In January, the government announced the shortlist of finalists for the Sustainable Communities Award. One of the schemes is the Springhill Co-Housing Community which, we are told, is so sustainable that it 'encourages self-policing'. It is a place 'where people cook and eat together at least once a week'.
In my day, this was called a 'commune' and was set up by those indulging in alternative ways of living. In 2006, a commune is so unalternative it can get shortlisted for a prime-ministerial award for neighbourliness.
The government pledges to 'create thriving, vibrant, sustainable communities that will improve everyone's quality of life'. And for these harmonious communities to be sustainable, they must contain:
decent homes at prices people can afford;
good public transport;
a clean, safe environment.
'Employment opportunities' don't get a look in, nor cultural institutions, nor recreational activities, apparently. These marginal 'unnecessary', activities have been subordinated to the higher goal of community engagement and civic pride. The official list is of the six essentials, the rest, as far as the government is concerned, are unnecessary fripperies. In this way, the prioritisation of 'need' is driving the debate about community and urban development.
This originated with the Transport White Paper in 1997 that spoke of 'reducing the need to travel'. Reducing the need to travel sounds a reasonable ambition. After all, why travel if you don't need to. Indeed, if all the necessities of life were in close proximity (within easy jogging distance perhaps) then we could consign our cars to the scrapheap of history. But a) they're not; and b) what's wrong with simply 'wanting' rather than 'needing' to travel?
Unfortunately, the gratuitous desires and needless activities of the feckless oiks who simply want to have a holiday or a trip out in the car is no longer suffi cient justification for the environmentalist arbiters of our nation's affairs.
At the Soil Association's recent annual event, for example, a well-travelled portly German gentleman flew over from Bonn to chastise us about the amount of CO 2 emissions from aircraft and to encourage us to 'stay local'. He flew back straight afterwards. His trip, of course, was necessary. Herbert Girardet, who writes about how we need to reduce our footprint on the planet, had just flown in from China where he is the 'sustainability advisor' to Arup on their Dongtan carbon-neutral city development. He has, he told me, had to make the necessary journey to China lots of times recently. Good luck to them both, but these condescending moralists are treading a fine line between hypocrisy and authoritarianism.
Pity then, poor Michael Palin, who has recently fallen foul of some Transport 2000 activists who say that his trips are 'unnecessary'. His TV travel series, they say, takes him to places that he needn't visit at all. In a defensive riposte, Palin suggests that his programme shows the reality of how horrible much of the planet is, and thus he is actually discouraging us from travelling.
He is suffering so that others may not have to. After all, we don't need to go on holiday, we could simply watch Discovery Channel or read a book.
Seriously though, architects would do well to question the parochial assumptions within the Sustainable Communities agenda and recognise that the philosophical refutation of any desire for mobility reflects a serious constraint on the urban condition.