Climax City

Random writing on cities

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Climax City Book

The Climax City Book is now out! Together with Shruti Hemani, I have spent the last five years working on a series of large scale, some might say obsessive, hand drawn plans of cities across the world. Initially the idea was to produce an urban atlas. However as the project progressed, the maps developed a hypothesis based on what they were learning through the process of drawing these maps. Climax City, published by RIBA publishing is the result.

There will be a series of book launches over the next few months including the following events with Shruti, who is travelling to the UK from her home in Jaipur:

Nottingham Urban Room Tuesday 1st of October

University of Manchester Wednesday 2nd of October

Manchester School of Architecture Thursday 3rd of October

RIBA Portland Place London Tuesday 8th of October

In addition to this I will be talking about the book at the following events: 

The Therapeutic City Festival in Bath on 27th September

Ceramics Biennial, Spode Works Stoke Saturday 12th October.

York Design week Tuesday 29th of October



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The Regeneration Curse

It was sobering to be told at a recent symposium on Gillette Square in Dalston that people had lost faith in the idea of regeneration. Those of us good guys who have been working all these years to regenerate cities are apparently the ones causing the problem. Local communities associate regeneration with outside developers building apartments they can’t afford, pushing up prices and squeezing out all the vitality and life that made the area so ripe for regeneration in the first place.

This conversation took place in the Vortex Jazz Club at an event organised by the Academy of Urbanism to celebrate Gillett Square, a public space that a couple of years ago had been shortlisted for one of the Academy’s awards. The space, created by the local community through the agency of Hackney Cooperative Developments, is full of life, the majority of the people using the space are black and the people sitting in the excellent Ethiopian cafe and jerk chicken shop and the children playing with the movable play equipment coexist with street drinkers and skateboarders. As Adam Hart former head of the Hackney Cooperative Developments told us, the street drinkers are a sign that this is a true public space, not a sign of failure. Yet within a stone’s throw the developers and their shiny apartments are lurking, casting the long shadow of gentrification.

The square was opened in the early 1990s together with the Dalston Culture House. It was shortlisted for an AOU award a few years ago and as a result of this is one of the places included in the Academy’s recent book ‘Urbanism’. Looking back at the original write-up done as part of the awards process it was clear that the Academy had recognised that it was a good place without necessarily understanding the struggle that lay behind its creation and the threats lurking in the shadows. The initial write up didn’t even mention the fact that this is the only black and ethnic minority-created square in London; that it was the culmination of a battle that dates back to the radical squats of the 1960s or indeed that it is the heart of a cultural renaissance of music and black culture in one of the most diverse parts of London. This is one of the issues that the Academy is keen to address going forward – not just to celebrate ‘nice’ urbanism, but to explore its role in bringing diverse communities together in places like Dalston. One of the contributors at the symposium said that Gillette Square was a space that is absolutely unique in the capital – ‘the only place in London that is like the Caribbean where you can just sit and be’.

The problem is that the more successful this process is the greater the lure to the forces of regeneration (sorry I mean gentrification). The event heard speakers from Bankside and Brixton, other parts of London facing similar pressures. We heard about fantasticly successful pop-up venues in Brixton full of ‘white people drinking’. Nothing wrong with that but it’s hardly Brixton. The success of these type of regeneration initiatives is only serving to make these areas safe for invading armies of hipsters. This in turn pushes up rents and prices and the effect, however unintentional, is that the local community is squeezed out. There was much discussion at the symposium about what we might do to prevent or at least slow down this process. We can wring our hands and rail against the destructive forces of the free market. We can argue that social capital has far greater value than financial capital and should be factored into decisions about development. We could argue that local people should be given a stake in the decision making affecting their area. In all of these things we would be right and on the side of the angels. However as one of the contributors at the workshop succinctly put it, ‘there is no point expecting lions to become vegetarians’. Developers will do what they do, pleading to their better nature may influence a few of them, but in the current overheated London market the forces of capital will quickly obliterate communities like that which exists around Gillette Square if allowed to do so.

This led to two suggested solutions. The first focussed on the role of the local authority and the planning system in making sure that they are not ‘allowed to do so’. We know that the powers of the planning system are limited but there are things that could be done and policies that could be implemented. Further more the council as facilitator and land owner could actually do quite a lot to protect local diversity. Unfortunately we heard that in some cases councils were doing the opposite to this by taking an aggressive commercial stance on the property that it owns and squeezing out local local business in favour of more profitable uses.

