Climax City

Random writing on cities


Place Alliance – Big Meet 4

On 27th October the Place Alliance held the fourth of its Big Meets in London. The packed meeting was addressed by Brandon Lewis, Minister of State for Housing and Planning. I was one of a number of people asked to make a response, although of course the minister wasn’t able to stay to hear these responses. I therefore promised to post what I said…

Dear Minister

It is good to have the opportunity to thank you today. When I won the Wolfson Prize last year I was in such trouble with many of my friends and colleagues. Then the  minister released a statement saying that our essay was rubbish, and certainly wasn’t, nor would it ever be government policy and my reputation was rescued! I can however sympathise with your position, a number of the things that we suggested are politically impossible, not just for a conservative minister like yourself but, as I have found in my subsequent discussions, to politicians of all persuasions. This is the tragedy of current housing policy, there is a broad consensus that the current system isn’t working as it should and that something should be done but a unanimous view that it is all but impossible to change.

I have spent the last twelve months talking at conferences like this to a wide range of people and we have been looking particularly at the situation in Oxford and Sheffield. From these discussions I would suggest the following four impossible things that we need to find a way of doing:

  • Large scale change: let us start with the easiest – a mechanism to allow us to act on a a large scale, as we did when we cleared our slums, built our new towns or indeed staged the Olympics. The current mechanism for doing this is a Mayoral Development Corporation as has just been designated at Old Oak Common. Manchester and Sheffield may go down this route once, once they have mayors but not everywhere will have a mayor. Whatever we call them we need a way to designate bodies that can act across borders, acquire land, assume planning powers, borrow money etc…
  • Cross boundary planning: In many places administrative boundaries are now drawn along the back garden fence of the last house in the town. If we are to plan properly we need a mechanism to allow us to plan for housing growth across housing market areas which means across administrative boundaries. Virtually no one I have spoken to believes that the duty to cooperate is working and, while I realise we are not allowed to talk about regional planning, there are some things that can only be planned locally once a policy context has been set over a wider area, housing is one of them.
  • Land value capture: The planning system in the UK is based on the nationalisation of development land rights. The value of land is therefore a national asset and the ‘unearned increment’ as Ebenezer Howard called it, is being redistributed to land owners every time land is allocated or planning consent granted. Because of this land in The UK is far more expensive than elsewhere in Europe and a disproportion amount of money, time and effort is spent unlocking its value rather than building good homes. This it seems to me is the main reason why the quality of housing in countries like Holland and Germany is so much greater than in the UK.
  • The green belt: Finally the most difficult one of all! Green belts perform a very useful function in preventing sprawl (note the present tense). However in any successful place there will come a point when the demand/need for new homes exceeds the capacity to build within the settlement. At this point current policy means that either housebuilding grinds to a halt, as in Oxford, or land is allocated in surrounding districts beyond the green belt. In the latter case people are forced to commute back across the greenbelt, often with no alternative but to use their car. It would be much more sustainable to build in a planned, managed way within the green belt. We estimated that you could double the size of Oxford using just 7% of its green belt. I know it’s difficult but we need to create a plan-led way of doing this.

How does the saying go – the difficult we can do straight away, the impossible takes a little longer. Now that the government is in a reasonably secure position I would hope that now is the time to address some of these impossible tasks. I accept that the politics is difficult but I do think the case can be made, and that there is a cross-party acceptance of the need for change.

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Looking and Seeing: Building Coventry

Last year I was fortunate to be an artist in residence for a week, something that planners don’t often get to do. This was part of The Arcadia programme in Coventry, curated by Laura Elliott and Michael Mayhew of Artspace. The outputs from the week have been published as a dossier based on the following text….


Town PlanningIn 1940 the town planner Thomas Sharp was commissioned by Pelican books to produce a book simply called ‘Town Planning’. The aim of the Pelican imprint – which was owned by Penguin – was to ‘inform rather than entertain’ by exploring important issues of the day. ‘Town Planning’ sold more than 250,000 copies during the war, tapping into the concerns, of a significant number of people who shared its belief that; ‘town planning is an attempt to formulate the principles that should guide us in creating a civilised background for human life’. In the year his book was published Sharp visited the Coventry of Tomorrow exhibition. This had been arranged by Coventry’s new City Architect and Town Planner Donald Gibson and showed models of what might be if the city’s medieval city centre were to be replaced with something a bit more modern. The people were fascinated and in just a week the exhibition attracted 5,000 visitors.

Its hard to imagine any book or exhibition on town planning today exciting such public interest, indeed its difficult to reconcile the idea of town planning and ‘a civilised background to human life’ being linked in the same sentence. Yet the Coventry that was eventually built in the ten years after the war is one of the most complete built examples of this belief in the power of planning. It is one of a handful of cities where circumstances conspired to allow the future to be built in glass and Portland Stone (concrete would come later).


The Arcadia programme in Coventry, curated by Laura Elliott and Michael Mayhew from June 2014 to 2016 is an exploration of these issues. Based in a vacant shop unit in the City Arcade, the project involves a series of commissions to allow artists to explore Coventry, its history and its people’s relationship with the city centre. This comes at a time when proposals are being developed for the redevelopment of the City Arcade and its surroundings. The plans by the City Council also aim to create a more ‘modern’ retail environment, raising questions about the extent to which we should value the Coventry that will be lost if this development proceeds.

Cov 2K Wider planThe plan of Coventry from 1912 showing the original medieval structure of its centre

Looking and Seeing was the second of the Arcadia residencies and sought to answer this question by exploring the scale of the physical change that was wrought in Coventry after the war. Working with students from the city’s new architectural school, the Looking and Seeing project built a 4m square model of pre-war Coventry using terracotta-coloured plasticine. Based on the 1912 plan, the model that emerged was of a fine-grained medieval city dominated by three spires, like many of the historic cities that we venerate today.


Cov Bomb damage
Model produced by the planning department after the war showing what was left of the ‘central area after enemy action

A fine medieval city was not how the people of Coventry saw it at the time. In the interwar years Coventry had expanded massively as it became a centre for car and motorcycle manufacture. Its city centre was seen as increasingly inadequate for this expanding affluent population. It was dirty and congested and in 1938 the Labour Council appointed the man that they thought could do something about this. Donald Gibson started by distributing copies of Lewis Mumford’s book ‘The Culture of Cities’ to councillors to get everyone on the same page and then set about replanning the city centre and building the model that would be displayed in the 1940 exhibition.

The first bombing of Coventry took place less than a month after the exhibition closed. However the most devastating raid took place on 14th November that same year when 500 aircraft were sent to destroy Coventry’s factories that had been turned over to munitions production. These factories and workshops were embedded within the medieval city, the Triumph Cycle Works stood on the site next to the Cathedral. The mix of high explosives and incendiary bombs therefore destroyed not just the factories but much of the centre, including the cathedral.

Three weeks later, Donald Gibson presenting a paper at the Royal Society of Arts in London said the following:

“I would like to add a few words on the significance of the recent bombing of Coventry. Many citizens had despaired of the possibility of having a dignified and fitting city centre. High land values, the delays involved by town planning legislation, together with a lack of plan for the central area made it seem impossible. Now, in a night, all this is changed. Over a year and a half ago I prepared a civic centre scheme which, grouped round the two noble medieval churches, embodied all the public buildings in one ordered conception, at the same time suggesting a central park space which is so badly needed. In one night the site is largely cleared ready for this regeneration. It rests but with the fortunes of war and the desires of a great people, to see it accomplished”.

