Monday, 21 July 2014

On how planning nearly killed Birmingham and why garden cities aren't the answer


And before Brummies leap in and accuse me of doing down their city, the same goes for Bradford, for Leeds and for just about every other big city. Here's the quote from The Economist blog:

In the post-war era, there was a strong sense among British politicians that cities were slightly unpleasant things like mushrooms that ought not be allowed to grow too fast. Inspired by utopian city planners such as Ebenezer Howard and Le Corbusier, they decided that urban metropolises had to be cut back. Without much consultation, enormous numbers of people were "decanted" from inner-city slums to grey suburban council estates, where loneliness and crime thrived. Meanwhile, the city centres themselves were strangled with great elevated roads intended to get people in and out of the "commercial" zones. Birmingham probably suffered the worst of anywhere. Even Joseph Chamberlain's grand Council House was surrounded by roads.

Right now planners across the country are 'learning the lessons' of the past and drawing up new - and newly grand - schemes for cities and towns. Yet the echo of the think described above remains - cities are nasty, unclear, dangerous places and people want to live in ordered, structured and safe communities. We even have a "new" garden city movement:

Garden cities are back on the political and social agenda. Barely a day goes past without Boris Johnson, Nick Clegg, David Cameron or Ed Miliband talking about them. Lord Wolfson has got in on the act by launching a competition to build a new garden city in England. The prize of £250,000 is enough to properly kickstart a new social garden city movement.

And this 'movement' has a rhetoric filled with today's trendy rhetoric of 'cooperatives', 'community ownership' and 'social enterprise' - all guaranteed to get us shaking with excitement at this ordered world outside the city, a Utopian wonderland of community leadership, social capital and parks.

Forgive me if I don't share your excitement at building boring places filled with dullness, where every activity is purposeful, where committees of local worthies decide what you have in your front garden, the colour of your front door and whether you can put a six foot pink gnome by your gate. If you want these garden cities go build them but don't pretend they replace the excitement of the city or the mixed community of the market town or the tranquillity of the village. I'm with Jane Jacobs on Ebenzer Howard and garden cities:

“His aim was the creation of self sufficient small towns,really very nice towns if you were docile and had no plans of your own and did not mind spending your life with others with no plans of their own. As in all Utopias, the right to have plans of any significance belonged only to the planner in charge."
And we've seen what planners did to Birmingham. Useful though those planner might be, we can't put them in charge.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Oh dear. It's starting: the Brummies I mean.

I think most Brummies would cheerfully agree that there was some pretty awful planning in Brum in the 60s. Indeed we demolished much that was good in our city centre and destroyed a lot of the inner suburbs whilst we were at it. (Not that this was new. Joe Chamberlain himself destroyed a lot of city centre living space for some of his grander projects.) We also put the inner-ring road, the notorious 'concrete collar' round our city centre.

However, I don't think there was an awful lot of decanting out to 'grey suburban council estates' going on at that time. Instead we busily built a lot of pretty ugly high-rise flats close to the city centre and put in them families who would probably have mainly loved to have been invited to live in somewhere like our original 'garden city': Bournville. This was, and remains, a largely successful project with a range of different types of housing. Sure, it is a 'garden city' in as much as there are big gardens and lots of trees, but you will also find the same in many older more middle-class areas of the city. The main difference with Bournville was that these facilities were extended also to those who worked on the shop floor in the Cadbury's factory, and their families. All this had zilch to do with ideas of the 1960s Most of Bournville was built well before then, and ultimately it came out of a nineteenth-century Romantic dream. Though some of it is also echoed in richly green (not grey at all) council estates which appeared in Birmingham in the 1920s: 'Homes for Heroes' and all that.

However, as it happens I grew up in one of the last bits of the Bournville Village Trust area to be built. My parents' house was finished in 1960, but building around continued into the 60s. There were no rules about what colour doors could be or how high, or what colour your gnomes could be.

Meantime, a lot of the sixties high rises were so disastrous as a social experiment that whilst BVT houses continue to be sorted after many of the 1960s 'decanting' flats have now been demolished, although yes I am sure that many would also rather have lived in the fairly grey inner suburb terraces which were demolished before the flats: 'streets in the sky' were built.

However, now what seems to be happening is ever more and more high density building of living accommodation near the city centre again, and mainly aimed at young people working in the centre, rather than at families.

Not everyone wants the 'excitement' of the city centre, and my experience is that many people seek to move out once they get past thirty or so, and nor is such 'excitement' necessarily the place to bring up children. (Although I wanted out when I was 19, I loved growing up in a 'garden city' incidentally - they are wonderful places for children!) However not everyone is going to find work accessible in the 'mixed community of a market town' or the 'tranquility of a village', or be able to afford either of these. Therefore I think many will continue to seek suburbs where they can see some green.

Tonight as it happens I looked around a brand new house with a proud young couple who work long hours in offices, who are moving in soon. The small estate is quite densely built, at the back of a shopping high street, and their own outside area is tiny, but what they are really thrilled about is that they overlook a park, and some trees, and they have already chosen to focus on the rooms in the house where they can see the park best: 'so refreshing'