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 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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An Urbanist in India

I have just returned from three weeks travelling in India with Hélène, visiting friends and trying to understand Indian cities. Even for a couple of cityphiles like ourselves India can be disconcerting – this is urbanism turned up to 11 and initially its more than disconcerting its overwhelming. This is a country where only a third of the population currently lives in cities. You can’t help wondering what is going to happen over the next fifty years as this is projected to rise to two thirds.

Our arrival didn’t aid the transition, landing in Delhi in the middle of the night and getting a taxi to a hotel on a seemingly deserted street lined with apparently vacant buildings, strewn with piles of rubbish, bodies sleeping on pavements and feral dogs roaming in packs. This was Saraswati Marg in the Karol Bagh neighbourhood and, those who know it by reputation, will realise the transformation that had taken place by the time we were awoken by a chanting Hare Krishna procession early the following morning.
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               The bodies had woken up and the dogs had fallen asleep, the latter snoozing in pools of sunlight oblivious to the rush of feet and wheels around them.  Shops had erupted out of the ‘vacant’ buildings and every street corner had a vendor. The piles of rubbish had been swept away at some point in the four hours we had slept, and the street was filled with noise and traffic horns as tuc tucs fought with motorbikes, cycles, pedestrians, dogs and cows for the limited space. The dusty wasteland of the night before had become a backdrop to a bustling city street (the word bustling doesn’t even come close).
               On talking to our Indian friends Shruti and Rushahb Hemani that we visited later that week, we realised that their experience of a street such as this is not the same as ours as ours, being westerners. They can walk unmolested down a street such as this despite clearly being middle class. By contrast two middle-aged westerners are like a magnet to iron filings, at least that was our experience on that first morning. In the few minutes it took to buy a “chai” tea from a vendor we were approached by tuc tuc drivers and traders touting for business, people seeking to ‘befriend’ us or to act as guides, a person wanting their photo taken with us and most disturbingly a series of women begging with babies lolling in their arms. Having given 10 rupees (12p) to the the first few of these women, more kept appearing eventually banging on the windows as we drove away in our uber taxi. Ever wanted to feel like an over-privileged westerner? Welcome to India. The few hundred pounds that we had just changed at the airport was a fortune in a country where 78% of the population live on 20 rupees a day. Part of our problem on that first morning was the sign over our head, visible to everyone but ourselves, that said ‘we are new here and we have no idea what we are doing’. After a few weeks as we became old hands, the iron filing effect lessened but it never entirely went away.
               The taxi taking us to the architecture school drove through a bewildering scene of human ingenuity and misery. The traffic is a wonder in itself and we will return to a full description in a moment. What shocked us on that first morning were the hundreds of people sleeping along the road, the shanty town’s in the central reservation and under the elevated motorway, the pavements clogged with traders of all kinds, not just on busy streets but along dual carriageways and even on slip roads. After a few weeks you become normalised to this and it is in any case much more intense in Delhi and Mumbai than some of the smaller places that we visited. One of the students at the architecture school in Jaipur asked how they could stop every new piece of infrastructure becoming clogged with these traders. In response I described how a new housing estate with thousands of homes in the UK would struggle to support a single shop, be careful what you wish for.
               India is intensely urban, huge cities that are growing rapidly and struggling to cope. Staying with Shruti and reading the books on her shelf,  it becomes clear that this is a relatively new phenomenon. Gyan Prakash in his book Mumbai Fables, talks about the death of the cosmopolitan liberal city that Bombay was before it became Mumbai in 1995. The runaway population growth combined with deindustrialisation has undermined its working class culture and politics. As he writes: ‘Armies of poor migrants, slum dwellers, hawkers and petty entrepreneurs occupied the city’s streets, pavements and open spaces. Mumbai appeared under siege, imperilled by spacial mutations and occupation by uncivil masses, a wasteland of broken modern dreams’. India has not always been like this, it has always been intense, but the invasion of its cities by the rural poor is something new. In another book on Shruti’s shelf the architect Charles Correa writes about his plans for Navi Mumbai – the  extension to the city that he designed. He suggests that all nations experience a period of explosive urban growth at some point in their history. When it happened in England, we were able to ship off our surplus people to the colonies. In the US, New York was able to send its surplus people to the west to populate an empty continent. But India is urbanising with no safety valve – huge urban growth with inadequate infrastructure and limited resources. No wonder the cracks are showing. Many of the Indian people we spoke to, including Sahid our guide in Ahmedabad, bemoaned this lost India of only a few decades ago.
               The question of growth is therefore key in India. Over the next fifty years the projections are that the proportion of the population living in cities will rise from one third to three thirds. The troubles of Mumbai are therefore nothing to what the future might hold. One of the reasons for our visit was a three day workshop at the Aayojan School of Architecture in Jaipur to explore the growth of the city. Professor Parul Zaveri had argued on the first day of the workshop that the priority should be to reduce rural migration to the city by investing in the quality of life of the villages. Important as this undoubtedly is, there is little precedent across the world to show that the tide of rural/urban migration can be held back. My involvement was on the second day of the workshop that looked at how the city of Jaipur might plan for its population growth. Currently a city of around 3.6 Million, for much of the last 50 years its decadal growth rate has been around 50% although more recently this has dropped to just over 30% (which compares to decadal growth rates of 13-15% for high growth parts of the UK and 20% that we assumed in our Wolfson Essay – albeit for a much smaller place). We need to factor the average household size in India which at five persons is more than twice that in the UK. So at the workshop we assumed that Jaipur would double in size in the next thirty years and in doing so would need to build up to 1 million new homes. The planning authorities in Jaipur and Delhi are trying to plan this growth, linking it to investment in new metro and BRT lines through planned urban extensions. The problem is not so much an understanding of what is needed, but an ability to get ahead of the wave of urbanism that is taking place.
               Interestingly amongst all of this growth there is also urban decline. The centres of Indian cities, once the place where the rich merchants were to be found, are emptying out. People with money no longer wish to live in the cramped conditions found In the centre of Jaipur and Ahmedabad. They have decamped to the suburbs just as they have done in the West and for the same reasons. More than half of Ahmedabad’s exquisitely calved Havelis (courtyard houses built by rich merchants) are empty and under threat. I talked in my lectures in Delhi and Jaipur about the decline of British cities and was asked by students about whether it could ever happen in India. The rate of population migration to the cities makes drastic urban decline unlikely, but if the trend of suburbanisation and urban abandonment takes hold and spreads from the rich to the middle classes, then they may well see the hollowing out of cities as we have seen in Europe and the US.
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The Haveli of Ahmedabad