This is a later model of Coventry built in 1958. The darker buildings are those that had already been built at that time

So back in the City Arcade with the architecture students, we removed the buildings that had been destroyed in the blitz from our plasticine model. Traumatic as this was, there were a surprising number of buildings remaining. These were to be removed by the planners in the reconstruction that followed. So we started to disassemble the model ripping away the 1912 plan on which the plasticine had been placed. Beneath was the modern-day plan of Coventry and using this, we started to build the Coventry of today in dark grey plasticine.

This new Coventry emerged like an alien from the chest of the pre-war city. As it expanded the medieval city was tossed aside to accumulate in drifts of terracotta plasticine around the edges of the room. A number of students worried that we had got the scale wrong as the new grey plasticine buildings towered over their medieval predecessors. We continued to expand the new Coventry starting in Broadgate and working our way along the Precinct and Market Street. The sequence of our construction was not historically accurate, that would have been too complicated. While one team of students worked on the Arcade and market another group built the civic quarter while others built the university (which of course came much later). Then the ring road was inserted in sections and the development swept onwards to encompass the residential redevelopment of the inner suburbs. The results were photographed and turned into a stop-motion film showing the transformation of the city.

The Figure Ground Plan of Coventry today. This is like an X Ray of the city, showing its structure and particularly the sharp contrast between the density of its centre and the lower density suburbs on the other side of the moat created by its ring road.
The Figure Ground Plan of Coventry today. This is like an X Ray of the city, showing its structure and particularly the sharp contrast between the density of its centre and the lower density suburbs on the other side of the moat created by its ring road.

The students and members of the public – including the local BBC Radio station – who witnessed this transformation were horrified. How could we have done this to such a beautiful city? This of course was unfair, the terracotta plasticine gave an inaccurate impression of the pre-war city which was in reality pretty shabby and dysfunctional. The dark grey planticine similarly demonised the new Coventry and was particularly inappropriate since in reality many of the buildings were gleaming white Portland stone.  In the 1940s the people of Coventry who visited the exhibition certainly wouldn’t have been horrified. They were fully bought-in and signed-up to the notion that they should sweep away the past and, together with the Welfare State and the National Health Service, should build a better, fairer more socialist Britain.

2014-10-17 14.49.12Students from Coventry’s Architecture school nearing the completion of the plasticine model of the new city emerging from the remains of original medieval city.


Coventry was the embodiment of that future and its anointment as one of the leading modernist cities came in 1951 with the 8th Congrès International d’Architecture Moderne. Founded in 1928 by the architect Le Corbusier, CIAM as it was known, had been responsible for laying the intellectual foundations of modern architecture and town planning. The 8th Congress was held, for some reason, in the sleepy village of Hoddleston in Hertfordshire, but the star of the show was Coventry. The theme for the congress was ‘The Heart of the City’ and the focus for the discussions was town and city centres. This was at a time when many city centres still lay in ruins following wartime bombing. In Germany the response had been to painstakingly reconstruct the city as it had been. In England it was an opportunity to put into practice all the theories and ideals that had dominated the architectural debate in the interwar years. It is no wonder that CIAM came to England. The star turn was Donald Gibson who told delegates that his plans represented ‘the first time that a central area (had been) analysed in terms of its main uses and a plan drawn up which retained only those necessary to its correct functioning’. Coventry was the future, a functional efficient town centre in which the traffic flowed, the air was clean and which civilisation could flourish. Not that it quite worked out that way.

LaS CoverThe title of the residency ‘Looking and Seeing’ was inspired by a series of school text books by Kurt Rowland published in the 1960s. The four books in the series are about patterns and shape; in nature, in art and, in the final book, in the ‘Shape of Towns’. There is something about the optimism of this fourth book on towns, written at a point when many of the early modernist projects had been completed, but before they had fallen out of public favour. It features Coventry only fleetingly, concentrating mainly on the new towns, but the book’s message is particularly useful in trying to understand the planners who build Coventry.

The structure of Kurt Rowland’s book spans the history of towns from the earliest civilisations through the Renaissance to the present day. The modernist city that it describes in its latter sections with its towers and underpasses, monorails and flyovers is set in stark contrast to the dirty, congested run-down industrial cities that it was to replace. However the modern city is not seen as a new invention, but rather a continuation of centuries-old traditions of city planning that had been interrupted by the Industrial Revolution. This is why these cities of the future still included piazzas and plazas, arcades, and squares. Their inspiration was Gordon Cullen who’s book ‘Townscape’ is still revered by urban designers today. We forget however that the ‘Townscape movement’ of the 1960s and 70s, championed by the architecture critic Ian Nairn in the pages of the Architectural Review, inspired many of the modernist planning schemes that seem to be the antithesis of what we now consider to be urban design.  It is a salutatory lesson in how the best of intentions do not always create the best of places.

The people of Coventry today are certainly not particularly enamoured with the modernist city that they have inherited. The members of the Coventry Society that we met on the second evening of the residency may enthuse about the boldness of Coventry’s buildings and planning, but the public are less keen. It is true that the city centre has not aged particularly well. However even without the staining, the peeling paint and pigeon droppings, the modernist notions of planning on which Coventry was built have not worked as their designers intended. Too many roads, too many unwelcoming underpasses, too many windswept plazas and split level public spaces that don’t quite work. The public today almost certainly supports the council’s plans for a new retail scheme with a covered mall and a larger range of shops. This of course speaks volumes about the change in society’s values over the last 60 years. But are the public today any more likely to be correct today than they were back then?

Cov - Steph bOne of the exercises that we set for the students as part of Looking and Seeing was to try and navigate the city centre today using 1912 plan. Walking the city centre on a bright morning in early autumn, some started to re-evaluate the city centre. Building the plasticine model helped them to understand the intent of its designers: The interconnected series of spaces. The serial progression though tightly enclosed routes that open to reveal squares and vistas. The three towers terminating the views each way along Market Street and the Upper Precinct with the view through the Lower Precinct focussing on the spire of the cathedral. The reliefs cut deeply into in situ concrete panels or cast in bronze. In the right light you could see what it was supposed to be like, to understand how beautiful it could have been, maybe still is.


As we built the plasticine Coventry we started to ask whether its planners were misguided or whether their ideas were sound but poorly executed? Maybe they were onto something and we haven’t quite recognised the value of what they created, yet. Maybe in years to come when Coventry city centre has become a sanitised retail clone town, we will regret having destroyed the bold city centre created after the war.  It is hard to credit now, but as late as the 1970s the general feeling in architectural and planning circles was that Victorian architecture was of little worth. It was seen as crass, pastiche lacking in authenticity and generally not worth preserving. The point being that today we feel the same way about modernist architecture and particularly modernist town planning. Just as today we struggle to understand how previous generations failed to appreciate Victorian buildings, so future generations might feel the same about our attitude to modernism.

Cov - Cat bThe conclusion was that Coventry is not perhaps a model for  how city centres should be planned. We wouldn’t suggest that the redevelopment of other city centres should emulate its design. However that does not mean that it is without qualities, or indeed quality. It is possibly the best, most completely realised example of modernist city centre design and remains largely intact. Rather than sweep it away, it deserves a scheme that cleans it up and takes it back to something near to Donald Gibson’s original vision. If this were to happen it wouldn’t be perfect but it would be a unique reminder of a more optimistic time that the people of Coventry may even come to love one day.

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Coventry – as it was once imagined

As the Looking and Seeing residency progresses, we are releasing a series of images produced by architects and urban designers across the world. Each has taken a present day image of Coventry and sought to strip away the years to take it back to the way that it was imagined in the 1950s.

It is clear from talking to people in Coventry that many have mixed emotions about the city, particularly now that much of it is planned for redevelopment. The city centre built after the war attracted architects and planners from across the world who came to Coventry to wonder at its modernity and its bold vision of the future. This vision may now be a little tarnished and the city centre has not quite lived up to its promise. But before we sweep it away once more in a further comprehensive redevelopment we should try and understand what inspired the planners of the 50s, what worked and what went wrong. These images seek to take us back to the optimism of that time.

