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London lessons: Show the public just how good our cities could be

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We need a major exhibition to show what bold urban design on a grand scale could achieve, writes Paul Finch

One of the government’s more thoughtful ministers recently posed a good question: what sort of cities do we want in the UK? A good question because it is far from clear what architects and planners think about the subject – if, indeed, they are putting their heads above the parapet and thinking about it at all.

Cedric Price’s cartoon of city development first showed a boiled egg with a coherent line around the white – the medieval city with its wall. This then became a fried egg, with its fractal expansions and incursions, representing the industrial city. Finally came the Modernist city – scrambled egg.

That cartoon assumed that urban development would inevitably be about expansion, but Price, in his Magnet project of 1996, was already anticipating the desirability of stimulating new life in the city, in this case catalysed by the insertion of temporary structures at key points/moments in the city fabric.

Revitalising the existing was well established in public policy by that time. The era of bi-partisan support for regenerating post-industrial (and post-riot) environments had begun with Michael Heseltine in Liverpool, was continued by John Gummer’s ban on out-of-town megastores, and concluded with the Urban Renaissance report, commissioned from Richard Rogers by John Prescott.

The question nobody (except perhaps Rogers himself) seems to be asking is: what would a city like London look like if it were subjected to major retrofitting over a period of, perhaps, 30 to 50 years? The latest iteration of the Rogers urban proposition is the ‘city within a city’, about which he wrote in The Guardian last year.  The notion is that you could revitalise and densify tired suburban centres or high streets with bold urban forms providing housing, infrastructure and everything in-between.

If you want to sell this idea to the general public, you have to draw it. Propositions about cities have to be visualised or they are nothing. But how many worked designs about big chunks of the capital have you seen recently?  Where you do get big masterplan proposals, the images seem to be sketchy at best, with clients anxious to get maximum quantum with minimum visual information.

Moreover, where are the resources with which local planning authorities might start to envision urban futures based on generational, rather than short-term strategies? It can be done, as the Royal Borough of Greenwich is proving with its work on Charlton, for example; but it is not happening generally and in any event is usually more about land use strategies than look and feel.

The confidence with which Modernists proposed futures based on big civil engineering may be discouraging today’s designers (except students) from thinking big thoughts and arguing for them. ‘Make no big plans’ might be Daniel Burnham’s observation on what is happening today.

Even the way we discuss density seems designed to frighten the general public, density not being a great word in the first place – rather like that other worthy but off-putting noun, ‘pedestrian’. It sounds so dreary.  You get the suspicion that every time an architect points out that density is not a synonym for height, in the minds of most of their clients it most certainly is.

What we could do with is a major architectural exhibition, not merely advocating the retrofitting of our cities for functional reasons, but showing how truly marvellous they could be. In order to create a new generation of ‘new towns’ within a larger whole, we will need to convince the public at large that change looks preferable.

It won’t be enough simply to state that houses and gardens should be thrown into the dustbin of history.

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