Saturday, 30 November 2013

Don't get bewitched by European urbanism again...


Peter Hall is the godfather of British urban planning who, more than anyone else, set the scope and nature of our town planning system. There is no doubt that his contribution is enormous - and not entirely benign. Like many he is bewitched by European urbanism:

The brilliant new developments, visited by admiring tour groups of British planners, are now in Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, France and Germany: Hammarby Sjöstad, a new-town-in-town in the centre of Stockholm; the Western Harbour, a similar redevelopment of an old industrial area in Malmö, facing out to look at the new bridge from Copenhagen; new Dutch suburbs like Almere outside Amsterdam and Ypenburg next to The Hague; developments along new tram lines, as in Montpellier’s spectacular new corridor to the Mediterranean; and Freiburg in south west Germany, the university city that got everything right.

These developments are, we're told, the acme of urban development -  'environmentally sustainable', appropriate in scale and driven by the state. Indeed Peter Hall and other planners will tell us that this approach gives the private sector "the surety it craves" and sets the ground for its development and success. This is the urbanist version of that 'white heat of technology', the development approach that may result in a place as dynamic as Milton Keynes but will also produce Cumbernauld, Skelmersdale and Corby.

And when we (or rather those "admiring tour groups of British planners) visit these wonderful European places, what they see is the shiny regeneration they're not shown this:

Away from the modern developments lie older areas developed in the late 19th and early 20th century. A growing population led to urban sprawl, which took place outside of the city walls (e.g. The Gambetta). Here terraced, ‘2 up – 2 down’ housing is packed into narrow and cramped streets, lacking the open space of the Antigone. Even with the influx of high tech jobs, unemployment in Montpellier rose from 16.7% to 22.4% of the active population. A large majority of these are the North Africans who have made Montpellier their home, but cannot locate within the newer developments. Both lack adequate housing provision and high crime rates are now major problems in Montpellier. Social and ethnic polarisation is therefore highly evident.

The truth with state-led regeneration everywhere is that, even the successful stuff (or stuff the planners love) simply hasn't even scratched the surface of the problems lying below - crime, deprivation, unemployment, racism. The sectarian and communal aggro of modern Stockholm isn't resolved by the Hammarby Sjöstad however great it may be for its most better off residents. And to describe the mini-totalitarian place of Freiburg as the city that "got everything right" is a stark reminder that town planning sits at the heart of what I call the new fascism.

To remind you about the green wonderland of Freiberg:

Its housing blocks, built to a uniform height (usually four storeys), are reminiscent of the Eastern Bloc. Because the properties are all the same age, the place lacks character and charm. On the walk to my hotel, I pass an area of pitted waste ground reserved for the last phase in Rieselfeld's development, awaiting the excavators and cranes that accompany any such work in progress. It might be 'the gateway to the Black Forest' (as one resident put it), but the quarter lacks some of the facilities you might expect of a small provincial town.

And this is the town where you're charged  18,000 a year to park your car - to not get charged this impost, you have to sign the pledge not to own one (something plenty of Freiberg residents do and then go buy a car anyway). This is the town where supermarket bags are banned and the bicycle is god. This is the world those planners - Peter Hall and his ilk - want you to live in. A sanitised, controlled, regulated, judgemental world of standardised apartments, regimented green space and a stasi-like control of our choices and behaviour.

Me, I like the untidiness of the old city, the idea of organic, people-driven development rather than a world planned and directed by people like Peter Hall. People who fail to realises that their cities of gold are simply gilded marvels, circuses tacked on to failure and shown to us as Potempkin villages hiding the deprivation, decline, degeneration and communal strife that is the real truth of much urban life Europe. Just as Britain's shiny regeneration didn't create new jobs or attract new industries, these European places are just chimera, illusions of success that bewitch us and lead us into believing that grand projects, state-directed regeneration and a green agenda will turn round our struggling northern towns. It won't.

And remember, planners in the mould of Professor Hall created the places we hate, the architects they spawned designed the buildings we loathe and the philosophy they espouse crushes individual initiative, prevents opportunity and detests the dynamism of business - the hatred, the fear and loathing of "haphazard growth" is designed to crush the private at the expense of the public. Those planners are the problem not the solution. Don't let them fool you with their enchanted European wonder-towns - these are the safe, environmental, sustainable banlieues of the new fascism.



Junican said...

I'm glad that you too have noticed the 'new fascism'. However, I am not sure that it is the right word for State planning control. The better word is 'totalitarianism' - 'one size fits all'.
But that is not to say that fascism is not with us. It most certainly is. There is ample evidence of the assumption of powers well beyond what is reasonable in a democratic society, as we have observed among health zealots. No one with any understanding of recent history should have supported the smoking ban. It is clearly both totalitarian and fascist, if only because it was 'one size fits all' and involved turning private property into public property,to say nothing of the propaganda and stigmatisation. Oh, and the horrid idea of 'permitting' or 'allowing' to become a criminal act. That is definitely fascist.
One despairs that your colleagues in parliament seem to accepted these ideas without demure.

Anonymous said...

Look a bit further west for an excellent example of a planned town – Port Sunlight. Naturally, no “planners” or councillors were involved, just an employer with a vision.

Also, throw any of your prejudices aside, and look at the phenomenally efficient design of terraced housing – far superior to the “executive” housing beloved of developers of today

Radical Rodent