The other solution put forward, as one might expect from an area with the history of Dalston, is community ownership. Gillette Square exists because of Hackney Cooperative Developments and its initiative to acquire and develop the square and the surrounding buildings. As a community-controlled company it is no less entrepreneurial that its commercial counterparts but has a different set of values and objectives, maximising value for the community rather than profit for shareholders. As owner of the the buildings around the square it can at least protect them from commercial encroachment but the extent to which this model can be applied more widely is open to question. It is a lot harder today for communities to buy up land to build their own workspace and housing than it was in the 1970s and 80s. Where are the modern equivalents of Hackney Cooperative Developments of the Coin Street Community Builders?

But if planning is not the answer and community ownership is not possible on the scale required, how do we protect the diversity of London? It is after all the reason we love the place and having read Richard Florida’s previous books the reason for its success. The problem is as Florida repents in his new book ‘The Urban Crisis’, is that the bright young things attracted to places like Dalston and Brixton by its grit and diversity have become the biggest threat to said grit and diversity. The ‘boho class’ that was sold to us as the future of the city are apparently now destroying it! Just as well we have Florida to show us the error of his ways and to give us a solution, except of course that he doesn’t. We will just have to hope that someone else can before its all too late.

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The New Elysians

Published BD 7th August 2018

There is a tower in Cork, at 17 storeys it is not a very tall tower even if it is reputed to be the tallest in Ireland. It was completed just before the Celtic Tiger crashed and is only now fully occupied by bright young things working for Apple and other tech firms that have made Cork their European base. It is called the Elysian Tower, no, doubt named by a marketing firm long before the film of the same name was released. For those of you who have not seen the film, the elysians are a leisured elite orbiting in a giant space ship over the earth that has become one immense shanti town – spoiler alert, it doesn’t end well.

The Academy of Urbanism has just held its 13th Congress in Cork and much of the debate revolved around our keynote speaker, Richard Florida, who was talking about just this sort of issue. It is fair to say that there was a degree of hostility in the hall towards Richard, not so much for what he was saying, but to some of the language used. To our ears the language of class grated a little; the ‘creative class’ (the elysians you might call them) and the servant class (sorry ‘service’ class) who would no doubt be living back on shanti town earth.

Florida has rightly pointed out that the success of cities in the modern age revolves around the Creative Class, a group that makes-up between 30 and 50% of a city’s population. He was the first to show, for example, the remarkable correlation between the percentage of gay people in a city and its economic success – and to be heavily criticised by conservative groups for doing so. The creative class are liberal, openminded types who are attracted to diverse tolerant places. Companies deciding where to locate seek out these people and therefore also like tolerant open diverse cities, even if it means paying over the odds to be in New York, London and Dublin. As he describes it, in coming up with this idea he turned on its head economic theory about where companies locate and got city authorities to thing very differently about how to make their cities attractive to these magic people.

But, as his new book relates, it has all gone too far. The economic pressures resulting from the conversion of cities to this creative economy has pushed up values to the point that inequality has spiralled out of control and the service class can no longer afford to live within reach of where they work. The result is both socially unacceptable and self defeating (because it is damaging to the creative economy). Artists will be squeezed out, start-up business will struggle to find premises and workers, and the city will become the sanitised domain of the rich and boring (or so Kevin Baker argues in his cri de cœur about the death of New York from affluence).

The delegates at Congress weren’t so sure. Florida presents his arguments as if this is a world crisis but, what of cities like Helsinki that seem immune to the crisis despite a thriving creative economy? Indeed one might argue that the crisis only really affects the English speaking world in thrall to the free market and disdainful of welfare systems and particularly social housing. Proper social housing was always the way that we dealt with the problems of creating mixed communities in expensive cities – housing that isn’t subject to the vagaries of a market in which foreign investors use it as a safe place to put their money, heedless of the need to actually house people.

But take the argument a step further and maybe it isn’t even the whole of the English speaking world. It affects Dublin but not really Cork, London but less so Britain’s provincial cities. The Elysians in their tower in Cork have not made the city unaffordable, not yet at least. As we heard the city is planning to grow rapidly over the coming decades and it is within the power of the city authorities to shape how this growth takes place. Florida was right to identify the importance of the creative class and the transformation of Cork through companies like Apple is amazing. But the new urban crisis is the result of the unfettered workings of the market rather that a bunch of tech workers in a tower with an inappropriate name. We need to learn from Scandinavia and elsewhere in order to create inclusive cities that can withstand the pressures of success. Otherwise we might just as well go back to the declining cities that were the norm until the last few decades.

