.

But if the summit succeeds in getting just one measure through as a stimulus to an improved urban environment, it should be this. To finally impose VAT on greenfield housing and harmonise VAT on conversions and refurbishments at zero-rate. This last proposal was put forward in the 1999 report 'Towards an Urban Renaissance'by Lord Rogers. An architect in 'fantasy land', obviously.

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