               The gap between the rate of urban growth and the ability of cities to plan for this is manifest in the informal settlements and slums that can be found in every Indian city – often also around the edge. Travelling with Shruti out to the architecture school on the southern edge of Jaipur, we travelled along a main arterial road passing first a series of established slums built of bricks, cement and wrought iron. A few minutes later we passed a more recent settlement of wrought iron and tarpaulins and as we moved out of the city the slums became more recent and less substantial. Finally on the edge of the city we passed tented nomadic encampment of migrants who had come to work on the nearby construction sites but would move on at some point in the future. The Indian government classifies slums into three categories based on their construction and level of services and our journey illustrated how these relate to the transept of the city – the poorer slums being further out and less accessible. However all slums are precarious, as witnessed by a widening scheme that had recently taken place on our road which has sliced-off a strip of one of the more established slums. ‘Slice’ is the right word because the road engineers had literally cut through the settlement, through the middle of homes, even through rooms that were left exposed, often with furnishings and even occasionally occupants still in place. Yet at ground level the residents and traders were already at work creating a new commercial frontage to tap the passing trade. Self-regenerating urbanism at its most visceral.
               Standing on the Chulgiri Jain Temple on a hilltop that was once the eastern edge of Jaipur we could see the city spreading onto the plain beyond us. The expanding city stretched almost to the horizon, most of it unplanned. Indeed there were plenty of neighbourhoods that were well-establish, solidly-built and reasonably affluent, that shared the same morphology as the slums. This is part of the argument that Shruti and I are trying to make with our Climax City book. Without wanting to romanticise slums the suggestion is that their form is essentially the same as the beautiful old cities that we saw elsewhere, such as the Pols of Ahmedabad or perhaps more obviously in Jodhpur, where the medieval core of the city is ancient but where most of the buildings are of modern blockwork construction. Our argument is that slums are a form of proto-urbanism that, given time, a little money, basic services and security, will grow into something very similar to the blue city of Jodhpur or to Ahmedabad’s old town (which is being considered as a World Heritage Site). It is an argument that academics have worried about in the U.K. perhaps due to the romanticising slums issue. Indian academics by contrast were much more supportive and indeed saw it almost as a statement of the obvious.
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The Blue City of Johdpur

