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Creating a brown study

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I spoke to Richard Rogers about his hopes and aspirations for the Urban Task Force which the deputy prime minister has asked him to chair. The day following its first meeting, Lord Rogers had to present his thoughts on the themes he hopes it will tackle to the House of Commons housing inquiry select committee, so these are his personal views.

Agreeing that architects tend to favour higher urban densities, Rogers is concerned that any reference to raising densities will arouse concerns in members of the parliamentary select committee that this implies 'slums'.

'They refer to 'town cramming' and ask me why I think continental ideas will work in Britain. I reply that it will only be a short time before over 50 per cent of London's residents will not be ethnic English!' he says. 'It is clear from talking to John Gummer - a member of the select committee - that the issues are not party political, and the prejudice of equating the Victorian slum with high-density urban living is widely spread, though with the disappearance of dirty industry from the inner city and the potential for clean industries, I don't think this is any longer justified.'

He sees the task force as exploring ways of looking at derelict land: 'Not town cramming but filling in moth-eaten holes in the urban texture. Using them to balance uses of community: corner shops, more housing and live-and-work, for example, and more uses within walking distances of each other.

'Why do some cities leak like a sieve as the people move away and others, like Portland, Oregon and Barcelona, pull them in? In Portland there is a waiting list of people wanting to move to the centre.'

The task force will consider these issues and the experience of cities abroad. 'In Portland they have strong land-use controls, good urban design and great public spaces and public transport. It is part of a beautiful corridor with Seattle and Vancouver.'

Rogers thinks there is also a lot to be learned from San Francisco and its empowerment of minorities which has led to an advanced, vocal participation and is forcing government and professionals to listen. 'In the uk people have also become more sophisticated,' he says, citing the extraordinary public support for the Architecture Foundation/ Evening Standard London debates in 1996.

John Prescott will be concerned to achieve demonstrable progress towards a higher ratio of brown land development over green land, especially for housing, but Rogers feels it is too soon for the task force to be concerned with how these things are measured. 'Others have done a lot of work on derelict land and housing figures and I don't expect to get involved,' he says.

'The 4.4 million new households - or whatever the figure may be - is not so different from the current rate of building. In any case about 80 per cent of the households are said to be for single people who will not be wanting to live in the countryside. But bringing up children in the cities is more complicated, which takes us back to the need for repair work on the urban infrastructure.'

Now that the members of the task force have met one another, Rogers aims to have established what they will do by July; and to produce a first and major statement by the end of the year, 'though how long any of it will take to implement has yet to be seen, given that what we propose may require changes in the legal framework and so forth . We have to question the relevant fiscal policies, for example - I see these as being a critical problem'.

The task force is not without resources. Supported by detr officers, Jon Rouse is being seconded full-time from English Partnerships to act as an independent secretary-general, and travelling expenses will be met for the three or four groups into which the members are formed.

As might be expected from an architect-led group, the task force is clearly solutions-oriented and looking at the positive. Rogers sees the question as 'How do we make the cities more attractive?' From good answers will flow, implicitly, the demand - economic, social and political - which will provide the desired boost for urban development and so 'fill in the moth-eaten holes in the urban texture'.

Brian Waters is principal of The Boisot Waters Cohen Partnership, tel: 0171 828 6555

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