Cov - Steph a

Bulls Yard - Stephanie Fisher (Liverpool)

Bulls Yard – Stephanie Fisher (Liverpool)

Cov - Anna  a

Spon Street: Anna Wang - Chengdu, China

Spon Street: Anna Wang – Chengdu, China

Cov - Marianna a

Cathedral: Mariana Rodriguez Orte - Chile

Cathedral: Mariana Rodriguez Orte – Chile

Cov - Cat a

Market Street/Upper Precinct: Cat Goodall - Manchester

Market Street/Upper Precinct: Cat Goodall – Manchester

Cov - Shruti a

Broadgate: Shruti Hemani - Guwahati, India

Broadgate: Shruti Hemani – Guwahati, India

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Looking and Seeing – Coventry

LaS Cover

Today sees the start of Looking and Seeing, is a week-long residency in Coventry as part of City Arcadia a longer term art project curated by Laura Elliott and Michael Mayhew. We will be working in a shop unit in the city centre (32 City Arcade) from today with an opening on Friday evening (17th Oct 2014). The aim is to explore Coventry and through this to understand a little more about modernism.

There was great excitement in architecture circles in 1951 as the 8th Congrès International d’Architecture Moderne came to England. Founded in 1928 by the architect Le Corbusier, CIAM as it was known, had been responsible for laying the intellectual foundations of modern architecture and town planning. The 8th Congress was held, for some reason, in the sleepy village of Hoddleston in Hertfordshire, but the star of the show was Coventry.

The theme for the congress was ‘The Heart of the City’ and the focus for the discussions was town and city centres. This was at a time when many city centres still lay in ruins following wartime bombing. In Germany the response had been to painstakingly reconstruct the city as it had been. In England it was an opportunity to put into practice all the theories and ideals that had dominated the architectural debate in the interwar years. It is no wonder that CIAM came to England.

The star turn was the Coventry City Architect D.E.E. Gibson who told delegates that his plans represented ‘the first time that a central area (had been) analysed in terms of its main uses and a plan drawn up which retained only those necessary to its correct functioning’. Coventry was the future, a functional efficient town centre in which the traffic flowed, the air was clean and which civilisation (of socialism as it was then called) could flourish. Not that it quite worked out like that.

Looking and seeing is taking place in a shop unit in City Arcade, Coventry and is an exploration of the modernist movement using Coventry city centre as its lab. Coventry was built at a time when UK planners led the world. They actually built what the great architects of Europe could only talk about. It was a time full of idealism and socialist values that gave birth to the Welfare State and the National Health Service but also left us with some disastrous town centre redevelopments, council estates and new towns. Looking and Seeing is an attempt to recapture some of the idealism of these more optimistic times, to understand what it was that D.E.E. Gibson and his colleagues were trying to do. It is a case study in how high ideals and good intentions do not always create great places.

The work will involve three elements:

Mapping: Modernism V Tradition: A series of large-scale figure ground plans contrasting the modernist city with its planned and unplanned predecessors: London – Paris – New York – Brasilia, Venice – Barcelona – Frankfurt – Milton Keynes. All contrasted with the plan of Coventry.

Artist’s Impression: Architects always produce visualisations of what their schemes will look like when complete – full of smiling happy people beneath blue skies. These are deceptions and today’s architects are no less guilty of it than those in 1951. We have reverse-engineered some of these views of Coventry, starting with a modern view and taking it back to an artists’ impression of how it was intended to be.

The malleable city: A large scale plasticine model of Coventry built by architecture students at a scale of 1:1000. This will start with the medieval city that survived up until the war, then take out the bomb damage and build the post war city. The output will be a stop motion film showing the growth of the city.


4 Recessions Part 2: The 1980s: Manchester and Thatcher’s Britan

I arrived in Manchester for the autumn university term of 1979. The previous winter had been the Winter of Discontent and I had been a month too young to vote in the May election that had seen the Thatcher Government come to power. The recession officially lasted only for my first autumn and spring in Manchester, but its effects were to be felt in Manchester for much of the following decade. That first winter inflation peaked at 22% and the new Government introduced monetarist policies to bring this under control. This involved bringing the unions to heel, slashing public spending and ‘improving’ industrial productivity by closing down inefficient industries. All of this succeeded, at least as far as inflation was concerned, which, by 1983, had fallen to 4%. The cost was however paid in deep cuts to the public sector, mass unemployment and the decimation of manufacturing industry. By the time I was doing my finals unemployment had risen to 12.5%, three times it peak in the 1970s recession and a level not seen since the Great Depression.

These changes disproportionately affected the industrial north. Manchester had been in steep industrial decline since the 1950s and was particularly hard hit. The city lost 207,000 manufacturing jobs between 1972 and 1984 and its unemployment rate rose to 20%. The city was also haemorrhaging people with the population of the council area (only part of the conurbation) falling from just over 700,000 after the war to around 430,000 by the end of the 1980s. As in London eight years earlier, there were fears that the city would collapse. The difference in Manchester was that this collapse did actually happen ­– it is just that Manuunians refused to accept it. One of the conceptual problems of regeneration policy is getting people to understand what a place was like before it was regenerated.

Most people find it impossible to conceive how far Manchester, and indeed most northern cities had fallen by the early 1980s. The best way I can illustrate it is to describe a walk we took one Sunday afternoon when I was a student. We started from the Town Hall and walked out through the derelict Central Station, to Castlefield with is scrap yards and derelict mills, on through Pomona docks and Salford Quays as far out as Barton Bridge. From the heart of the city to its edge, a distance of some 6 miles, we walked through uninterrupted dereliction. We could have done the same along the Irk Valley to the North or the River Medlock to the east. Even in the city centre there were large areas of dereliction, including the two sites facing the town hall on Albert Square.

Hélène on that walk through Castlefield in the early 80s and from the same spot last year  

IMG_2496 Castlefield scrap yard

My first job in Manchester Council in the mid 1980s was to work with the Derelict Land Grant team who spent all of their time demolishing factories and covering the sites with grass and occasional trees. The idea that these sites would ever be developed was inconceivable, the productive heart of the city was being tidied away and grassed over. The bits of the inner city that were neither derelict nor reclaimed green spaces, were council estates (at the time over half the city’s residents were in council housing). The city centre was ringed by some of the ‘boldest’ experiments in social housing from Turkey Lane in the north to Fort Ardwick in the east, Pendleton in Salford (the only one still standing, if not for long) and, of course, Hulme. The Hulme estate on the southern edge of the city centre was a phenomena. The redevelopment of the 130,000 strong community of Hulme had been underway since the 1930s. The last and most iconic scheme was the Crescents completed as late as 1971 and named, without any sense of irony, after the architects Charles Barry, John Nash, William Kent and Robert Adam (A small block in the centre was named after Hawksmore).

The Crescents soon after completion – the grid of the demolished terraces can still be seen to the right

The Crescents, c 1966

The redeveloped Hulme was perhaps the most complete vision of a modernist city ever realised in England. The neighbourhood included six estates, all but one of which were concrete deck access blocks of 6-9 storeys interspersed with 13 tower blocks. By 1984 when I lived there, 59% of Hulme’s adult male population and 68% of its young people were unemployed. All the families had been moved out after the tragic death of a child in 1976 and it had become home to every waif and stray, student and drug dealer in the city.  The redevelopment of Hulme swept away Stretford Road, one of the busiest shopping streets in the city. It was replaced with the Clopton Walk precinct that struggled to sustain a newsagent and an off licence behind vandalite and graffiti. Just opposite this embattled precinct stood a brick box without windows that had been built as the Public Service Vehicles Social Club, for the city’s bus drivers. In 1978 a local television reporter called Tony Wilson took a lease on the place and opened it as a live venue that he called the ‘Factory’, partly as a homage the city’s industrial past and partly as a reference to Andy Wahol. The birth of the Factory was to be the first tentative step in Manchester’s renaissance.