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My Guilty Secret

Published BD 2nd October 2018

Shock news from Manchester this week, the planning committee actually refused a tower, well it wasn’t quite a refusal, they were ‘minded’ to refuse and this only on the casting vote of the chair. The proposed 35 storey tower, promoted by Logik, the developer fronted by the former cricketer Freddy Flintoff was admittedly virtually in the grounds of the Grade II* St George’s Church as well as being in a conservation area, but to be honest such considerations have not noticeably concerned the city’s planners in the past.

If Manchester has a tall buildings policy it would appear to run to just two words – ‘yes please’. As the graphic of Manchester’s changing skyline by Savills demonstrates there are seven towers, taller than the Logik tower currently under construction in Manchester including Simpson Haugh’s Owen Street B which, as it tops out at 64 storeys is already dwarfing their nearby Beetham Tower which has dominated the city’s skyline since its completion in 2006. However before long this too will be exceeded by the 67 storey Trinity Island scheme by Child Graddon Lewis architects and joined by 11 further towers that have been consented in the city with more planned in neighbouring Salford.

My guilty secret is that I’m quite excited by Manchester’s burgeoning skyline. It has a thrill that reminds me of Chicago and is actually quite in keeping with Mancunians’ brash, self-confident, f**k you attitude. There, I said it out loud, I know its wrong but I can’t help myself!

But from an urbanist’s perspective are towers so wrong? Sure there are many good arguments against them. Some relate to a feeling of unease at the excess that they represent. This is particularly true of the luxury, apartment towers in London bought as investment and left unoccupied. But the Manchester towers on the whole are PRS (private rented apartments funded by pension funds) mixed with a few hotels so that this is less of an issue. Property colleagues fret about the glut of housing coming onto the market and the unwritten rule that the building of towers presages a property crash. This is a very real concern but it relates to the volume rather than form of development. There are also strong sustainability arguments about tall buildings using more energy and the effect that they have on local microclimate as I notice every evening as I am buffered by sudden gusts of wind on my cycle ride home. Then of course there are arguments over conservation although these, as we say, have never really troubled Manchester except perhaps for Ian Simpson’s proposal for an upturned dometo limit building heights around the town hall.

From an urbanist perspective we can turn, as always, to Jan Gehl who argues that any property above the 6th floor of a building has no relationship with the street and might as well be in a far-flung suburb. But is that really true? It is a long time since people sitting on their balconies below the 6th floor held conversations across the street. People in towers will exit via the foyer at some point  (even if many of the PRS schemes include their own communal lounges, gyms and cafes). Would the streets of New York or Chicago be as lively if all the towers were cropped at 6 storeys? The reality, as Gehl has also pointed out, is that places like his home city of Copenhagen were full of life a hundred years ago because its apartments were crammed with families of up to ten people. The same properties today are occupied by single people, couples and small families so that the density of occupation is maybe a quarter of what it was. What is more, all this private internal space means that people can live their lives indoors, rather than out on the street, as they were forced to do in the overcrowded past. So maybe we need to build higher if we want really lively streets?

The key point in determining whether towers add or detract from the city is their design. Modern towers will only contribute to the city if they hit the street, like those of Chicago rather than those of Dubai. If they rise from the pavement have active frontages and disgorge their activity into the life of the street then they can be a force for good. Compared to this the towers of Dubai and elsewhere, rise from shopping and leisure podia, built over underground car parks and set within landscape so that their life is internalised. This is not a lesson entirely learned by the architects of Manchester’s towers. Some, like the Beetham Tower, relate very well to the street with the bar and reception of the Hilton Hotel visible behind floor-to-ceiling glazing and generating a constant buzz of activity. But some of Manchester’s other planned towers are, I fear, more Dubai than Chicago. We should stop worrying about the top of these building and focus instead on the bottom.

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What is it about architects and urban design?

