Beware cul-de-sac concepts

Britain's Cities - Planning for Urban Quality - The New Urban Frontier - Planning Europe's Capital Cities

January 9, 1998

Disciplines dealing with urban matters have evolved in disparate and specialised ways, the greatest split being between the physical approaches and the social sciences. The analogy that comes to mind is the division between medicine and psychology. The city, like the human body, is not best served by the lack of holistic understanding of its problems. Significantly these four books are much better at analysing than at offering remedies. The first two mostly deal with the physical form of the city, while this is hardly mentioned in the other two.

Most of the problems of contemporary cities can be traced back to their expansion in the 19th century and it is this period, particularly the second half of the century, that is covered by Thomas Hall's comparative study of 15 European capital cities. He attempts to analyse the similarities and differences between them and to answer questions related to their planning: where the ideas came from, how they were expressed and how they influenced the cities' future development. His concern is the growth of cities from a social and political point of view. Population increases and the ensuing congestion and health problems were the background to the plans. The rise of the bourgeoisie and the transformation of urban land into a speculative commodity gave them their motivation. Open spaces, variety and neatness were essential to planning in order "to make the town a pleasant and healthy place to live in ... to provide a distinguished and impressive setting for the activities conducted there, a manifestation of the city's resources, power and taste".

Because a planning system had not evolved, the personalities overseeing and promoting the changes and the decision-making process in which they operated were significant. Hall covers the history of the 15 cities (each one is given a chapter) and the major schemes that affected them. Not surprisingly, Haussman's Paris is allocated more space than other cities, though Franz-Joseph's Vienna and Cerda's Barcelona follow closely behind. The latter is the only non-capital city included. Its particularly innovative planning was until recently ignored outside Spain. Its creator was the author of the first treatise on city planning (Teoria general de la urbanizacion, 1867) in which he advocated inter alia a socially integrated city.

Hall concludes that the developments of the late 19th century followed earlier planning tradition but had to find new solutions to new problems and new magnitudes, that although there were common elements to all, the development of each city depended on the particular political balance of power, and that "in the evolution of modern planning the capital city projects were ... of far greater importance than the publications or urban experiments of the Utopians".

By treating only a limited number of issues and neglecting some of the social consequences of the cities' transformation, Hall's book falls short of expectations. It does not explain what went right or wrong, it does not help us understand our contemporary cities or to draw lessons for future planning. Nevertheless it is a useful reference source for the history of the 19th-century city and its extensive bibliography will help future scholars to expand on those issues not developed here.

Michael Parfect and Gordon Power wish to offer ways to improve the quality of the urban environment through a more effective planning system. Excessive greed ("the indiscriminate operation of market forces") and the use of private cars are the enemies here, while the gap between people's expectations and the reality of planning powers inhibit improvements. The general public wants an environment of quality but the British local authorities have limited powers to achieve good design: at most they have negative controls when what is needed is positive leadership and greater control of land.

This book is aimed at students, practitioners and the general public. It is not a scholarly text with a main thesis, but it covers a wide range of material and presents it in an accessible way. Part one analyses the current situation historically. For a number of reasons, our cities no longer offer a pleasant environment and action needs to be taken before it is too late.

Part two, the longest section, is a condensed planning textbook, with urban design as its leitmotif. It will be particularly useful as a reference for those wanting to understand the system without necessarily knowing all the details. Though this part is mainly descriptive, it does not avoid controversy, dealing for instance with the conflicts between the two professional bodies, the Royal Town Planning Institute and the Royal Institute of British Architects, or with the thorny issue of new buildings in historic contexts. The authors also attack the neglect of the public realm with its "legacy of shabbiness", resulting from the decline in local power in the past 20 years. Hence the last part of the book emphasises the importance of investment in design. But contrary to what could be expected, recipes for quality urban design are not being offered; rather, the authors suggest methodologies, approaches and issues they consider important, including management and financing. They illustrate their ideas with examples of what they consider good practice. Little in this chapter is new but the material can be a rich source of ideas. A few pages near the end deal with sustainability, gender and race. These are not given enough space and sit rather awkwardly like an afterthought required to make the text "current".

The poor quality of urban life is also the subject of the essays edited by Michael Pacione in Britain's Cities but physical form does not appear to be part of the equation. Though the book encompasses urban change and policies since the war, it is mostly concerned with the period following the arrival in power of Margaret Thatcher and the resulting increase in urban deprivation. Pacione's introduction ends with a brief reminder of two kinds of theories to explain the emergence and continuing existence of an urban underclass: one "tends to assign blame to personal failings, the other indicts failures of the prevailing political economy". Whatever the explanation, a narrowing of the gap between haves and have-nots must be achieved. The essays in this book aim at analysing the situation as it is now. They look at the socio-spatial divisions in British cities first from a structural point of view, and then in relation to specific topics such as housing, health, crime, ethnicity and gender (here given their due importance).

