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Dolores Hayden and Daniel Miller on urban rural idylls

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Urban historian Dolores Hayden delivered a damning attack on US housing policy in her contribution to the Tate Modern's 'Thinking the City' symposium, revealing that the cost of tax subsidies to big developers in the late 1960s cost the Federal Government more than US$750 million (£543million) - 10 times its housing and poverty programme. The 'power of real-estate, banking and construction on legislation' remains endemic today, says Hayden.

She proposes that the term 'taxopolis' is more appropriate than the now-familiar 'edge city' to describe 'big box' developments on the outskirts of urban agglomerations: so-called 'income-producing structures' for which developers receive huge write-offs. The result of this type of development is not only the destruction of central urban areas, but also the dramatic growth of the 'rural fringe', located for convenient commuting, where the construction of unsustainable, loosely organized suburban enclaves is overpowering small towns.

Hayden argues that these environmentally unfriendly developments embody the 'sense of the house as a commodity rather than piece of a larger urban world'. They have been encouraged by the growth of 'teleworking' and justified by forecasts of enormous population increases which are statistically deeply dubious. But they also represent the inexorable progress of a model of suburban housing established in the post-war years by developers such as the Levitts, initially to provide low-cost homes for war veterans. While developments such as Levittown have been roundly condemned by critics such as Lewis Mumford, for their monotony and the middle-brow lifestyle which they represented, Hayden stresses that the more serious ground for criticism is the complete lack of investment made in the infrastructure necessary to sustain the social fabric of the new communities - even sewers and waste management. It is this aspect of 'sprawl' which must be of greatest concern.

The Levitts'mass-produced 'Cape Cod' vernacular house model was an attempt to construct a romantic idyll of rural American life. Anthropologist Daniel Miller's talk, presenting the results of an ethnographic study carried out in north London, provocatively suggested that a present-day aestheticisation of urban context, embodying middle-class romanticisation is simply destructive of urban neighbourhoods. He argued that the 'olde-worlde image of shops' with a 'vaguely rural ancestry' is 'selling a mediation between the discourse of locality and dissatisfaction with the actuality' of urban places. In reality, sentimentalisation of the corner shop as institution deprives working-class people of access 'to what they see as the common culture of supermarkets'. Miller underlines the 'differential ability of urban populations to construct images and imagine constructions'. Like Hayden, he draws attention to 'the way that one group of people's interests has deleterious effects as an aggregate, ' and the implications of that for state welfare policy.

Dolores Hayden and Daniel Miller were speaking at the Tate Modern's symposium, 'Thinking the City'

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