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Finding future urban form JOE HOLYOAK Building the 21st Century Home: The Sustainable Urban Neighbourhood by David Rudin and Nicholas Falk. Architectural Press (Butterworth-Heinemann), 1998. 288pp. &#

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Since the Second World War we have made rather a mess of our cities, but there now seems to be a growing consensus, from the Urban Task Force downwards, on better ways to build. I used to nag my friends at the Joint Centre for Urban Design at Oxford Brookes about their reliance on the formula of the ubiquitous perimeter block. 'But,' they would reply, 'the opposition has its own formulas which we have to defeat - the single-use commercial high-rise, the retail mall, the low-density suburban estate. To counter these we need a formula of our own.' I agree that tactically they are right (although there may be more than one good formula). They will draw support from Rudin and Falk's excellent book.

The authors are directors of urbed, the indispensable urban research group which for over 20 years has been seeking to find out how cities work and how we can remake them successfully. They observe that cities are predominantly made up of housing, and that the key to future urban form is in finding a residential pattern which is appropriate for the twenty-first century - just as the terrace was the archetypal nineteenth- century pattern and the suburban semi-detached the twentieth. The answer, by the way, is the sustainable, fine-grained, permeable, mixed-use perimeter block.

In that it represents the new orthodoxy, this may be no surprise. But it's not an easy or straightforward answer, and on the way to arriving at it the authors lead us through some rewarding territory. They give us, for example, a concise history of twentieth century housing, an explanation of the economics of urban development, a primer on the elements of urban design, and comparative tables of densities for different kinds of housing development. All of these are excellent, and I shall gratefully use them myself for teaching urban design.

Rudin and Falk do not take the future continuance of the city for granted. They examine seriously the forces which, some argue, are leading to urban dispersal, and they accept that there is politically no way in which any of the projected 4.4 million new households (before 2016) can be made to live in the city if they wish otherwise. But they make a convincing case for the sustainable urban neighbourhood - compact, mixed and sociable - as the appropriate form for the future. In particular they conclude (as does Peter Hall in his new book) that telecommunications and the Internet are going to strengthen cities, not subvert them. More face-to-face contact is required, not less.

The model they give us for the sustainable twenty-first century perimeter block is the 1996 Homes for Change development in Hulme by Mills Beaumont Leavey Channon - it happens to house urbed's northern office. Besides apartments, it contains shops, studios, offices, a recording studio and a small theatre; the kind of urban block that occurs organically in old quarters, but which today's development industry finds so difficult to produce. It is a brave attempt, but when I was there in January it looked rather sad - not least because of an extraordinary masterplan which marooned it in a wasteland of demolition sites.

There are many books published now with a revisionist urban programme, but Rudin and Falk's is one of the best and most comprehensive. (Though they have no excuse for misspelling Haussmann, Joel Garreau, Andres Duany and many other names.)

Nahoum Cohen's book shares this programme, and deals with the conservation and growth of existing cities based upon careful morphological analysis, but it is rambling, repetitive and impenetrable. It is sad to see mit Press, the publisher of Kevin Lynch, producing something as poorly edited as this. The illustrations are wonderful - a pity about the text.

Joe Holyoak is reader at Birmingham School of Architecture and a partner in Axis Design Collective

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