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Cities for a Small Country

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Lord Rogers and Anne Power, Faber and Faber, 2000, £14.99

In his introduction Will Hutton kicks off the argument that more socially balanced neighbourhoods 'have to be constructed and designed', writes Austin Williams.

There then follows 300 pages of morally charged argument about how to do it and why. 'Social mix' figures very strongly throughout the book. The authors examine the causes of 'extreme polarisation' in society as anything from the abandonment of terraced housing in favour of 'unplanned suburbs' to the promotion of large-scale urban clearances of the mid part of the twentieth century.

It is very convincing, in the same way that a Blairite speech is: once you reflect on the platitudinous nature of the content you realise that there is nothing definitive in it. Instead, examples are offered as something from which we can instinctively learn; community is good; walking is nice; children are our future. But communities develop and change, incorporating prejudices, hostilities as well as apple pie. Designing in decent values and good social relations can easily become an authoritarian game plan.

'Instant communications weaken social ties, ' the book says. But do they, or are new forms of social relations created? Are the authors advocating slower communications? Are they advocating a celebration of stagnant community? I'm sure that they are not, but in all the twists and turns and unresolved rhetorical flourishes, one would never find out from this book.

Cities for a Small Country reflects a view of designing urban settlements which prioritizes the political. But surely this is not the role of architecture. The authors state that we should view buildings as 'a way of reinforcing social relations and public life'. But this type of diatribe - by intervening in the way people live their lives - is eliminating private life. Even the way we live in our homes is up for public scrutiny in this world view.

This book, for all its positive prose, reflects a precautionary approach to change and an intrusion into the everyday.

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