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Urban dilemmas

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Cities for the New Millennium Edited by Marcial Echenique and Andrew Saint. Spon Press, 2001. £32.50

The what, why and how of city design was the subject of the 'City 2K' conference organised by the RIBA and Cambridge University's Department of Architecture at the Lowry in 2000.

This is the book of the conference, a 17paper anthology focusing on the critical and often conflicting ideas currently promoted for the planning and design of our towns and cities. It is the international perspective that gives this collection its appeal - the contributions coming from leading academics and practitioners from the UK, the Netherlands and the US.

The majority of the texts endorse the benefits of the compact city and residential densification. The 'compactors' are led by Lord Rogers and Richard Burdett: 'Let's cram more into the city, ' they say. 'To solve the town/country problem we must start at the centre of our cities.We must use all available land - brownfield or simply leftover spaces - in a sustainable way.'

Tony Travers supports these views in 'Density Means Better Cities', arguing the economic case for higher densities and improved integration of public transport. A valuable technical contribution is provided by Alan Baxter in 'Infrastructure and Cities'.

The dissenting voices see greater merit in urban dispersal. Leading this group is Marcial Echenique with his essay 'Mobility and Space in Metropolitan Areas'. Today's cities, he says, 'are dispersed, amorphous conurbations, extending for miles, encompassing empty and built-up spaces where no clear visual definitions exist. . .Ifthis is the reality and it is so different from our ideals, should we not ask ourselves why it has happened?'

Echenique argues that there is a rationality in this city structure 'which is understood with the intellect but not with the eyes'.

Michael Breheny arbitrates on the two contrasting views in his stimulating commentary, 'Densities and Sustainable Cities'.

He supports the urban renaissance/compaction agenda but is sceptical, concluding that it is more complex than its advocates would suggest.

The raising of residential densities in town centres and the reduction in car provision will be generally unpopular with families, for example, whose preferences are for houses, not flats. Homes and jobs are becoming increasingly uncoupled, and Breheny argues that it is unwise for planners to neglect the changing geography of jobs in their endeavours to remake cities. Without jobs there will be only a modest renaissance, leaving the city as a place of high quality residential/leisure environments for the few.

While Breheny supports the enthusiasm of the compactors to revive our once great cities, he believes that protecting the countryside from development, and contributing to sustainable development, requires more realism and less romanticism.

The evidence from the US supports the views of the sceptics. Harry Richardson and Peter Gordon's contribution, 'Compactness or Sprawl: America's Future vs the Present', tells it like it is: 'Increasing the compactness of American cities may not even be desirable, but it is certainly infeasible.We may see a few infill development projects, investment in some historic districts here and there, and a sprinkle of New Urbanist communities on greenfield sites. The latter have attracted considerable attention, but have had minimal impact.' Depressing.

Thankfully the spirit is lifted by the contribution of the predictably freethinking Dutch. Dirk Frieling, urban and regional planning professor from the University of Delft, provides a fascinating insight into the extraordinary countrywide design project 'Deltametropolis - an exercise in strategic planning'.

Imagine our politicians supporting a spatial design exercise at the regional scale, establishing and endowing a foundation for a three-year programme in which 200 design professionals participated, culminating in a national exhibition, publications and TV debate. 'The Netherlands Now As Design' did just this, and showed that by using spatial design as a means of study and a method of exploring the future, strategic planning actually means something - it is the way that economic and political ideas can be translated into physical reality.

For all those engaged in urban renewal and city design, Cities for the New Millennium is a must.

Daniel Bone is an architect, town planner, and director of consultancy CIVIX

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