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Framework in which diversity can flourish

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Towards Cosmopolis by Leoni Sandercock. John Wiley, 1998. 258pp. £15.99

As I write this, the main news story on the radio concerns proposed Israeli settlements on Palestinian land. These settlements are perhaps the most extreme example one could possibly find of the problem which Leoni Sandercock presents in this book: how are we to plan for communities that have no community, but which consist of unequal and divergent interests? In Israel, town planning is likely to lead not only to disagreement, as elsewhere, but to death.

Sandercock describes the familiar outlines of old-fashioned Modernist planning. She is concerned not so much with the resulting forms, as with the inadequate political assumptions behind them; in particular, that professional planners can identify and supply what is in 'the public interest'. She points out that, with cities all over the world losing their cultural homogeneity, a common public interest is increasingly less likely to exist.

Of course, it never did exist. Various writers and academics have laid bare the class and gender distinctions which were built, invisible and unacknowledged, into the Modernist programme. Plenty of evidence exists of the role of townplanning in forcibly reshaping ethnic boundaries: Sandercock instances the removal of North African enclaves in central Paris in the 1960s under the cover of comprehensive urban surgery. Recently, awareness of divisions has increased. The achievement of the feminist movement in identifying gender distinctions in the design of urban space has come under attack from women who see the analysis as representing the interests of white, middle-class women, and therefore partial.

This fragmentation of interests is seen by Sandercock as something to be celebrated. The emerging multicultural, multiethnic city she labels Cosmopolis, and she considers the new modes in which planners have to act in order to facilitate it. Her chosen mode is what she calls 'insurgent practice' - a radical way of acting, overtly political, operating from the inside outwards.

A lot of this is familiar stuff to anyone who has been involved in community planning politics in the past 30 years, and has had to improvise a way of acting which was not taught in university. But while Sandercock's book is excellent in its theoretical sweep across the subject, I finished it without a clear idea of what she considers urban planners should actually do. The cover's claim - 'the most important book on planning practice of the late twentieth century' - is hard to support.

Certainly Sandercock's ideal of togetherness in difference - of heterogeneous groups sharing a common territory in which different values, habits and traditions are freely expressed - is a necessary objective. Too frequently we see the principle of exclusion being practised rather than inclusion. About one-third of all new residential developments in Southern California, Phoenix, Arizona, and much of Florida are gated; and the New Urbanism, for all of its rhetoric about a return to old-fashioned urban design principles, is mostly about the affluent escaping the complex realities of urban life to live in a simplified community.

What remain uncertain are the consequences that these planning politics of inclusiveness have when extrapolated into the patterns of the physical environment. I suggest that we do not have to invent anything new; the appropriate environment is one which allows difference to thrive within it. The fine-grained, high-density, mixed-use urban quarter, as described and promoted by Jane Jacobs Colin Ward, Francis Tibbalds and so many others, and which now has the urban sustainability flag raised over it, is the form which does this. Where my home is, in Balsall Heath, the immigrant community from the rural villages of Mirpuri lives comfortably in the Edwardian terraces built for the artisan class, as do the rest of us. Diversity flourishes within a consistent framework.

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

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