The original Factory in Hulme photographed by Kevin Cummins and the Hacienda less than ten years later

Within a few years The Factory spawned Factory Records, Manchester’s own idiosyncratic record label that signed Joy Division, which then, after Ian Curtis’s death, became New Order. In 1983 Wilson opened a much larger club which he called the Hacienda, in a warehouse on Whitworth Street on the edge of the city centre. With an interior designed by Ben Kelly the club became the centre of the Manchester scene (so much so that it was recreated for the V&A Museum’s exhibition of the best of British Design). By 1988 the club had become the focus of the Acid House movement had become the epicentre of ‘Madchester’s’ Summer of Love. In the ten short year after  Anthony H. Wilson (as he later liked to be called) signed the lease on the Factory, Manchester became the centre of the music world. What is much more important, it became cool. It became a place with cultural significance and with an international profile for more than just football.

I remember at the time a friend of ours spent a few days in hospital in San Francisco at the time. When his fellow patients found out he was from Manchester he was treated a minor celebrity. To my shame I never went to the original Factory (being entirely unaware of its cultural significance in my first year at Uni). I later made the perilous journey from Oxford Road across the glass-strewn footbridge over Princess Parkway to its subsequent incarnations as the Russell Club and then the PSV Club. By 1983 I had moved into a flat in Hulme with my then partner and now wife Hélène, and we found that the dark forbidding area was no less scary as residents. It did however have its consolations and throughout the 1980s it would be the powerhouse of Manchester’s creative community.

The Punx Picnic in Hulme sometime in the mid 80s

UK - Manchester - Hulme - Punks PicnicThe Hulme flats were large, having been built for families, and yet were let to, or squatted by, students and young people. A study of the area undertaken in the late 1980s found that a third of the population had university degrees, equivalent to the city’s leafiest suburb, while another third had no qualifications at all. But it wasn’t a divided area – qualified and unqualified, most people were unemployed, looked the same, drank in the same pubs and ran the gauntlet of the same muggers and drug dealers. This was Manchester’s version of Copenhagen’s Christiania or Berlin’s Kreuzberg, a place on the edge, barely tolerated by the authorities, full of ‘crusties’, anarchists and new age travellers (who overwintered their convoy in Hulme). Yet it was also full of musicians and writers, artists and actors. The big flats provided space for studios and rehearsal rooms, some were turned into recording studios, others into cafes and ‘Blues’ clubs. People published magazines out of apartments, ran design companies and even ran a green produce home delivery company.

In short the conditions in Hulme, extreme as they may have been, created just the right growing conditions for Manchester’s creative economy, the same economy that has pulled the city back from the brink of collapse. In her Book the Economy of Cities Jane Jacobs has a chapter entitled ‘Birmingham Good, Manchester Bad’. Writing in the 1970s she makes the point that Manchester with its tradition of large industrial workforces was singularly ill-equipped for the economy of the late 20th century. Manchester’s economy had always been based on large mills employing thousands of people in relatively unskilled occupations. This created ideal conditions for the growth of working class politics like the Chartists and indeed for music and sub-cultural expression as Dave Haslam has documented in his history of the city’s music scene. However it was not ideally suited to entrepreneurship, innovation and flexibility unlike Birmingham, which was known as the ‘city of a thousand trades’. The lock manufacturers, gun makers and jewellers of Birmingham were based on production chains of small companies each concentrating on one part of the process. Thus Birmingham had the ideal conditions to supply the component chains needed by the car industry – the big economic story at the time that Jacob’s was writing. However today’s economy is based on intellectual capital, creativity and culture. Ironically the working class culture of Manchester, fertilised with the products of its universities, and cultured through the dark days of the 1980s recession created a city much better placed to compete in the economy of the early 21st century.

It is not that far fetched to draw a line between the informal creative economy of Hulme and the decision in 2005 of the BBC to move four departments to Manchester. The recession and collapse of Manchester in the 1980s contained the seeds of the city’s recovery just as will happen in Detroit in the coming years. This is the resilience of urban economies, they go through cycles of growth and decay but it is during the latter that conditions are most propitious for innovation and creativity.


The 1970s: London and the Three-day week

The recession of the mid 1970s was the back-drop to my early teenaged years. When not blacked out by power cuts the television was full of stories about strikes and trade union militancy. The recession had been triggered by the 1973 Oil Crisis and the miners strike later the same year. In January 1974 the Conservative Government imposed a state of emergency. Very soon we were in the three-day week and the country was plunged into an uncertain world of power cuts and strikes. The British economy – already branded the ‘sick man of Europe’ – was struggling under the burden of 20% inflation, unemployment of more than a million and a huge national deficit. 1974 saw two elections, the first of which resulted in a hung Parliament and the second a majority of three for Labour under Harold Wilson. 

It is hard today to imagine, but there were very real concerns at the time that London was a city in danger of dying. The early 1970s saw the closure of many of the city’s docks causing the number of dockers to fall from 60,000 after the war to just 30,000. Unemployment in London doubled between 1970 and 1976 reaching 7.2% and the population fell below 750,000. 1973 saw a Labour administration elected in the Greater London Council but high inflation and the oil crisis forced them to raise rates by 200% and the Labour group eventually split with a radical left wing group breaking away led by the unknown figure of Ken Livingstone.

The 1970s were turbulent times in London full of political struggle and conflict. The Barbican was opened at the start of the decade and the political and professional view was that London’s fabric needed to be updated and ‘modernised’. The great battle of the era was fought in Covent Garden, a district laid out by Indigo Jones in the early 17th century on the kitchen garden of Westminster Abbey. The Fruit and Vegetable market that had traded on the site since 1649 was widely agreed to have become impossibly congested and inefficient. A decision was taken in 1971 to relocate the market to Nine Elms and in 1974 Covent Garden was vacated.

Covent Garden MarketCovent Garden redeleopment

The old Covent Garden Market (above) was relocated and plans drawn up for a Barbican-style redevelopment. This is the only image I can find of what was planned.

The GLC, which had inherited the freehold beneath much of Covent Garden, started planning for the redevelopment of the area a soon as its closure was announced. Its plans were very much of their time and the aim was nothing less than comprehensive redevelopment of some 75 acres of land, with high-rise offices and grade-separated roads. It was a plan drawn up by the Conservative GLC but supported their Labour successors, by Conservative Westminster Council, by Labour Camden Council and by National Government of both colours. The only dissenters were ‘a motley vociferous collection of locals who had no evident power or influence’1.

This motley crew in the form of the Covent Garden Community Association chaired by the Reverend Austen Williams, was the lone voice of dissent at the 1972 public enquiry into the proposals. They were ridiculed by the barrister for the GLC as ‘fanatics standing in the way of progress’ and they faced an almost total political consensus ranged against them. Following their inevitable defeat at the enquiry, the campaign took to the streets, staring with a huge demonstration in Trafalgar Square in 1973 followed by a campaign of civic disobedience. Protestors set up a picket outside the Mayfair home of Lady Dartmouth, the chair of the relevant GLC committee, they occupied offices, disrupted press conferences, squatted buildings at risk of demolition and generally caused as much nuisance as possible.