The main thesis of the book is outlined in John Lovering's essay. Considering the changes in the British economy during the Thatcher years, he rejects what he calls the "simple story", which attributes the decline in British cities to global competition and the incapacity of some local areas (and people) to adapt. Those that survive are the ones that can embrace the new growth areas, consumption and administration. He also rejects the alternative theory which finds the answer in "localism": some areas attract investment through competitiveness by creating "innovative spaces", they have new industries and "smart" labour forces. He suggests that this global-local duality is overstated, that governments can have a much greater influence, that labour markets are far from rational, that capitalism is not the answer to everything and that the existence of a disadvantaged class is avoidable.

The following chapters develop this thesis, considering for instance the role of the government's housing or education policies in affecting the markets. The last chapter, again by Pacione, suggests ways of tackling what he calls the urban challenge. His approach is realistic - he accepts that paradigms have shifted and the centrist politics dominate. In new Labour fashion he acknowledges "the fundamental relationship between wealth creation and wealth redistribution; the latter is dependent upon the former". But he advocates a much greater role for government and increased public funding directed to urban regeneration. In passing, other European countries are mentioned with the implication that there may be some lessons to be learnt from them. This is an aspect of the study that could have been expanded - British (and American) scholars seem to restrict their analyses to English-speaking countries. Continental Europe's more holistic approach to planning holds many lessons for those concerned about the lack of civic pride and visual deprivation. Still, these essays cover a wide spectrum, provide an update on one of the most serious problems of British society and, while not offering ready made solutions, see a way forward.

There is no way forward for Neil Smith, for whom the city is where a battle is taking place between the meek and the evil gentrifiers. The book's title, The New Urban Frontier, sums up the metaphor that pervades the text: the gentrifiers are compared to the pioneers of the Wild West and the poor displaced by them with the defeated Sioux. There is a quite convincing, though laboured, analysis of the language used by estate agents, the media and politicians to glamourise what for some means the loss of home and income.

That gentrification can result in displacement is beyond doubt but the phenomenon is more subtle than Smith's description. Although he accepts that single women and gays are part of the colonisers, he still calls them all gentrifiers, regardless of income, social status or reasons for being there. The fact that a number of gentrifiers may be young, with relatively low incomes, and see a semi-derelict house in the inner city as their hope of getting a foot on the housing ladder is never mentioned. That gentrifiers may come from ethnic minorities, be immigrants or the children of working-class families, that urban areas and their inhabitants (including working-class people) may have benefited from gentrification, do not seem possibilities. Those displaced are all innocent victims, regardless of whether they are drug dealers or perfectly respectable poor people.

In his effort to show that "gentrification is class war", Smith falls into the same trap as those he criticises by simplifying and stereotyping. Gentrification is bad, degentrification (a short-lived reversal during the real estate crises of the early 1990s) is also bad and so was the preceding move to the suburbs. They are all part of a great global conspiracy, and though most of the analysis comes from the US, there is a brief and rather superficial incursion into three European cities to show that evil is everywhere. The author makes a parallel with the Ligue des Patriots of late 19th-century France, a "revanchist" nationalist and reactionary political movement, which seems not very relevant to gentrification.

Ultimately Smith seems more interested in the language of the problem than in the problem itself. His own writing is journalistic and emotional: "Many downtowns are being converted into bourgeois playgrounds replete with quaint markets", or "After the stretch-limo optimism of the 1980s was rear-ended in the financial crash of 1987...". Smith deals with serious issues, which are probably more extreme in the US than elsewhere because of the lack of protection for displaced people and an almost non-existing housing programme. He is well documented and has used a variety of sources (quoted rather selectively). But he offers no alternative, he does not argue for a change in the tenancy laws, or for higher taxes or for greater investment in social housing; he almost wallows in the disaster he describes. The jacket suggests that "the book challenges conventional wisdom". It does no such thing; nor does it advance the argument. It ends with this: "That the city is (sic) become a new Wild West is regrettable, but it is surely beyond dispute". Meaning?

Cities are the result of their histories. Their populations strive or suffer depending on social, political, economic, environmental, physical and legal factors. Though the subject needs to be treated in a holistic manner, these books show our difficulties in doing so. A few themes directly or indirectly, appear in all of them: the importance of public control over resources (land in particular) and of state intervention in the market; the need for collaboration between various sectors; the wish to improve urban life for all citizens. A methodology that builds upon these common elements may be the next step needed.

Sebastian Loew is visiting fellow, SouthBank University and editor of Urban Design Quarterly.

Britain's Cities: Geographies of Division in Urban Britain

Author - Michael Pacione
Editor - Michael Pacione
ISBN - 0 415 13774 8 and 13775 6
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £45.00 and £13.99
Pages - 357

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