FIRST I HAD TO WADE THROUGH HAIR'S SONG AQUARIUS AND DONOVAN'S ATLANTIS
1. At Home In The City: An Introduction to Urban Design By Graham Towers. Architectural Press (Elsevier), 2005.
Graham Towers is a fan of high-density housing and a scourge of road-building practices. Having advocated traffic restraint for the last 20-odd years, he now recognises - almost 10 years after New Labour's DETR 'superministry' tried to reconcile environmental and transport matters - that the political climate has changed funadamentally. This book explores the need for traffic reduction and the concurrent need for high housing density as a way of rebuilding communities.
At Home in the City is divided into two distinct parts:
Part I explores the significant social and political 'issues' around urban housing, and in Part II there are 13 best-practice case studies, ranging from Coin Street in London to renewal projects in Budapest, exploring ways of successfully addressing the 'issues'.
For Towers, the problems are pretty straightforward.
In many areas, he says, there is 'too much dereliction, too much unemployment and underachievement and too much crime'.
The flippancy with which he implies an interlinkage between these factors - undoubtedly with the best of intentions - unfortunately seems to buy into a contemporary but reactionary debate.
Towers asserts that we need 'equilibrium' and the parameters are, on one hand, the need for consumerist restraint, reduced energy use, cutting greenhouse gas emissions and so on.
On the other hand, he suggests that we need to stop populations putting 'a strain on resources'. Whereas Jared Diamond, in his fascinating book Collapse, comes across as an overt Malthusian, Towers is more considered and simply talks about the problem of 'demographics.' But, however you phrase it, the arguments are the same. One of the problems in cities, for Towers, is that of too many people wanting too many things. His answer - modelled on his anti-roads origins - is for imposed, or self-imposed, restraint.
Under the rubric of environmentalism, Towers lauds prefabrication simply for its environmental credentials - as opposed to its ability to meet housing needs faster and more efficiently than traditional methods. It is because of his inflated worries about the deleterious effects on the climate of more housing per se, that he cannot wholeheartedly endorse prefabrication. He is caught in something of a cleft stick. If more housing leads to more energy use, and more energy use is harmful, then maybe we shouldn't build more houses. It is this negative, rather than a positive, vision that frames, for example, his praise for housing density.
Higher density magically builds communities and is deemed to be good because it minimises the space that we take up on this planet. At the end of the day, Towers' emphasis on 'regeneration measures to redress social exclusion and low attainment' sounds uncannily like the social hygiene movement advocates of a century or so ago.
That said, the book is a very interesting and informed analysis that can be read on several different levels. It poses challenges to planners, insights to urbanists, interesting detail for social historians and questions for architects, but also gives a naïve thumbs-up to proposals to sanitise towns and cities across Britain and beyond.