               On that first morning we visited the School of Architecture and Planning in Delhi. That afternoon we met with friends Swarup Dhar, Anindya Ghosh and Deepika Saxena, and were taken to see the sights and to eat in a restaurant. You soon realise that you can live in these cities in a way that it largely insulated from the riotous life of the street. Even travelling in a Tuc Tuc feels as though the chaos all around you is being played out as a travelogue on a particularly high definition screen (with sound and smells). Even our liberal friends become inured to the sights around them as did we after a few weeks. The tiny children, grey with dust squatting next to a pile of rubbish or sleeping with feral dogs on a traffic island. The begger with no legs pushing himself on a wooden platform through traffic and of course the ubiquitous sad women with unconscious babies. After a week, maybe two, you stop being quite so shocked and, if you live there, you stop seeing them altogether, which is, if anything, more disturbing. This is formalised through the caste system, even though pretty much everyone we met opposed it. It creates that vital ingredient for indifference, the idea that the people who suffer are different to us, and that somehow their fate is inevitable.
               And so to the traffic. I sometime use a film of London traffic in my presentations. It was filmed in 1903 and shows a chaotic street of horse drawn carts and omnibuses, pedestrians and horse riders going in all directions at the same time yet somehow not colliding. I used to say that it was a chaotic system regulated by eye contact, something that we are trying to recreate in Europe through the Shared Space movement. Indian roads are just like this, there are traffic regulations and even occasionally traffic cops, but no one pays them any heed. People drive the wrong way around roundabouts, the slow lane on motorways runs in both directions and traffic turning right out of a side street does so without stopping even on the busiest roads. Then there are the pavements which are impassible because of all of the hawkers so that pedestrians wander unconcerned amongst the traffic along with dogs and of course cows. And everyone blows their horn, all the time, not in anger but to say ‘I’m here!’ – indeed most lorries have ‘please horn’ painted behind them for anyone wishing to overtake.
               It is not just eye contact that regulates this system, although there is a lot of that. It is the way that every driver works on the assumption that everyone else on the road is likely to turn into their path at any moment and thinks that this is just fine. Even in the fast lane of a motorway you will at some point encounter a cow! By contrast in Europe we drive on the roads in the knowledge that the highway is exclusively ours, something reflected in our speed and the span of our attention. The death toll on Indian roads is of course astronomic (130 deaths a year per 1000 vehicles compared to 4.5 in the U.K.). This is not helped by the numbers of people who can be crammed into each vehicle (we saw 10 people plus the driver in a tuc tuc and a family of four on a motor scooter). But we never saw even a minor accident and could only admire the real-time spatial awareness of the drivers.
               Like China, this traffic is a recent consequence of urban growth. Twenty years ago there was only a few of models of car on Indian roads – the Hindustan Ambassador (a version of the Morris Oxford) and the Fiat 1100, both made under licence by Indian companies. There were also licensed versions of the Royal Enfield motorbike and various versions of Italian Scooters and three wheelers (the tuc tucs). But most people traveled on foot, by cart or by pedal power.  Since then traffic has grown hugely and everyone has become mechanised, yet they still drive as if they were under pedal power. It is a remarkably efficient use of road space and everything flows – we only experienced one real traffic jam. But presumably it can’t continue, the roads can’t become any busier and, as cities expand, it will just become untenable to move around.  If Indian cities are to continue growing they need to invest in public transport as indeed many are doing. Both Delhi and Jaipur are investing in new metro lines and BRT services but the planners we spoke to worried that they wouldn’t be cheap enough to encourage people off their scooters.
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               India’s traffic is a good metaphor for how the country operates – chaotic and unregulated, on the brink of collapse but working remarkably efficiently. It is tempting to say that this is what Dickensian London must have been like, but that would be to imply that India is 150 years behind us in terms of its development which would be wrong. India has chosen a different path, one which is both brutal and cruel as well as exciting and endlessly fascinating. In many ways it is a pure unregulated capitalist economy with huge disparities of wealth. But it is a capitalism of small businesses, there are no supermarkets here and precious few chain stores. Food is bought at the market and the needs of life are met through trade – everyone is buying and selling, doing deals, making contacts and calling in favours from their cousin’s second cousin. When Helene bought a saree under the guidance of Shruti’s mum Ila, she bought the material from one shop, the petticoat and blouse from another, and then used a local tailor to make it up, three businesses, perhaps ten jobs supported.
               While we were there, Prime minister Modi announced that the 500 and 1000 rupee notes were no longer legal tender (with immediate effect) and that all banks would close for two days. Problem enough for western tourists with their money in 1000 rupee notes, but more so for those millions of small businesses who’s savings are held in cash. They will get their money when they take their notes to the bank, once they have answered questions about where it came from and what tax has been paid. The aim is to make this economy where 80% of transactions are in cash and where the untaxed black economy accounts for a quarter of GDP) into one where all large transactions go through a bank account. The feeling on the street (well from our waiter) is that it is necessary change.
               Like the traffic, the economy is a system that needs to change, a little more regulation, a little more tax collected, a little less capitalism red in tooth and claw. But like the traffic you hope that this can be done without losing the exuberant urbanism of this huge country. This is not a less developed country but one that has chosen a different form of development. The consequences of its economy – like the carnage on the road – are horrific in many ways, but we find ourselves thinking that if we are going to have capitalism, then we should maybe try to combine the small business economy of India with the safety nets of Europe – which is what people assumed that Modi is trying to do.
               This is a country of huge potential and the way that it answers these questions will affect all of us. As it embarks on a great phase of urbanisation in the coming decades it needs to find a way of expanding its cities, regulating its traffic and reforming its economy. The presentation I gave in Delhi and Jaipur was called ‘How the U.K. Messed up its cities and how India might avoid doing the same’. However I was stronger on the ‘what not to do’ than on suggested solutions. The hope is that reform happens without destroying the vitality that makes Indian cities so compelling (and disconcerting).


