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'Sprawling'academics take brownfield strategists to task

A bitter row erupted at the RIBA annual conference last weekend between supporters of the Urban Task Force and academics who said that the future of cities lies in greater suburbanisation rather than increasing inner city density.

Urban planning experts from the universities of Cambridge and Reading attacked the urban regeneration ideals of the task force which calls for higher densities and a limit to urban sprawl.

Reading's professor of planning, Michael Breheny, predicted that 58 per cent of all future housing developments will happen on greenfield sites and warned that the task force and the government have failed to address this.

'I am concerned that we must not neglect greenfield development, ' he said. 'It has been politically incorrect to consider building in the countryside - it suits both political parties to be the guardians of the green belt in the run-up to the election.'

Meanwhile, professor of land use and transport studies at Cambridge, Marcial Echenique, said that urban sprawl should be welcomed for freeing people from 'the tyranny of proximity' and he warned that city growth into the countryside cannot be contained in a market economy.

'Are people irrational in their wish to move into sprawl?' he asked. 'It is clear that they are not, but why is the reality that people want mobility and space so different from our architectural ideals?' He argued that city dwellers should be allowed to move out of town if they can achieve better business rates or lower prices on goods and services.

In response, task force member Ricky Burdett said he was offended by the failure of the academics - who he dubbed the 'sprawling brigade'- to address the quality of designs in suburban development and said that there are moral problems caused by encouraging urban sprawl.

'For too long there has been a view that regeneration is either physical, political or driven by planning, ' he said, pointing out that the issues are less clear-cut.'Unless you control development the rich will get to live where they want and the rest of us will get what is left behind.'

University of Southern California planning professor and author of Sprawl is Good, Harry Richardson, rubbished the idea that social problems in the USA, such as the Columbine High School shootings or widespread obesity, are linked to the phenomenon of urban sprawl.

But he was attacked by Breheny who said that this view was 'very stupid'.

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