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Cities mean opportunity, not problems

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Think tanks can be easy targets for critics who mock their other- worldliness, and the inherent claim they make for the unaccountable and non-elected to be heard above elected politicians, local and national. On the other hand, they also express that independence of thought, apolitical or bi-partisan approach and fleetness of foot which are essential if the loaf of policy-making is to be leavened with the yeast of fresh ideas. The latest report from Demos and the consultancy Comedia is an admirable example of the latter: The Richness of Cities brings together a series of study reports on aspects of urban life, and tries to draw conclusions which are at once provocative and optimistic about the potential for the built environment to improve.

Demos starts from the proposition that cities solve more problems than they create, and that they could succeed even further were they able to tap more effectively into the diversity of skills and cultures to be found there. The reports on which their conclusion are based, including one by our columnist Katherine Shonfield on the nature of public realm, are similarly positive in tone. It is not a question of whether improvements can be made, rather when and how. Demos/Comedia argue in favour of greater say for citizens, better transport and communications connections, co- ordinated planning policy, recycling of buildings and amenities, industrial production (or rather post-industrial production), and the opening up of services to match the 24-hour society.

Needless to say, some of these conclusions are likely to clash with each other. One man's 24-hour city is another's noise and amenity nightmare. But, as the old saying has it, 'town air makes free', and it is the possibility of accommodating diverse tastes and attitudes which give cities their broad base and inherent strength. They should be able to accommodate the radical - including architecture. Finding the balance between majority opinion and minority rights is never easy, but this study will focus minds along the way.

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