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Repertoire of remedies

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Review: Shelter is Not Enough: Transforming Multi-Storey Housing by Graham Towers. Policy Press, 2000. 259pp. £19.99

Under the banner of comprehensive redevelopment in the 1950s and 60s, the fate of whole city streets was fixed by a tick on the map in the lap of a clerk in the passenger seat of a moving council car. One side was condemned and lay empty for years awaiting redevelopment.

Sometimes it was rescued by squatters who occasionally won official recognition. Usually it was replaced by prize-winning new multi-storey housing which, through inadequate management and maintenance, began to decline from the moment it was occupied.

On the other side of the street, piecemeal renovation and renewal pushed up the houses in the status race, as the backyard became the patio and the Black and Decker whirred. In 1975, Graham Lomas, deputy strategic planner for the GLC, calculated that, in London, more fit housing had been destroyed by public authorities since the war than had been provided.

This history explains why some of us are sceptical of today's confident talk about design-led urban renewal, redeveloping those brownfield sites at exciting high densities.

We know how great expectations get muddied by incorporation in public programmes.

When the cash ran out in the 70s, we were shocked by the readiness of councils to get demolition contractors to blow up the inheritance of tower blocks that won't be paid for until well into this new century. There must be some way of making them serve a social need. It is 30 years since Pearl Jephcott's research showed that many types of occupant, like students, nurses, or the elderly, could live well in high blocks but that low-income families with children frequently could not. And it is almost as long since Oscar Newman's Defensible Space urged that some layouts were less vulnerable than others.

It is time we had a repertoire of remedies for housing design, rather than a series of exclusive panaceas. Such is the intention of this new book by Graham Towers.

He is the author of an earlier volume on housing co-ops and community architecture, and has been employed on both the design and the improvement of local authority estates. In between these two experiences he was a community worker in North Kensington. So he knows about the total absence of communication between designers and potential residents, as well as the sheer complexity of ensuring a habitable environment for tenants whose minimal incomes destine them for the housing that everyone else rejects.

It is important to notice the case histories where new investment failed to halt the cycle of decline.

One mentions heavy reliance on security technology where, through lack of funding, 'concierge surveillance was only ever provided on a partial basis'. Another reminds us of the continual search for savings because of the hefty initial costs of building high. Under the slogan, 'form follows funding', Towers points out that 'common amenities and social facilities, long considered desirable, were omitted to save money.'

Meanwhile tenant involvement and participation were tender plants, hard to grow in a climate of failed aspirations; but, as Towers concludes, 'choice and genuine participation seem to be the key to creating and maintaining social stability.' It's an important message.

Colin Ward's half-dozen books on housing began with Tenants Take Over (1974)

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