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Martin Pawley: predict and prevent

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Thirty years ago, when the Underground still carried advertisements urging everyone to 'Work out of London and get more out of life', population dispersal was seen as the cure for all urban ills. In fact, from the first public health legislation to the coming of the railways, the national grid, the Blitz, the new towns programme, the promise of cheap nuclear power, the building of the motorways and the planning of Milton Keynes, every trend in politics, philosophy and economics seemed to point towards an even distribution of population across the country as the demographics of the future. Decentralisation, it was believed, would save everyone from bombs, provide every household with a garden, and give every car a place to park. Predict and provide worked so well that, scarcely 100 years after the last great cholera epidemic, the population of London (which peaked at five million in 1911) had halved.

For reasons that are hard to understand, that remarkable achievement is now seen as a failure. Not only is London's population once again growing, but the 'Task Force' dedicated to getting housebuilders to build in the metropolis - 'Work in London, get less out of life' - is resorting to spin-doctoring Josef Goebbels-style to remove 'consumer resistance' to its growing even more. The use of positive terms like 'city centre' (instead of scary ones like 'inner city'), is supposed to be the way to go, and so it might be if the object were to write a sycophantic restaurant review. Unfortunately, in this case there are weightier considerations, because the romantic notion of city life cooked up by Task Force groupies extolling 'glorious' views, sidewalk cafes, fashionable restaurants, spectacular retail emporiums, and taxis only if a limo is unavailable, bears little relation to the real lives of millions of city dwellers.

There is something suspicious about this sudden access of urban boosterism. It flies in the face of logic. Outside the city, all the cheap surface infrastructure that already exists actively reinforces the old policy of disurbanisation. Outside traffic-choked London, private transport rules and information technology is unlimited. Even the most ancient settlements are wonderfully serviced by automated distribution centres and out-of- town superstores in an environment bursting with thousands of hectares of surplus land. This is where development should be taking place. Instead, the reverse is happening. Road construction has come to a stop, efficient motorised distribution is being penalised by fuel taxation, and the land that has been liberated from food production by the green revolution is in the process of being transformed into reservations for weekending urbanites to roam over, instead of being sold as sites to buy and build on.

The assumption that brown land in cities is the obvious place to build, is utterly mistaken. Not only is it reckless to go on overloading worn- out urban infrastructure, it is absurd to assume that downtown living will suit an ageing population. Another slogan from 30 years ago - 'Long life, loose fit, low energy' - had it about right. Not so much for architecture perhaps, but for the use of the land itself.

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