Many years later I was interviewing architects for the Homes for Change housing cooperative in Hulme in Manchester. One of the interviewees was MBLC Architects and their presentation, led by George Mills, opened with a black and white slide of a press conference of the Architects Revolutionary Council in Covent Garden in 1975. The ARC was a group of students from the Architecture Association led by their tutor Brian Anson. He had formerly been principle planner at the Greater London Council and had been sacked for ‘taking up cudgels’ on behalf of the Covent Garden Community Association in 1971. The ARC’s manifesto proclaimed that architects should immediately stop working ‘only for a rich powerful minority or the bureaucratic dictatorship of Central and Local Governments and offer [their] skills and services for the local community’. There amongst the committee arranged like the Last Supper behind a long table with long hair, sideburns, velvet jackets and sunglasses sat George. Needless to say MBLC got the job.

ARC CompositeThe Architects Revolutionary Council meeting in Covent Garden – George being the third from the right.

Unthinkable as it had seemed in 1972, the campaign was eventually successful. By the mid 1970s the national mood had changed and in 1974 the Conservative Secretary of State Geoffery Rippon was persuaded to List 250 buildings in the Covent Garden area forcing the, now Labour, GLC to rethink its plans. There followed a difficult period of cohabitation with the Covent Garden Community Association and the GLC sitting together on the Covent Garden Forum, a body that lasted until 1978 when the community withdrew their support. However an Action Plan was agreed in 1978 to renovate rather than redevelop the district with the old market being converted to a speciality shopping area that opened in 1980 and the rest, as they say, is history.

Covent Garden Can Make itThe story of Covent Garden is however not just one of political strife and community action. The battle for Covent Garden was won not just through marches and occupations.  What also happened was that the area was colonised by creative business in the years following the closure of the market. It was a neighbourhood that had become vacant during of one of the bleakest economic periods that the UK had ever faced, yet it filled up rapidly with small businesses and creative industries attracted by the cheap rents, the heady atmosphere of dissent, alternative culture and an increasing concentration of like-minded people. It was this burgeoning of economic activity as much as the political campaigning that the argument about demolition. A debate that started as a discussion about the demolition of vacant building evolved into one about extinguishing a thriving business community.

My company, URBED was founded in Covent Garden at this time. Two former management consultants, Nicholas Falk (McKinsey & Company) and Christopher Cadell (Boston Consulting Group) set up URBED to apply business ideas to the process of urban regeneration. With help from John Worthington on the design side and Ronnie Lessem on enterprise development, they used Covent Garden as a source of ‘action research’ and as a testbed for ideas such as the adaptive reuse of old buildings, and training for entrepreneurs. One of the first initiatives was to set up a Space Exchange to put creative businesses in touch with building owners, and an exhibition revealed what was really going on. Today these would be called Meanwhile (or ‘Pop-up’) Uses. Our research discovered some 1500 businesses employing 30,000 people in eight or nine clusters. We pioneered the idea of ‘working communities’ an idea that David Rock pioneered at 5 Dryden Street which developed into the ‘managed workspace’ movement. The businesses that populated the shabby staircases and vacant floors of Covent Garden were the vanguard of a creative economy that would eventually transform the whole of London.

The story of Covent Garden is shared by other districts that emerged through a similar baptism of conflict in the 1970s. The North Laine in Brighton was a humble neighbourhood of terraced houses threatened with demolition to build an urban motorway. The area was occupied on a temporary basis prior to demolition by another ‘motley collection’ of radicals and creatives who, having fought off the road scheme, became the nucleus for a creative quarter that thrives to this day (in a way that Covent Garden, struggling under the feet of tourists and buskers has not quite managed to do).

However perhaps the best example of a creative quarter to emerge from the dark days of the mid 1970s is Camden Lock. Like Brighton this was the ‘victim’ of a proposed road scheme. There were plans in the 1960s to complete a London motorway box by linking the Westway through north London on the line of the Grand Union Canal. The canal would have disappeared as would much of Camden under a motorway junction. In the early 1970s the canal wharfs and railway arches of the area were blighted by the prospect of this scheme so that British Waterways were happy to grant a seven year lease to Northside Development Ltd. a company formed by Peter Wheeler and Bill Fullford initially to do up vacant houses but which was looking for a commercial opportunity. They gambled that the road scheme would be dropped opening up the prospect of a proper redevelopment. However in the meantime they had to make a return from the site with uses that could be easily removed if the motorway scheme materialised.

To do this they found (or were found by) a 27 year old called Eric Reynolds. As he says; ‘there was an explosion of arts and crafts in the Sixties and Seventies, but there were few places for people to sell their wares. I walked round London looking for an open space and came across this yard. In the week, it was a printers’ delivery yard, we got a short lease and on Saturday, March 4, 1974, we opened. There were 40 stalls, which we let out at £3. They were mostly craftsmen and artists – silversmiths, people selling home-made buttons, knitted children’s clothes, plus a woman who sold decorated traffic lights and milk churns. But the weather was appalling and we only got a few hundred people. Later that year, the canal was opened up. Then Sunday trading became legal, so the market opened on Sundays as well.’ The rest again is history, Camden Lock today includes a series of markets with more than a thousand stalls and has changed forever the character of Camden. It is now one of the most visited attractions in London and while it has been accused of selling-out and losing its authentic edge it remains a lively, boisterous place full of independent businesses.

Liberty MillsThis scheme in Merton South London was done by Eric Reynold’s company Urban Space Management and URBED. The scheme involved the conversion of the old Liberty Silk Printing works to a market and creative workspace.

Today when we use Camden Lock as an example of what could happen in some northern town, the response is generally, ‘ah well that’s different’, ‘it was never as run down as we are’ and, ‘in any case, it is in London’. The lessons from the 1970s suggest firstly that London as bad if not worse in the 1970s than many northern cities are today. But more importantly it tells us that it was this decline that created the conditions for Camden Lock and indeed Covent Garden to emerge. If the development market had been strong these areas would have been smothered glass and concrete. Space for diversity, and time to grow things incrementally wouldn’t have existed.

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4 Recessions

This piece was originally written as a chapter for an Academy of Urbanism book. The format of the book has now changed so that the chapter will not be included. I therefore thought it was at least worth posting the material on this blog before it becomes too out of date. It was originally called ‘4 Recessions and a Pottery’ and was inspired by our work in Stoke-on-Trent in the depths of the recession. A much shorter version appeared in the first issue of the Academy of Urbanism’s journal also called ‘4 Recessions and a Pottery’ even after the section of Stoke was edited out so that the title mystified many people. The piece includes case studies of the recessions of the 70s, 80s and early 90s focussing on London, Manchester and Bradford respectively – these are included as separate posts. This introductory piece sets out the central idea that the seeds of urban regeneration are almost always sown during times of recession. The final post tries to apply the lessons to the recent recession.

It has not been easy working as an urbanist in a time of recession. In the late 1990s and early 2000s there were plenty of people who wanted to build things, land values were positive and change seemed possible even in the most deprived urban neighbourhoods. The job of the urban designer was to mould and shape this development pressure into successful urban areas. It was therefore quite a shock in the autumn of 2008 to see this development pressure evaporate overnight. Suddenly no one wanted to build anything, and the notion of masterplanning seemed slightly absurd. The question became not, how can we shape development, but how can we make something, anything happen? However a lack of demand to put up new buildings doesn’t mean that nothing is happening. Just as the harshest eco-systems often have the richest ecology so in the depths of recessions all sorts of community and economic activity can grow and develop in a way that is impossible during economic upturns.

The sustained economic upturn in the fifteen years leading up to 2008, a period when we had apparently abolished ‘boom and bust’, means that many planners architects and urban designers had never experienced anything different in their professional lives. However for those of us who are a a little older, the frustrations of working during a time of recession have been reminiscent of our formative years as professionals. For me I am reminded of the dark days of 1979 when I moved to Manchester to study planning and again of 1990 when I started working for URBED. Rather that the grand masterplans and iconic architecture of the 00s the 1980s and early 90s were all about working incrementally, stimulating grassroots activity, bring buildings back into use bit by bit, promoting ‘meanwhile uses’, working with artists and independent businesses and using festivals and events to generate interest. There are many parallels with what we and many others have been doing for the last five years. It is difficult and messy work and much harder to do in today’s risk-averse world than it was in the early 1990s. However it goes back to the roots of why I got involved in urbanism.