First published BD 10th September 2019

Earlier in the summer I sat listening to an architect teaching urban design in one of our architecture schools. He started promisingly by showing a site which I recognised as being one of ours. However he ruined it almost immediately by then imposing a caricature of a plan (not ours) over the site and saying; ‘this is conventional urban design it is not what we do in this department’. He then showed a short film clip of one of the small squares in Manhattan, teaming with people, buskers and a craft stalls before announcing that this was the sort of urban design that they taught in the department. The next two days were spent looking at student work with beautifully done CGIs and photomontages, looking very much like that square in New York. Except that the people, buskers and craft stalls were photo-shopped rather than being real and many were in shown in locations where such urban vitality would just never happen.

The point is that the lively square was that way, at least in part, because of those boring old conventional urban design rules. You need a permeable hierarchy of streets and spaces, you need a certain density and mix of uses, you need some sense of urban enclosure, you need passive overlooking, active ground floors etc… to generate the people and activity that makes such spaces so successful.

This has been preoccupying me over the summer given that my conventional old urban design company has been invited by Lucy Montague at the Manchester School of Architecture to co-curate an urban design atelier for fifth and sixth years. The problem is that architect schools tend teach their students to design buildings as objects. How many degree shows have you seen where the main project is a building shoehorned into a city street with party walls on either side? You are much more likely to come across buildings as beautiful jewels surrounded by nothing. This presents a problem in teaching urban design in architecture schools because students can’t easily shine in the way that they need to get the best degree within an urban design context.

This is also true of the profession – the architect news-feeds that I get on my computer every day (including BD) are full of buildings as sculptural objects in splendid isolation. Many architects tend to treat urban design in the same way; masterplans that start with the building and work outwards to the plan or sometimes treat the entire masterplan as if it was one enormous piece of architecture. Urban design works in the opposite direction – the plan comes first, then the public realm and the infrastructure, then the lots and plots, each with their rules for how they can be built. So dull!

Nobody likes rules, particularly when you are being creative, and architects are taught quite rightly to question and challenge the rules. They seem to see the rules of urban design like the Paladian rules of classical proportion, something that is interesting but essentially outdated and irrelevant to modern practice. This is not helped by all of those Poundburyesque masterplans with their strange mix of medieval and Georgian design that give the impression that urban design is a profession set on creating a pastiche of the past whether it be Georgian Bath or indeed Manhattan.

But there are rules that architects can’t ignore – the rules of structure and gravity of course (skyhooks aside) but just as important are the characteristics of us as humans. This is why we have the Vitruvian Man or Corbusier’s Modulor. Even the most radical architecture is scaled to our needs as humans to move around, to climb stairs, to live and work in comfort, to have access to light and air etc… The rules urban design are no different, except they relate to our behaviour collectively. How we move around, how we react to each other as friends or strangers, how we live as communities while maintaining our privacy, our need for constant stimulation, the scale of spaces in which we feel comfortable, the distance at which we can recognise people etc… This is the point that Jan Gehl has been making for most of his career. The point is that the rules are hard-wired into us as a species, they are not stylistic or reactionary. If you ignore them you will end up with dull lifeless places however many people you photoshop into the drawing.

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Resetting the UK Housing Market?

First published as a column in BD 31st Oct 2019

A few years ago I asked a volume house builder client of ours why it took them so long to build-out their large sites. This was prompted by a news report at the time suggesting that, at current build rates, Ebbsfleet Garden Village would take more than 70 years to deliver (it has since speeded up). I put to him the widely-made accusation that the big house builders were restricting supply in order to keep prices high. His response was that on a big site they could be out of pocket by tens of millions before selling the first house. In no way was it in their interest to slow down sales given their borrowing costs. If anyone could tell them how to sell more that the one or two units a week from each sales office then they would love to hear from them.

Well Sir Oliver Letwin has just delivered a report to the UK Chancellor doing just that. Commissioned at the time of the 2017 budget he was asked to explore the gap between the number of new homes consented and the numbers delivered and how we might increase the latter. The report largely endorses the view of my housebuilder client and while it doesn’t make particularly comfortable reading for the industry, the first two thirds will not worry them unduly. However it ends with a radical twist that is very much in line with our thinking in our 2014 Wolfson Economics Prize essay and which could change everything.

The amount of new housing is affected by two broad factors – ‘delivery rates’ and ‘absorption rates’. The former is the speed at which we can build new homes and the latter is the speed at which they can be sold. Letwin identifies a number of delivery issues such as lack of transport infrastructure and site remediation but dismissed their impact on delivery. The only delivery issue that really worries him is a lack of skilled labour although he manages to duck the Brexit issue, arguing instead for ‘a five year flash programme of on-the-job training’.

