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New research with old findings - 25 years on

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When you reach my age, of course, you must expect most of what you read in the aj to repeat stories of years gone by. These days, old bores and new Labour meet neatly in a world where so much continues to get worse in our environment, in proportion to our being told how wonderfully all is improving. (We can at least be cheered that more good buildings seem to get built than in the 1980s, thanks to Major's great innovation, the lottery.

I spotted various old tales, as usual, in last week's aj. The funniest was the lead letter about Bromley's wonderful planners (aj 16.9.99, page 20) - reminding me of the long study of that borough's development control in another paper (Building Design, 17, 24 and 31.3.1978). But the saddest was Clare Melhuish reporting from the rca show of the automative boys with their ever more smart toys.

'According to new research,' she tells us, 'children who are unable to walk freely around their neighbourhoods are . . .' well, we can all fill it in - deprived, stunted, doomed to fail etc. Does not living and bringing up children in a town today provide enough common sense that we can trust? Is it necessary to quote the research that children who walk to school perform better than those driven (that chestnut was 'discovered' umpteen years ago), that people who - oh why quote others! Must we still repeat the obvious, ad nauseum, endlessly using 'researchers' to justify our sense of what makes a humane environment?

More than 25 years ago, I wrote an aj article on urban traffic. Hidden in the middle of a piece which began with Colin Buchanan and ended with examples of road rage, was the outrageous statement: 'The essence of mobility in towns is pedestrian movement, which is the basic context for all human encounter. We need, for example, the opportunity for random movement, for the ability to act spontaneously without having to rely on others - and that goes for all of us, not just fit young adults' (aj 10.7.74, pages 69-70). At least it seemed outrageous to the editor-in-chief Colin Boyne, Buchanan's friend, who felt it over-the-top and removed my more outspoken comments at the page-proofing stage.

Perhaps I learned it from Mayer Hillman, whose PhD on the subject I had borrowed early in the 1970s. Shortly thereafter, Hillman gave a speech to the 1974 riba conference very much along the lines reported by Melhuish from him at the rca last week. ok, it's easy for those weary of the world to say that not much improves; only Prescott's Jag increases in value with the years. And Hillman's dogged repetition, without hesitation, deviation or cynicism over the decades is unequalled. But, please, do we need yet more 'new research' to tell us what other researchers years ago used to tell us what our common sense knew all along. Let us not have the same story once more a further 25 years hence.

John McKean, University of Brighton

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