So in October 2010 when I was asked to present a paper to a conference in Bradford being organised by Beam on the theme of Creativity & Regeneration in the New Economy it seemed a good opportunity to explore the link between recessions, urbanism and diversity. Once I started looking into it, it occurred to me that many of the urban places that I most enjoyed, and many of the organisations and businesses that I most respected had started life in the recessions of the 1970s and 80s. Received wisdom suggests that these recessions ripped the economic heart out of urban Britain as industries went to the wall leading to mass unemployment, dereliction and urban depopulation. Without wishing to diminish the pain of these recessions, it also became clear that they created space for new ideas to emerge, for diversity to flourish and for values other that the maximisation of profit to take root. Were it not for those recessions we wouldn’t have the cities that we have today.

4 Recessions

In the following blog posts I explore legacy of previous recessions; the ‘double dip’ recession of the mid 1970s and the way it transformed London, the decimation of the north in the early 1980s under Margaret Thatcher and the way it created the city that Manchester would become and the negative equity slump of the early 1990s and how it almost revived Bradford (but not quite). It is a personal story because the London of the 1970s was where URBED was founded, the Manchester of the 1980s was where I studies planning and the Bradford of the early 1990s was where I worked when I joined URBED to work in Little Germany. The message from these  recessions is that they held within them the seeds of recovery.

To understand this process let us start by making it personal. What would you do if you were made redundant next week? In the last five years it is something that most of us have had to think about and many have experienced. It’s not something you would wish on anyone, but it has happened to thousands. People react to redundancy in very different ways. To some it is a blow to their self-esteem and financial stability that they never really recover from. To others it is an opportunity to do something different. In a world where new job opportunities are limited this ‘different something’ might include voluntary or freelance work. If that goes well, who knows it could grow into something bigger? Maybe this is the chance to write the great urban novel, to focus on that long-neglected hobby, to do a PHD, to learn how to play the guitar or to get fit. Maybe it is an opportunity to take a lease on that vacant building and let it to people selling alternative clothing (which is how Urban Splash started). People respond in very different ways and while no one welcomes redundancy, for the lucky ones redundancy it is an opportunity to do something new rather than the end of everything.

This has economic implications that are relevant to the economy of our urban areas. If you look back into the history of many of today’s successful small and medium sized companies, I suspect you may find a disconsolate person clutching a redundancy cheque.  If not this then you might find a graduate unable to get into their chosen profession and dabbling with computers or indulging their passion for music or graphics. When I was first writing this first my son Luca was working 12 hours days for no pay on an independent feature film with a crew of 40 people all in the same position. This is not something that would have happened if they had all been sitting comfortably on the first rung of the career ladder. Many of them today – including Luca – are making a living in film and media in Manchester, most are self-employed or have set up their own businesses and while they may not yet be prospering, they and thousands like them, are at the heart of the city’s future economy.

Recessions are incubators of new ideas and business. Figures from the Office for National Statistics shows that while the total number of businesses registered for VAT and PAYE fell by 2.4% between 2009 and 2010 in England and Wales the number of new business registrations per month rose from 32,412 in March 2009 to 40,748 in March 2010 year, an increase of more than 25%. You would think that the best time to develop a new business would be in a time of economic prosperity. It is true that there are advantages in buoyant economies; expanding markets, customers with disposable income and available credit. However the entry costs for new business in boom times can be very high. Premises and employees are expensive the competition is well-established and difficult to dislodge. What’s more, people in well-paid stable employment need a lot of balls to give it all up and strike out on their own. By contrast, someone with a redundancy cheque, time on their hands and few other prospects has little to lose. Gaps are created as established companies contract or fail, and customers shop around for cheaper alternatives to established products and services. Maybe innovation needs the occasional downturn, a brush fire to clear away all the dead wood and allow new shoots to grow.

The link between urban decline and innovation has of course already been made. Jane Jacobs wrote that new economic activity can only be created in old buildings. New buildings are too expensive and too regulated in how they can be used, whereas new business needs cheap, flexible, low commitment space. There is also a well-understood cycle in which city quarters that fall into decline attract artists and creative people. These urban pioneers help bring the area back to life but tend to end up being squeezed out by the upsurge in values that they create. The process documented in the 1960s by Jacobs, has recently been updated by Sharon Zukin in her book Naked city: the death and life of authentic urban places. In this she plots the decline, creative colonisation and subsequent gentrification of six New York neighbourhoods and laments their loss of urban authenticity as affluent incomers displace the very independent local businesses and ‘funky restaurants’ that attracted them in the first place. However unlike Jacobs, Zukin sees this as an unhealthy urban process. It is always sad to see a lively creative quarter such as Covent Garden become gentrified, but provided that there are other parts of the city that can be colonised by young creatives the process will roll on, regenerating the city as it goes. The following posts explore this process both spatially and over time showing how recession and urban decline create conditions in which new activity can take root. Just as cities are often regenerated by the activity that comes out of their run down neighbourhoods so city economies are refreshed by activity that starts in times of recession. 

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Should we loosen our green belts?

On 13th November 2013, I took part in a debate organised by Liverpool University in its ‘Policy Provocations’ series. The question was should we loosen our green belts? This is the text of my initial five minute statement….

Back in 1998 URBED wrote a report for Friends of the Earth. It was published exactly a hundred years after Ebenezer Howard published the first edition of his book. This was later to be republished as ‘Garden Cities of Tomorrow’ but the first edition had a more radical title; ‘Tomorrow: A peaceful path to real reform’. A combination of hubris and cheek caused us to call our report Tomorrow: A peaceful path to urban reform, something that really annoyed the Town and Country Planning Association.

However what upset them more was the subtitle – The feasibility of accommodating 75% of new homes in urban areas’. At the time the TCPA were not alone in believing that ‘forcing’ people to live in cities almost amounted to a breach of their human rights. Government policy at the time was that 60% of new homes should be built on brownfield land within urban areas (a target that had almost been met when we were working on our report). We forget that this policy was introduced by a Conservative Minister, John Selwyn-Gummer and opposed by his then Labour shadow Nick Raynsford. Labour were worried about housing being foisted on ‘their’ people in cities leading to town cramming – a response that may have made some sense when viewed from inner London but made none whatsoever in cities like Liverpool that had lost half of its population and was suffering terribly as a consequence.

It will come as no surprise to hear that our report for FoE did find that it was possible to accommodate 75% of housing growth in urban areas. Indeed soon after we finished it we got a call from Government to help them write a methodology based on our research to allow local authorities to measure the capacity of their urban areas.

Ten years later we looked again at the figures and found that in 2007, the year before the credit crunch, the percentage of housing built in urban areas had in fact exceeded 75% while the density of new housing had increased from 23 to 43 units per hectare. What is more, the capacity of urban areas to absorb new housing, far from being used up as had been predicted, seemed almost to be a renewable resource. For every acre brownfield land developed another had been created. If people say this evening that there is not capacity within Liverpool to built the homes it needs they are wrong. Having been written off as radicals and extremists at the time of the Tomorrow report we felt vindicated.