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The Offenbach Block

URBED were recently invited to take part in the Architektursommer Rhein-Main Lab involving 8 architecture and design practices from across Europe*. This culminated in a week long residency in a temporary pavilion in Goetheplatz in the centre of Frankfurt. The film of the installation can be seen here.

Frankfurt is actually a conurbation of six cities and, on the southern bank of the River Main, lies the City of Offenbach. This once the focus of the city’s Jewish community and is now home to a large Arab community. People in Frankfurt told us that we should be careful when walking its streets but, as people who have lived all of our lives in the cities of Northern England it didn’t seem very threatening. OFF context

We became fascinated by the large urban blocks of Offenbach enclosed by a grid of streets but retaining the older geometry of field boundaries and plot divisions from a time when the area was rural. These messy urban blocks stood in contrast to the looming presence of the European Central Bank being constructed over the river. The Offenbach blocks were full of life, ringed with shops and cafes below apartments housing a wide range of people. Deep within the blocks could be found all manner of activities, workshops and garages, artists studios and warehouses all alongside more housing. It seemed to us, as outsiders, that this was the interesting part of the city, and was likely to be where new ideas, creativity and start-up businesses would emerge, rather than the shiny towers of the banks and corporate offices. The Offenbach Block was the building-block of the creative city.

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The Offenbach Block (illustration Ste Garlick)

In her book the Death and Life of Great American Cities Jane Jacobs said something like ‘you can only have new ideas in old buildings’. New buildings are too expensive and tightly controlled, you have to sign up to long leases and you can’t make a noise or a mess. Old buildings, by contrast, paid for themselves years ago, they are cheap, flexible, relaxed and you can occupy them on easy in-out terms if your idea doesn’t quite work out.