The real problem according to the report is the absorption rate, and while he doesn’t say this out loud, the message is that you will never sell more homes if you keep building the same old stuff. There are only so many people in each housing market who want to buy a mass housebuilder three bed semi. The answer is to increase the diversity of housing on large sites in areas of high demand and much of the report is devoted to the policy levers that could make this happen.

Large sites are defined as those over 1,500 units and no breaking up your large site into chunks that are smaller than the threshold – planning authorities will be able to designate these large sites in their plans. Areas of high demand are not defined and, as someone who works across the country, I’m not sure why these proposals shouldn’t be applied across the board.

For private sites the proposal is to make the housing mix on site a reserved matter so that reserved matters applications will need to show how they are going to provide a mix of unit sizes, tenures and types, including custom-build and self-build. The idea of diversity is  widened to include more distinctive settings, landscapes and streetscapes and emphasises the importance of masterplanning which is of course very welcome. This can all be provided by the same developer, since Letwin has retreated from his initial idea that sites should be broken, up but he does encourage the house builders to work with smaller specialist developers. Up to this point the report leaves you with the feeling that none of this will do any harm but that there is plenty of scope for the army of planning consultants and lawyers who buzz around housing sites to water it down, to argue viability and to carry on broadly as they are with some token changes.

However at this point the report gets all radical and sets out a range of proposals that are very much in line with what myself and my colleague Nicholas Falk have been promoting. It suggests that local authorities should be able to designate large sites in future plans along with strong masterplanning, design codes, infrastructure and housing mix requirements that could reduce the value of the land to as little as 5% of what it would be worth with an unencumbered planning consent. In theory this would reset the UK housing land market to values of around £100,000 per acre, which would be comparable to Holland and Germany and would allow much more to be spent on the quality of what is built. However we would agree with Letwin’s analysis that there is a huge gap between theory and practice in British planning and this can’t be relied upon.

So he goes on to propose a change in primary legislation to allow local authorities to acquire large sites that they are designating in their local plan at the ‘value which such land would have in the absence of the development scheme’ which I think means existing use value. They would then be able to set up some form of development corporation (various models are suggested) to act as ‘master developer’ for the site. This master developer would be responsible for the masterplan and design coding, the strategic infrastructure and for parcelling up development sites for onward disposal (probably via long leases) to developers. Exactly! That is what we have been saying all along. That is how it is done across most of Europe and, until we grasp the nettle, we continue to produce the same old stuff.

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An Urbanist in Shanghai

As part of the Academy of Urbanism’s recent trip to China we travelled on a bus provided by our hosts between our incredibly cool hotel in Shanghai (in a derelict industrial building) and the Hangzhou International Urbanology Centre where we were staying and which was also the venue for the first AoU International Conference in China. For much of the journey we watched through the bus windows as fields rolled past, except that the crop being grown was towers. Seemingly endless towers, sometimes a score of identical towers rising simultaneously behind their bamboo scaffolding. Sometimes a vista of thirty storey towers as far as you could see against the night sky with lights in none of the windows. This is how you plan with a country where 10 million people are being added to its cities every year. China unlike the UK does not have a housing crisis, it is providing homes for every one of these 10 million people, there is no homelessness or informal settlements.  It is just that they are providing vast amounts of housing in a way that may not be sustainable or very urban.


In Shanghai there is a museum of the city, the highlight of which is a model covering an area roughly the size of a five-a-side football pitch. The model is an endless expanse of apartment blocks, ranging from the slab blocks of the 60s and 70s through to today’s modern towers reaching ever higher. It becomes clear from the model that the city centre that we experience as visitors is a tiny part of the conurbation of 25 million people. There are multiple commercial centres across the city, each marked by a cluster of towers slightly higher than their surroundings. The city centre is strangely familiar to those of us in the UK, the Bund looking every bit like Liverpool Waterfront except with more Liver Buildings. Running back from this is Nanjing Road lined with its department stores which would also not feel out of place in a European City. All of this is part of the British Settlement and elsewhere the French and American settlements have their own particular style.

img_7443.jpgThe predominant impression that the city leaves comes however from its skyline. The oldest of the towers is the 20 storey art deco Park Hotel, built as by the Shanghai Joint Savings Society in 1934 (which was the tallest building in Asia until 1958). At the other extreme is the 128 storey Shanghai Tower currently the second tallest tower in the world and standing at the centre of the Pudong peninsular, opposite the Bund. This is a forest of towers including the Oriental Perl Radio and TV tower and two other towers that rank amongst the ten tallest in the world. At night the whole area is illuminated with LED graphics covering entire buildings more Blade Runner than the film itself. What is extraordinary is the fact that the entire peninsular was marshland until it was designated as a Special Economic Zone in 1993 since when it has grown to become the financial hub of China. The skyline may rival Manhattan but at ground level? It is a sea of exclusive podia, shopping malls, high-quality landscaping and massive roads. Again a long way from what many of us would call urbanism.

