The motor car must not choke debate about sustainable urban living
Robert L Lansing, secretary of state to President Woodrow Wilson's government, warned that 'self-determination' would lead to public discontent, disorder and ultimately rebellion. 'The phrase', he claimed some 80 years ago, 'is simply loaded with dynamite. It will raise hopes, which can never be realised.
It will, I fear, cost thousands of lives. What a calamity that the phrase was ever uttered!
What misery it will cause!'
If only he could have witnessed last week's events as desperate consumers experienced the extraordinary disruption to their lives consequent upon a brief interruption to Britain's petrol supplies. Parental choice in education now necessitates the mass movement by car of our children to schools remote from their homes. Pandering to voracious consumer demands has led to the death of town centres and the dependence on out-of-town shopping and leisure facilities.
A neighbour in my street in north London has recently taken a job near Gatwick only to 'crawl' daily around the M25 by car. A young student a street away drives 80 miles a day to college in Epsom. She prefers to live at home in order to save money. 'Terrible the cost of student accommodation, ' says her father, who is happy to fill her car bi-daily with company petrol. 'And ain't that M25 terrible - it can't cope with the traffic!'
But as Ken Livingstone said at the RIBA last week, during the launch of tomorrow's Car Free Day, such freedoms of choice have carried heavy penalties. Ironically, London's traffic had that very day been brought to a virtual halt by the fuel crisis, prompting Ken to comment wryly on this refreshing reminder of past times when streets were traffic free.
But my children don't enjoy such memories having never known the freedom to cycle to school, play in the street, or enjoy street parties. And this is why the Environmental Transport Association's initiative to support European Car Free Day is so important. It provides for residents of those towns who partake the opportunity to gain a different perception of our streets and how they can be used.
As Marco Goldschmied, who chaired the launch, said, it is important in relation to design that there is a proper understanding that good buildings are simply not enough: it is the quality of the public realm between buildings that is so critical to the enjoyment of our towns and cities.
Crucial to the improved quality of our cities and environment is the restriction of car use and that, inevitably, necessitates substantial improvement in land-use/transport planning strategies which inevitably impinges on individual freedom and the right to selfdetermination. It also necessitates major improvements to public transport facilities.
Both require political intervention: the market alone has no capacity to act responsibly or intelligently.
That is why, at an institutional level, people of the courage and calibre of Goldschmied at the RIBA, Mark Whitby at the Institute of Engineers, Max Fordham at CIBSE and Robin Nicholson, who recently retired as chairman of the CIC, are worthy of all possible support in their efforts to influence the construction and development industry towards a more responsible role with regard to sustainable development. It is why people of the wily cunning and tenacious commitment of Livingstone and Darren Johnson of the Green Party are needed to shake up municipal departments whose thinking has so long been moribund. And why Tony Blair and John Prescott should be admired for their mettle in pursuing the issues of fuel taxation, motorway tolls, and congestion charging. Society must ultimately constrain individual freedom as the consumer in aggregate is a menace who, uncontrolled, threatens the well-being of us all.
Self-determination has, as Lansing predicted all those years ago, raised hopes to an unsustainable level. It is going to be a tough road ahead, but a new level of social responsibility - 'civitas', as Richard Sennett would say - is essential if we are to avoid the disastrous consequences of the unfettered market democracy. That is the real issue that was so missing from last week's media attention on the so-called fuel crisis.