This is true in Frankfurt/Offenbach as it is in our home town of Manchester and particularly the city’s Northern Quarter where URBED has its studio. The block structure of Manchester, made up of former textile mills and is very different to Offenbach but it serves a similar function. Old building provide cheap, low-commitments space for people and businesses trying new ideas and the old warehouses have filled with architects, designers and other creatives alongside the remaining wholesale clothing retailers and scores of bars and cafes at street level. The problem in Manchester as with Frankfurt,  is that there is precious little of this type of space left. It has been squeezed out by the corporate city centre, new residential schemes, fancy refurbishments and suburban areas of industry and housing.  MAN context

In the modern world of tech start-ups and the weightless economy cities have become reliant on their creative class. Those that can foster a strong counterculture and a diverse economy of creative business will become magnets of young people, energy and investment. This has profound implications for the way that we plan cities, places that were once dismissed as ghettos or backwaters could become more important than shiny business parks and office blocks. The Offenbach block or the Northern Quarter block could be the building block of a whole new economy.

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The former textile warehouses around URBED’s studio in Manchester  (illustration by Ste Garlick)

 

* Recently in this context is a relative term – we were initially involved in ASRM In 2014 and the installation took place in December 2105. It just takes me a long time to put things up on this blog.

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As part of the installation in December 2015 we built a large plasticine model with the people of Frankfurt. This was done over three days and can be seen in the film of the event

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We built the model with quite a lot of help in a temporary pavilion designed by the architect Ian Shaw (who practices in Frankfurt but comes originally from Manchester)  

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The URBED/Rudlin team: Ste Garlick, Sam Atkinson, Nan Wang and Helene, Jonah and David Rudlin  

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When Nan returned a week later she found that the people of Frankfurt had added to the model!


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Cities and our mental health

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This article was published in the recent Academy of Urbanism Journal (Autumn 2015) . It was prompted by a slight concern that The Academy of Urbanism, because it believes in cities, can sometime fall into the trap of assuming that there is no problem that a good city can’t solve.  This year’s Academy Congress was in Birmingham and focussed on health and wellbeing. The assumption throughout was that cities are good for us from the presentations by public health experts and urbanists to the keynote by Charles Montgomery author of Happy City.

I happen to believe that cities are good for us, but we do sometimes fall into the trap of assuming that all good things point in the same direction. I believe in promoting health and happiness, I am committed to social justice, and am concerned that we need to do more to address sustainability, while also believing in the importance of cities. I therefore assume that urbanism is good for all these things and that that the ideal sustainable city that we discussed in Bristol last year is remarkably similar to the healthy city that we discussed in Birmingham. This is lazy, complacent thinking. It was not so long ago that cities were seen as the cause of all of these problems rather than the solution.

Last year I was asked to give a presentation on the ‘Mentally Healthy City’ to a large group of council officer in Leeds, half of whom were health professionals and half from the built environment. I was at the disadvantage that most of the people in the room knew more about the subject than I did. However at URBED we had been working with igloo to incorporate health, happiness and wellbeing into their footprint policy1 and so we had been thinking about these issues and trying to disentangle some of the assumptions that lie behind the debate about mental health and urban life.

The parable of the lost mining community

I started the presentation with the story of Arkwright Town in Derbyshire that we wrote about in our book back in 1999[i]. This mining village of tightly packed terraced houses was condemned in 1988 because of methane seeping into the properties. The residents were given free reign to design their new homes on a nearby site and inevitably built a suburban housing estate. The sociologist Gerda Speller undertook a long-term study of the community[ii] and her work has been widely referenced, particularly in a recent report on social sustainability by the Young Foundation[iii].

She found that, while people loved their new homes – the space, low heating bills, and gardens, they couldn’t work out what had happened to the village’s community spirit, and why they could no longer support a local shop or a pub. Suburban homes and cul-de-sacs it would seem are not good for community wellbeing. However the real message of the parable is that there is a difference between what makes you happy in your home and what is good for your community. Ask people what would make them happy and it is not the city they want, the opposite in fact, they want open spaces and gardens, roads with no traffic, semi detached homes and neighbours who are a bit like them. Do we think that they are wrong to want these things?

The human zoo

Much of the research into the subject suggests that the city is in fact bad for our wellbeing. A colleague of mine came across Desmond Morris’s book the ‘Human Zoo’[iv] written in 1969 as a follow up to his book the ‘Naked Ape’. In this he suggested that humans spent tens of thousands of years living in small hunter-gatherer groups of around 60 people, each occupying an area of about 20 square miles. Today there are cities where the same territory houses 6 million people – something that he calls the Human zoo. He suggests that humans in cities exhibit similar behaviour traits to animals in zoos, obsessive behaviour, violence, sexual perversion etc… He does however step back from the brink by suggesting that actually humans have adapted remarkably well to cities and the levels of aberrant behaviour is far less than you might expect.