The same is true of Hangzhou a hundred miles inland from Shanghai. It is a city of 10 million people and is both one of the oldest and one of the most innovative cities in China. Hangzhou also had an inordinate number of towers and its great roads that seemed to go on for ever and were clogged with traffic. We were shown the visitor centre for the Asian games which will take place in Hangzhou in 2022, every bit as impressive as the Olympic Park in London, that was being built by our hosts Sunac with, of course, its own cluster of very shiny towers.

IMG_7658It all raises questions about what we mean by Chinese’s urbanism? As part of our discussions with the Hangzhou Urbanology Centre we explored the sort of places that might be considered for urbanism awards if they were to be run in China. The places suggested by our Chinese hosts were similar to those that we might have chosen, street based, traditional, mixed-use and lively. Indeed we concluded that the typology of towers set in landscape surrounded by large roads is no more indigenous to China than it is to Europe. It is an international style of architecture and urban design that seems to have taken over the world as any visit to the MIPIN Property fair will attest. It certainly has nothing to do with the sort of traditional Chinese streets and neighbourhoods that still cover large parts of Shanghai and Hangzhou, the best of these areas like the Yuyan district of Shanghai or the Qiaoxi Historic District of Hangzhou are preserved as tourist attractions. In Yu Gardens there is a three storey wooden pavilion built in the 1600s which is said to have been the tallest building in the city when it was completed, which gives a sense of what was once the scale of the city. While these traditional areas can seem like museum pieces preserved for tourists, aerial photographs shows surprisingly large areas of this traditional development – districts of dense three and four storey buildings with local shops crammed into their ground floors and selling everything imaginable. These districts are however rapidly disappearing to be replaced with new high rise schemes a process that has been the subject of controversy in Beijing as residents have been evicted from their homes. It raises huge questions about who the cities are for and the process of gentrification and as urbanists we couldn’t help mourning the loss of the city’s street life.

This is not an argument against tall buildings. There are parts of Shanghai and Hangzhou that have lots of towers and yet are still lively and popular at street level. The lesson is that it is the bottom of the tower that is far more dangerous than the top. If the tower meets the ground as part of an urban block that addresses the street and is lined with shops and restaurants then it contributes to the life of the city. If it rises from a inward-looking podium or is surrounded by landscape then it doesn’t. The lesson is as true in China as it is across the world, but it isn’t one that Chinese planners seem to have taken to heart.

In other respects there is a huge amount that Chinese cities can teach us in the west. One of these relates to transport and in Hangzhou and Shanghai you can see a before and after example of the way that this is being tackled. Hangzhou is in the process of extending its metro system to create 8 lines totalling 278km. However for the moment its roads remain hopelessly clogged with traffic and its air full of pollution. In Shanghai by contrast the heroic levels of congestion and pollution that existed unlit recently have all but disappeared. In part this has been achieved through a system of licence auctions, borrowed from Singapore, which has been running since 1994 and puts a quota on the number of new cars on the streets. Because of this the number of cars on Shanghai’s streets has grown by ‘only’ 75% since 2004 despite doubling nationally and growing by 150% in Beijing. However the recent disappearance of congestion has more to do with the ‘Big Traffic Overhaul’ initiated in 2016 by the city’s mayor Yang Xiong. This was a concerted crackdown that  flooded the streets with traffic police to deal with motoring infringements like blowing your horn, changing lanes, illegal parking etc…  To the surprise of everyone the city persisted with the policy and it worked, the traffic became quieter and less intrusive and many people probably decided that it was just too much hassle to drive into town. One result was that people changed to e-bikes, electric mopeds that are now common on the streets and are not subject to traffic regulations (although the city is now seeking to ban these as well). The city also has a series of bike schemes and great piles of yellow and orange bikes, dusty from lack of use block many pavements.

