A recent seminar on 'Social Exclusion and the Future of Cities' provided the occasion for an interesting discussion of the Urban Task Force report which was clearly focused more on America than Europe, notwithstanding the award of the riba Gold Medal to Barcelona.
Organised by 1999 lse Housing/case (Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion), the event was introduced by American sociologist William Julius Wilson, who delivered a bleak warning about us urban breakdown: 70 per cent of manufacturing now takes place in the suburbs, he claimed, and commercially abandoned city centres are almost exclusively inhabited by poverty-stricken, crime-dependent, minority groups. But thanks to 'metropolitanism', he added, that image of metropolitan areas is being transformed. The new era of 'city-suburban cooperation' is based on the realisation that 'in a global economy the health of the central city is the key factor in firms' choice of location', and that the suburbs cannot cope with their increasing 'sprawl-related problems'. The fundamental issue is mobility: the modern metropolis is predicated on the 'need for access to all areas'. As 'congested freeways become a national epidemic', the urgency for developing good public-transport systems demands that city and suburbs are handled as part of one organism.
With reports of depopulation in city centres in the north of England, it is easy to whip up fear that British cities are facing American-style decay. Yet Professor Sir Peter Hall seemed confident that the incidence of 'multiple deprivation' or abandonment is mainly concentrated in localised areas of cities such as Sheffield, which have lost their economic basis in heavy industry and suffer from the particular problems associated with that process of adjustment. Hall suggested that, more generally, the answer to any drift away from the cities lies in ensuring high standards in urban schools, since 'the children of the cities have to be qualified for jobs, or [cities will] be filled by commuters.' There is also a need, said Hall, for building 'the kind of housing people like: more acceptable suburban house-type forms'.
However Hall's latter recommendation was vigorously countered by the Urban Task Force's Anne Powers. She presented a more holistic and positive analysis of the problems of the inner cities and the necessary measures. The answer, argued Powers, is not building suburban-style homes, but building up the social cohesion of neighbourhoods, through good local services and new laws about neighbourhood management - something the existing local- government system has failed to generate. 'Mixed neighbourhoods are manageable,' she insisted, and many 'undesirable', urban post-war housing estates 'would definitely be rescued and revitalised' if this principle was established, especially if 'every marginal neighbourhood had public transport links to jobs' and if 'impact charges' can be imposed to conserve the environment.