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BOOKS: Planning's debt to persistent pioneers

Sociable Cities: The Legacy of Ebenezer Howard by Peter Hall and Colin Ward. John Wiley, 1998. 229pp. £15.99 pbk

First we have an evening of television entirely dedicated to Blue Peter, then the centenarians at the Town and Country Planning Association regale us not with ideas for all those Fairy Liquid bottles but with a heady clutch of concepts that must be music to political ears - sustainable development, regeneration of brownfield sites, the promotion of public transport, the role of (surviving) countryside, even the catch-all 'quality of life'. The eternally agile and stimulating Peter Hall and veteran freelancer Colin Ward combine familiar ingredients with characteristic panache.

There are those of us for whom planning theory only came alive once we met - in well-thumbed copies of Hall's splendid Cities of Tomorrow - the heroic pioneers such as Daniel Burnham, Raymond Unwin and Ebenezer Howard. Here were men (and not a few women) who could toss off a pamphlet, address a public meeting, and peg out the first homesteading plots without drawing breath. And the mother of all mission statements - Howard's 'Three Magnets' (Town, Country and Town-Country) of 1898 - retains a persuasive power far greater than anything hatched within a ciabatta's throw of the River Cafe.

Amid the pleasures of the authors' prose lies an entirely contemporary thesis - that many of the themes espoused by Howard and the Garden City movement in Britain, Europe and America are as bright as new pins. Retrofit them with a New Labour (or Old Fabian) rhetoric cartridge and you have the theoretical underpinnings of what Hall has dubbed 'sociable cities'. The proposals are, as so often with the sage of Berkeley and Gower Street, far-sighted yet attractive to red-blooded development interests. Through accident or design, the launch of this book was coupled with Sir Peter's call for a string of mixed-use settlements along public-transport corridors in the vicinity of Cambridge - with defunct Oakington airfield being promoted by a private consortium as one of three such urban clusters echoing the classic New Town model.

Unlike the architect-driven primers such as the New Essex Design Guide, more rooted in style than substance, the tcpa's version of a sustainable city is an intriguing blend of desirable criteria for urban structure. Many have a reassuringly traditional feel - the need for firm edges and physical containment to reinforce identity, the Milton Keynesian network of pedestrian and cycle routes, the appropriateness of higher residential densities along major public transport routes - but there are others which are very much of our time: the ecological value of open spaces, for instance, or the siting of superstores (nasty but necessary) in light-rail corridors rather than that mysterious realm known as 'edge-of-town'.

With this slim volume the profession of planning has surely won back some of the high ground abandoned to sundry 'think tanks' and 'task forces'. In its pages there is even the dangerous concept that land use and transport are in some way related. What makes the book such a delight is the central belief of its authors that human enterprise has always been advanced by the persistence of pioneers - awkward, messy people, most of them - not by a culture of soundbites.

Neil Parkyn is principal of consultant Huntingdon Associates

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