Beneath ground however is a different story and Shanghai’s extensive Metro system which was only completed in 2012 rivals anywhere in the world. The bullet train we took on our return journey from Hangzhou has been conceived, constructed and opened in the time that we have been thinking about HS2 in the UK, cutting our 3 hour outward journey too less than an hour coming back. It is part of a national high speed rail network that connects most large Chinese cities. The system is a strange combination of planning and investment on a scale that we can only dream of in the west, and rather chaotic experimentation at the local level. We also heard that China is investing hugely in driverless technology, cars and buses, as well smart cities, big data and AI systems. You can guarantee that they will have this technology operational long before we in the West do. So before we get too smug about the Chinese repeating all of our past mistakes, we should prepare ourselves for a period not to far In the future when they will be light years ahead.

One of the urban policies in China that does feel like something from our past is their concern to control the growth of cities. Shanghai is by some definitions the largest city in the world with a population of 25 million. It has put in place a policy of ‘negative growth’ by which the city authorities plan to prevent it from getting any larger. Growth is therefore being redirected to ‘smaller’ cities like Hangzhou and to a huge programme of new towns which in China are called ‘Characterised Towns’. We visited one of these Liangzhu at the very end of the metro line just opened out of Hangzhou (10 miles). This is a community that has been built over the course of 20 years and now has 10,000 homes. Yihan Shen (AOU) otherwise known as Shaun, who set up our visit was formerly responsible for developing the town which, is very impressive and is described in his book replete with a drawing of Poundbury on the cover. The town has an impressive range of shops and facilities including a community centre built by Tadao Ando and a museum by David Chipperfield. It also has one of the best old people’s homes that you will ever see and an active community association that is planning to take on some of the management of the town. The only disappointment was that each of the neighbourhoods was not just gated, it was surrounded by security fences. We asked about levels of crime that necessitated such measures and were told that residents demanded it and therefore developers had no choice but to create gated communities despite the almost complete lack of crime.

In making these comments we are open to the charge that we just don’t understand Chinese urbanism. That we are trying to apply western ideas of street-based urbanism to a culture that has a very different idea of the public realm, that does not feel the same level of ownership over streets and public spaces. However traditional Chinese neighbourhoods are more similar to traditional European cities that they are different. They are structured around a permeable street network, they are densely built with a mix of uses and their streets are lively and sociable. There is a very different feel in the new high rise neighbourhoods that lack life and viability but then again that is also true in the west. Indeed the typology of towers sitting in gated landscape compounds and surrounded by huge roads is not Chinese. It is the same typology that can be seen in  Dubai, India and in the growing cities of Africa. You can find it to in Frankfurt, London, Los Angeles and Moscow. Yes it is true that in China it is being done on a bigger scale but the typology his one of global capital.

IMG_7529This may be the only practical way of dealing with 10 Million migrants to the city each year and it is likely that people arriving from the countryside are happy with their new apartments and their increased quality of life just as happened in with the tower blocks of the 1960s in the UK. But what happens in the future, when they have become accustomed to life in the city, when their children grow up with different aspirations? Are the rather soulless environments being created in China going to survive the test of time or will they succumb to the same fate as the council blocks in the UK? We wanted to be optimistic but it was difficult. There was a sense that the mistakes of the west were being repeated in China and are storing up problems for the future. A combination of unpopular high-rise housing and a policy to control the growth of cities by diverting people to new towns risks undermined the whole city. After the war London also had a policy of negative growth, shipping its population out to new towns and overspill estates and its industry to peripheral business parks. The problem was that negative growth became a ‘recession’ and by the mid 1970s London had an unemployment rate of 7.2% and was rapidly shrinking.

This may seem inconceivable in China where the economy continues to out perform the West and the proportion of the population living in cities (58%) has along way to go to match the levels of more that 80% in Europe. However the fertility rate in China is just 1.79 children per woman and in Shanghai is below 1 child (a rate below 2.1 children per family will cause the population to fall). The one child policy (amended in 2015 to a two child policy) is understandable in terms of controlling the overall growth of population and making Shanghai’s negative growth policy possible, but it is storing up problems for the future in a country that will not have enough young people to support its ageing population. What does that mean for cities like Hangzhou and Shanghai? Let us hope that they find an alternative and are able to reform their cities and control their growth without tipping them over into urban decline as happened in the west. Let us hope that their urban renaissance doesn’t first require their cities to be sacrificed.