There is however a ‘but’. While housing output rose through the 2000s peaking at just below 220,000 homes in 2007 this was still less than the country needed. What is more, in that year for the first time the number of apartments built exceeded the number of homes. In many respects this was a good thing and heralded an age of urban living that has transformed our city centres. However it also had a dark side as crap, buy-to-let units were built as investments and never actually to be lived-in.  Policy had effectively choked-off Greenfield housing, forcing housebuilders into the uncertain territory of urban renewal, public private partnership and brownfield land – which they weren’t comfortable with, was more difficult and made less profit. So they focussed their efforts on city centre apartments contributing to the housing bubble. It is therefore no surprise that the crash in the apartment market has seen the number of new homes plummet to under 120,000 last year.

We need to do something about this and the easy option is to loosen the green belt. Give housebuilders what they want, unleash the constraints, and housing numbers will rise. However before we do that let us think for a moment.  The impact of the policies of the 2000s on cities like Liverpool has been transformative. There remains much to be done, but the city is far more lively, busy and successful that it was when all of its new housing was being built in its far-flung suburbs. A radical loosening of green belt policy puts all of this at risk. We will need to consider the planned development of greenfield land, (even our radical Tomorrow report conceded this) but this needs to happen alongside moves to bring back the apartment market in a more considered way and to maintain levels of brownfield building within cities.

When we were working on the Tomorrow report we had arguments with Friends of the Earth about the loss of countryside. To us it wasn’t the main issue. Only around 11% of England’s land area is urbanised and much of the land on the periphery of cities is pretty poor quality. Our concern about loosening the greenbelt is its impact on cities and their sustainability. Allow cities to sprawl and their urban cores will decline, allow this to go unchecked and you risk ending up like Detroit. You risk ending up with a car dependent society, based in sole-less suburbs much as we did at the end of the 1980s. My fear is that the careful balancing act required is beyond policy-makers and that a knee-jerk response to the housing numbers risks undermine the renaissance of our cities.

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Feeling safe


A few years ago I was back at my old university to give a talk to students. afterwards one of the lectures took me to task about what he saw as a contradiction in my argument. On the one hand I had railed against gated communities, on the other I had used the Homes for Change scheme in Hulme (that I had been involved in developing) as a good example of the new urbanism. But surely Homes for Change is a gated community, he argued – it is built around a courtyard (pictured above), most of the residents enter their flats through the courtyard and… the courtyard is gated! What did he know? He was clearly one of those relics that had spent a career teaching a set of principles for the design of new towns, housing estates etc… that, one by one, were being challenged by new urbanists. However the real problem was that he was right – Homes for Change is undeniably gated – it’s just that some forms of gated community damage urban vitality and some don’t.

The irony is going to be lost on the residents of certain inner city housing estates but, feeling safe was one of the original motives for people coming together in urban areas. There is safety in numbers, whether it be villagers coming together behind a stockade to protect themselves from wild beasts or the citizens of walled towns and bastions created to repel marauding armies. Throughout human history walls have provided protection against bad spirits, wild animals, outlaws, raiding parties, invading armies, or even just those sods in the next village who have been harbouring a grudge ever since… well let’s not go into that again. The point is that urban life, community, commerce – civilisation itself indeed, took place within the walls, protected from the wilderness, lawlessness and mayhem beyond their protection. Urban life was the thing being protected rather than the thing to be protected from.

However the threat is not always external, even the smallest settlement has its criminals. Nevertheless in a society where everyone knows each other, the threat is containable. As cities grew it became clear that urban life was not always so benign and that not all the threats were beyond the walls. Indeed if you were rich and powerful you may have cause to be fearful of the whole population if they became the angry mob. So the defensive lines were redrawn, the wall around the city remained to protect against external threats but individuals also had to create new defensive enclosures to protect themselves from the enemy within.

This gave rise to various urban forms. The ruling elite would retreat to castles or walled cities within the city – like the Kremlin in Moscow, the Forbidden City in Beijing or the Green Zone in modern day Baghdad. In Southern Europe merchants would build palazzos – fortified town houses built around an internal courtyard with only small barred windows into the street. The apartment block is another defensible form with its single entrance guarded by a concierge, or in cheaper blocks by a entry com system.

However the most common type of defensible urban form is the urban block with its public outer face and its private interior. This, by the way, is the sort of gated community that Homes for Change is. All of the ground floor units in Homes for Change have doors onto the public streets that define the four faces of the block (including commercial units on the high street). The courtyard forms the private interior of the block and it rightly barred to everyone but the residents. This is an urban form that is as old as cities and is the complete opposite of the modern gated communities that I was having a go at in my talk. As urban areas grew, these defensive urban forms became very efficient at accommodating large numbers of strangers in relatively small places. People could live safely surrounded by people who were not part of their family or close knit community, people who they didn’t know and indeed people who could be harbouring bad intentions towards them.

Zigmut Bauman in a lecture he gave at Sheffield School of Architecture defined cities as ‘places where strangers live together without stopping being strangers’. His view as a sociologist (which I’m not sure I would agree with as an urbanists) is that this is  something that humans are not very good at, creating a sense of perpetual anxiety or ‘mixophilia’. He goes on to say however that humans derive great benefit from living in cities and so have developed coping strategies. The city walls have been drawn every tighter until now every household has its own.

However It is not just a case of being able to retreat behind the palazzo walls, into the safe heart of the block or your fortified home. As the citizens of New York in the 1970s found out or indeed the present day residents of certain South American mega cities, there is no point being safe indoors if you are in danger as soon as you step onto the street. In some South American cities affluent residents commute from their apartment or gated villa to their office building via rooftop helipads never setting foot on the street. The role of defensible urban forms should not therefore just be to protect their own residents but to contribute to making the rest of the city safer. The point about the urban block is that it makes a clear definition between private and public space and it makes both safer. The former is made safer by being inaccessible to strangers the latter in quite the opposite way by being busy, over-looked and looked-after.

Bauman makes a similar distinction if in slightly less positive terms. He suggests that urban communities have generally adopted two strategies to keep themselves safe – the ‘panopticon’ and the ‘banoptican’ both of which he considers to be bad ideas.

The panopticon is based on the ideas of Bentham, the Victorian reformer who created prisons with radiating wings so that the inmates always felt themselves to be observed from the central control tower. In an urban setting the idea is that the street will be sanitised by exposure to the potential stare of authority. The boulevards of Paris were cut through the winding alleyways of the medieval city in the belief that crime and immorality thrived out of sight, around corners and in the shadows. The boulevards were designed to civilise the city to quell the crowd and to make it easier to police. Today’s equivalent, of course, is CCTV and the sense that in the modern city you are always potentially being watched.

The opposite of this is the ‘banoptican’ in which security is maintained through rules and barriers. These can be physical measures such as walls and gates protecting the interior of urban blocks. However more likely in the modern world the gates will be at the entrance to the housing estate, business park or shopping centre and the aim will be to keep out the ‘wrong’ sort of people. Thus the public realm becomes privatised and controlled as Anna Minton has described in her book Ground Control. The problem this causes is, as Bauman points out, that social groups increasingly mix only with people like themselves, losing their ability to live within a diverse society and increasing their level of fear thus fuelling a vicious circle in which they feel the need for more protection and control.

Bauman’s view is that the pan and ban opticans are as bad as each other and argues for a new form of informal, collaborative urban society with negotiated rules of behaviour, which would be lovely, but is perhaps where his argument is slightly weaker. We (URBED) spent some time last year collaborating with a well known Swedish architect on a masterplan in London. Sweden is perhaps as close as we can hope to get to an informal collaborative urban society and it was interesting how it influenced the way that the architects approached urbanism. They were interested in the idea of creating semi-private space within urban blocks that could provide secondary pedestrian routes through the neighbourhood. Indeed visiting schemes in Stockholm these areas work very well. However in the context of London the idea that there be any ambiguity about the status of space within the centre of urban blocks was, in our view quite literally asking for trouble.