John Calhoun[v] was less positive about the effects of living in cities. He spent much of his career building a series of large cages that he called ‘heavens‘. These were supplied with plentiful water and into them he placed small colonies of mice. The early days of each colony were good, and the mice did what mice do in such circumstances so that the colony grew rapidly. However there always came a point when overcrowding caused order to break down despite food and water remaining plentiful. The mice started to exhibit all of the aberrant behavior predicted by Morris. My particular favourite group were the dissolute youth, mice who started sleeping for most of the day, causing trouble and rejecting the life of the colony etc… Eventually mice society breaks down completely causing the birth rate to crash and numbers to fall. However significantly the colony remains dysfunctional and never recovers even when the population falls. Calhoun called this the ‘behavioural sink’, which is where we get the term ‘sink estate’. He believed that the same was true of human society and that inner city problems were the inevitable result of intense urbanisation.

Modern academic research generally doesn’t go this far. However the research community is far from united in believing that cities are good for us. Tim Townsend from Newcastle[vi] has been researching the impact of cities on the heath of children. He has shown unsurprisingly that that noise, lack of greenery and air pollution are all really bad for us as well as what he calls ‘toxic high streets’ full of betting shops, pawn brokers, tanning salons and takeaways. The issue is whether the response to this is to make a better city, free from these evils, or to escape the city altogether.

The suburban jungle

There is also a body of research about the damaging effects of suburbia on mental and physical health. This started as far back as the 1950s with the studies of Levittown[vii], one of the iconic early mass suburbs in the United States. Researchers found that the isolation and lack of community in these large early suburbs was also pretty bad for mental health – in the UK this is what became known as the New Town Blues. Researchers found that increased levels depression were linked to the loss of community and family support as people lived isolated lives in suburbs lacking community life or local facilities (or even a bus route to get to these things).

This idea was developed by Robert Putnan[viii]. In his book ‘Bowling Alone’ he describes how Americans used to belong to bowling clubs whereas now they bowl in small groups of two or three. He documents the decline in all sorts of collective activity from scout troops to political activity and sports clubs to map the atomisation of western society. In his congress presentation Charles Montgomery started to pull these strands together to suggest that living communally in diverse mixed use urban areas is better for our soul than living separately in atomised suburbs. It’s not the noise and the oppression of crowds that is bad for us, we are social creatures and crave human company over greenery and solitude. Desmond Moris thought that, like breeding colonies of sea birds, humans were intellectually stimulated by massing in large numbers.

Hedonistic super monkeys

A number of commentators have developed the idea that our nature is determined by our origins as social apes. Jan Gehl[ix] suggests that humans are walking, talking monkeys, who feel nervous in large spaces because we can’t distinguish friend or foe more than 100m away. We have large active brains and get bored easily so need stimulation every 20 seconds. Given that we walk at around at 4miles an hour we require stimulation every 10m which is why we respond well to traditional urban places and hate modernist environments.

Jamie Anderson[x] who used to work for URBED, became interested in the subject of happiness, going on to do a PHD in the subject at the Martin Centre in Cambridge, however before that he did an article for our own journal Urban Scrawl[xi]. In this he points out that our origins as apes mean that we are not very good at being happy. We are programmed for pleasure seeking as part of our evolutionary nature and while this inbuilt hedonism may explain our success as super apes, it also lies behind many of our weaknesses. There are two problems that mean that we are prone to being disappointed. The first is that we are tuned to negatives. You can walk down a street for ten years and never have any problems but if you are mugged just once that negative will change forever your attitude towards that street and maybe the whole city – We take good things for granted and notice only the problems. The second problem is ‘hedonistic adaption’ which means that when something good happens it makes us happy for a short time, then we get used to it and it becomes the new normal. I noticed this a few years ago when I made the mistake of taking two teenage boys to by a television. The monster that we brought home felt like a cinema for a few weeks but in a surprisingly short period of time felt just the same as the old TV. This is why reported levels of happiness and wellbeing do not improve over time despite huge improvements in our quality of life and indeed our cities.

