A visionary in the city

April 27, 2001

Sir Peter Hall is the world's most eminent city historian, and his 'first passion' among those cities is London. Chris Bunting reports.

Peter Hall's earliest memory is being lifted by his father over a wall in West Kensington at the age of two and watching Piccadilly line trains emerge from a tunnel between District line tracks.

The sight grasped the young Hall's imagination immediately. Before long he was drawing maps of the entire Underground.

"I think I became fascinated as a small child by the way London worked. I became obsessed by this vast city and its complexity. It never really left me. It just got turned into more and more academic theorising."

Hall, now perhaps the world's most eminent city historian and a key figure in Britain's urban planning for more than 40 years, has a habit of referring to London as his "love" or his "first passion". In his survey of great cities' golden ages, Cities in Civilisation , he savours the attractions of metropolises as diverse as Periclean Athens and Elvis's Memphis, but returns dutifully to the capital in his postscript, calling it "a city in which the flame of creativity has burned bright". He finishes by quoting the 16th-century poet William Dunbar: "London, thou are the flour (sic) of cities all."

Not that today's city has much in common with the London Hall first set eyes on 67 years ago. As he prepares to take up his appointment as director of the capital's Institute of Community Studies, famous for its work on London's traditional East End communities, Hall talks of "a society blown away, almost completely rubbed out in less than half a century".

In 1934, the area was at the heart of a global transport network, the immense docks filtering a vast array of the world's produce. It was here that the Institute of Community Studies, based in Bethnal Green, made its reputation. In 1957, Peter Willmott and Michael Young's study Family and Kinship in East London gave a unique insight into the crushing deprivation and close family ties of a community isolated from the rest of London by poverty and maze-like communications system.

Hall says: "What is so intriguing about the institute is that it was founded nearly 50 years ago to research a world that is so different from anything we can imagine now. It might as well have been two centuries ago. It is a vanished worldI The whole economy (the people) depended on has been blown away. The social relationships have been largely destroyed. A very homogenous white city has been largely replaced by a totally multi-ethnic city in 50 years. An industrial, goods-handling, working-class city has been almost annihilated and replaced by a white-collar service city."

He adds: "What we have got to get hold of at the institute is what the social make-up of this new society is and how you promote social cohesion. There are also big questions about identifying what really are going to be the growth activities of the future and the factors that cause them to locate in one part of the city versus another."

Turning to the quality of life in London, Hall says: "If we don't get it right, there are European cities that will get it right and are getting it right now. They come out tops in quality of life indices that people have run, and we should be very careful about that because we will mess things up for the city's competitiveness."

Although he talks passionately about the experience of poverty and a restrictive planning system's tendency to discriminate against the relatively poor in the interests of the wealthy, he then shifts the focus from the city's population and the buildings that house it to a more strategic discussion of what it might look like in the future.

At one point in the discussion, the explicit preferences of the inhabitants of places such as Docklands - where local people tried to resist the transformation of their environment into a white-collar utopia during the 1980s and have enjoyed relatively little of the fruits of the transformation since - appear to be dismissed as "a recipe for paralysis".

Although these streams of thought seem to be accommodated in Hall's energetic wrestlings with London's various dilemmas, it is a dynamic view of the city that dominates. Despite spending his working life in academia and making a reputation as a city historian, Hall talks insistently about the future. The urban planner's vocabulary of "getting things done" is more in evidence than the academic's detached observations.

"They call me the father of the enterprise zone idea in places like the Docklands, but what I suggested was much more radical than that. In 1977, I gave a speech to the Royal Town Planning Institute's annual conference in Chester and what I said was there were some parts of the country that really were basket cases. My idea was to get some of the dynamism I had seen in places like Hong Kong and Singapore on a visit in 1975 - so why don't we encourage surplus Chinese to emigrate from places like this and that would fix places like the Docklands in no time. It would have been a freeport zone almost outside the United Kingdom. As you can see, it was a bit more radical than what eventually came of it."

As a special adviser to Conservative environment secretary Michael Heseltine from 1991-94, Hall played a key role in formulating the Thames Gateway idea, a corridor of development through some of London's most deprived boroughs to be built around stations on the diverted route of the Channel Tunnel rail link into London. He says: "We still have to see whether it is going to work and we will only know that in 2007-20, when we start to get the new railway in."

Meanwhile, Hall has a couple more irons in the fire. He caused controversy by suggesting the construction of three new cities in Northamptonshire, Cambridgeshire and Kent, and his latest suggestion is of Docklands-style high-rise developments around London. He suggests London Bridge, Paddington and Stratford as possible locations.

But perhaps the most striking feature of his conversation is his faith in the dynamism of London itself. His is not a mechanistic vision of planners shaping the future of the city with compass and slide-rule. Instead, the city he fell in love with as a child will itself play the dominant role in deciding its own future. "There is a buzz and a vibrancy about London that most other cities do not have. We have encouraged the most multi-ethnic city in Europe - very much like an American city, but we have handled it much better than the Americans have done because they are much more split on the race issue - and that diversity has huge creative potential.

"I believe that we will continue as a big city on the global stage in financial services but in the future we ought to be far, far more concentrated on the advanced, culturally creative services, including the media of all kinds, live art, electronic art and new forms that we are only beginning to explore. I think we are on the verge of very exciting times," Hall says.

And for those who don't like it? "Cities are for people who can stand the heat of the kitchen; places where the adrenalin pumps through the bodies of the people and through the streets on which they walk; messy places, sordid places sometimes, but places nevertheless superbly worth living in."

Sir Peter Hall takes up his post as director of the Institute of Community Studies in May. He will continue part time as Bartlett professor of planning at University College London.

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