Until the day when all cities are as civilised as Stockholm we need to find ways of making cities safe for everyone. The panopticon described by Bauman seems almost to be a police state. However the underlying principle that people will not do bad things if they feel that they are being watched holds true. The watchers don’t need to be the state, the effect is even more powerful if they are fellow citizens. Indeed this is how the self-organising rules of behaviour are negotiated and enforced. Many of the winding alleyways of Paris such as in The Marais or the Latin Quarter feel perfectly safe despite being narrow and winding. This is because they are lined with shops and cafes and thronged with people. This is not to say that danger may still lurk  down the deserted back streets and byways, however it does suggest that what sanitises urban areas is people and activity whether crowded into a narrow street or promenading on a boulevard.

This is the core principle of urban safety. Strangers in cities are inevitable. However most of them are not a threat, quite the opposite, they are the people who will potentially intervene to stop or report wrong-doing. Many of them of course will be the ‘walk on the other side of the road and pretend not to have noticed’ types, but that is not the point, the ne’er-do-wells will not be sure. The problem with many modern forms of crime prevention is that they are designed to exclude strangers. The suburban community, gated or not, is designed to welcome only its residents. This might make it easier to spot people up to no good but it also means that there are fewer people to do the spotting.

This may work well enough in middle-class suburbs with low levels of crime. However in urban areas it doesn’t work on a number of levels. At the most basic there is a danger that it doesn’t even make the estate safer  – in defining all space as private and relying on the gate for security, the community is at greater risk if the gate is compromised because there will be fewer people to witness and deter crime. At the next level the lack of contact with people from different social groups, as Bauman points out, increases anxiety and the perceived need for even more protection. Finally these gated communities are not fulfilling their responsibilities as citizens to contribute to the security of the wider city. The inward-looking, gated estates turn their backs on the surrounding streets making them more attractive to criminals

Having said that, there is no problem with gates. The role of the urban environment it to create a clear distinction between public and private space. The job of the urban block is both to create the secure private interior and the lively surveilled external streets. The density of the block, the number of doors and windows, the active used on the ground floor all can help to make the surrounding streets safe through surveillance. At the same time Mr. Lecturer, the interior of the block – like that in Homes for Change should be gated and secure. The irony is that, when you get this right, even in a high crime area like Hulme, then the gates can be left open as our Swedish friends were advocating. The level of overlooking and stewardship in Homes for Change is such that the gates aren’t always needed, but of course it is still important that they are there just in case they are.


Glasgow’s Renaissance


In 2010 Glasgow was one of the three cities shortlisted by the Academy of Urbanism for its Great City Award and indeed was eventually voted as the winner. This is the report of the assessment visit to the city.

A number of the people that we spoke to when the Academy visited Glasgow started their presentations with an infamous front cover from the Observer Magazine in the 1980s. Over a picture of urban devastation ran the headline ‘Home Rotten Home, what its like to live in the worst corner of Britian’, by which, of course, they meant Glasgow. This was the city’s nadir and in hindsight also its turning point. It is difficult to believe that this is the same city described last year by Conde Nast as a ‘a fantastic world class city’ by the OECD as the ‘the New Berlin’ or even more improbably by Vogue as ‘the chicest city in the world’.

However once you spend some time in Glasgow, walking around the city centre –  it’s stylish shops, new financial district and creative Merchant Quarter – and travel around the environs of Kelvingrove, the redeveloped Clyde Waterfront and the new urban quarter of Crown Street the hyperbole is not so far fetched. In the words of Time Magazine; ‘brimming with style and culture, Scotland’s second city is a revelation’.

Glasgow is a city transformed and it is almost impossible to imagine it, as it was when it had an unemployment rate of 60% and was described as a ‘Hellish mix of drink poverty and violence’. Well almost impossible. On visiting the city’s East End and hearing about districts like Carlton where male life expectancy is just 53.9 years (compared to 67.4 years in Iraq as the Sun Newspaper helpfully pointed out) you realise that the Glasgow of old has not been entirely banished despite huge efforts and investment by the council and other agencies.

Glasgow’s transformation may not be complete but the extent of its renaissance is pretty impressive. No other city has recovered so well having fallen so far, and it holds lessons for the reinvention of industrial cities across the western world. However as we heard, Glasgow’s origins are not, in fact, as an industrial city. It started as a religious centre founded on the rather dubious myth and relics of St. Mungo. The cathedral is the oldest in Scotland and the University is the fourth oldest in the UK (after Oxford, Cambridge and St. Andrews).

It later developed as a trading centre on the Clyde, built on the back of slaves in the cotton and tobacco trades.  Such was its wealth and growth rate in the early 19th century that a new town was build to the west of the cramped medieval city centre. This extension was gridded like a North American city, heedless of the site’s topography, and one of the presentations described it as Chicago on the Clyde, the most easterly American city. There was in fact an lively interchange between Glasgow and the US, with Glasgow architects helping to shape the architectural character of cities like Chicago and then reimporting the American influence to Scotland. So successful was the new town that the city centre shifted westwards. Today Trongate once the western entrance to the old city now marks the eastern boundary of the city centre.

By the beginning of the 20th century Glasgow’s population had grown to more than a million and the city was designing and building half of all the iron-built, sea-going ships on the world’s oceans. It was one of the preeminent industrial cities of Empire – one of the ‘shock’ cities of the age doubling and trebling in size as it sucked in people from the highlands and Ireland. At its peak it was a city of great contrasts – able to stage the 1903 International Exhibition and commission world-class architecture like Gilbert Scott’s University Building and Macintosh’s School of Art, yet with some of the most notorious slums in Europe.

It was from these heady heights that Glasgow fell. In the latter half of the 20th century its industrial base collapsed, its population halved and it became the ‘Home rotten home’ described by the Observer. Its route back from the brink has been an object lesson in city regeneration. This stated in the 1980s with the establishment of the Tourist Board and the opening of the Burrell Collection along with the 1988 Garden Festival. However the big breakthrough was its designation in 1990 as European City of Culture which Glasgow used very skilfully to relaunch itself.

The two decades since then has seen the physical transformation of much of the city. The city centre has been regenerated and we were told that it is now the largest retail centre outside London. The Merchant City has been revived as a cultural quarter, the Universities are expanding and being restructured to create a new learning quarter, while the city centre has expanded towards the river with the new International Financial Services District. To the west the former ship yards on the Clyde house the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre (the Armadillo) together with the new Digital Media Village and the HQ buildings for the BBC and Scottish Media Group. To the East the Clyde Gateway project is being managed by an Urban Regeneration Company that is using the 2014 Commonweath Games to kickstart a £2 Billion  regeneration programme starting with a Games Village of 700 units and four new venues. Across the city 21,000 social housing units are being redeveloped and neighbourhoods like Crown Street (the former Gorbals) are being used as model to regenerate neighbourhoods around the city.

The results are impressive. In the decade to 2007 the city’s economy grew by 20% creating 63,000 jobs and attracting 45,000 new residents. The city’s confidence is reflected in its carefully managed image – ‘Scotland with Style’ and its momentum has carried it through the early years of the recession. In 2009 there was a £3.95 Billion investment programme underway.  Some of the plans, especially in the East End seem ambitious in the current economic climate but even here the city is fortunate to have the Commonwealth Games as a focus for investment to see it through the worst days of public sector cutbacks.

Today Glasgow really does have a certain style and huge self-confidence. In the UK we are not always very good at recognising that we have our own great cities that can match Milan, Barcelona, Copenhagen and Chicago. Glasgow may not quite be at the level of these cities, but walking around on a warm evening at the end of Summer on the Academy visit it really did feel like somewhere special. The red sandstone buildings, the granite paving and warm glow of the shops and bars felt a little like Stockholm or Copenhagen. Considering the state of Glasgow less than 30 years ago the it is remarkable we can even make these comparison.