So what sort of city should we be building?

So many articles extol us to consider wellbeing and mental health when planning our cities. But what are we supposed to do? Despite our view that cities are good for us, it is the case that most of the research and guidance in this area is decidedly anti-urban. We are told that to improve wellbeing we should be reducing densities, noise and congestion while increasing the amount of open space generally creating far more greenery. Indeed the theory of biophillia suggests that as a species that grew up in forests we are programmed to respond positively to greenery. The problem is that these are the same issues that drove the planners of the 1960s and 70s to depopulate cities and to build suburbs and new towns. This takes us back to the parable of Arkwright – in addressing people’s immediate needs we risk undermining their quality of life in the wider community.

The New Economics Foundation’s recipe for wellbeing[xii] is based on five issues: The ability to Connect with family, friends and the wider community; opportunities to Be Active, in terms of physical exercise; the propensity to Take Notice and be curious; the desire to Keep Learning and the chance to Give, to do something nice for a friend or indeed a stranger. This ‘five a day’ recipe for wellbeing has been widely accepted by health professionals, but its impact on the way we plan cities is difficult to pin down. Sure, we can say that the ‘keep active’ heading means more parks, sports facilities as well as opportunities for walking and cycling. But what of connecting, noticing, learning and giving? Certainly Jan Gehl’s city with a stimuli every 20 seconds is going to be better than a modernist housing estate (or indeed an empty field). However it seems that the key message is that mental wellbeing depends on interaction with other people. Of course the anonymity of city crowds can be as isolating and lonely as any rural area, even in very good cities. What we need to focus on is the creation of urban neighbourhoods and communities where human interactions are fostered.

Social Sustainability

Which brings us back to The Young Foundation report on Social Sustainabiliy[xiii]. This defines social sustainability as: “A process for creating sustainable, successful places that promote wellbeing, by understanding what people need from the places they live and work. Social sustainability combines design of the physical realm with design of the social world – infrastructure to support social and cultural life, social amenities, systems for citizen engagement and space for people and places to evolve.” The report paints a practical picture of what such a neighbourhood might be like. This includes social infrastructure to bring the community together, both physical spaces and voluntary organisations. It relates to the community life of the neighbourhood, the extent to people have contact with others, the life of the street, communal areas etc… It includes the extent to which people have control over their lives and their community and finally in relates to the quality of the physical environment. In the case of the latter the suggestion is not that one type of environment is better than another, but that environments need to be flexible and responsive to community needs and controllable in part by local people.

So is the city good for us?

Well yes and no. We need to be careful of the easy assumptions that say cities are good for wellbeing and sustainably. For some people even very good cities are not good for their wellbeing and bad cities are certainly terrible for everyone’s health. The wellbeing agenda is not a flag that we can wave to say that cities are better than suburbs or rural areas. It is a tool that we should use to make cities better. The suggestions of the Young Foundation may apply to the village and suburb as much as they do the city, however they still provide importance guidance for those of us involved in the planning of urban areas.

 

[i] Sustainable Urban Neighbourhood: Building the 21st Century Home – David Rudlin and Nicholas Falk, Routledge 2009

[ii] A Community in Transition: The Relationship Between Spatial Change and Identity – Gerda M Speller and Evanthia Lyons, SPERI, Department of Psychology, University of Surrey

[iii] – Design for Social Sustainability: A Framework for creating thriving new communities – Young Foundation, 2012

[iv] The Human Zoo – Desmond Morris, The Literary Guild (1969)

[v] Population density and social pathology – Calhoun JB, Scientific American 206: 139-48, Feb 1962

[vi] Exploring the relationship between prevalence of overweight and obesity in 10-11 year olds and the outdoor physical environment, North East England –Tim Townshend, Director of Planning and Urban Design, School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape, Newcastle University

[vii] Community in History: Levittown and the Decline of a Postwar American Dream: A sociological perspective on the 50-year-old faded American “suburban legend” – Chad M. Kimmel, Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania

[viii] Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community – Robert D. Putnam, Simon & Schuster, 2000

[ix] Cities for People, Jan Gehl, Island Press 2010

[x] http://www.arct.cam.ac.uk/links/graduate-students-in-the-department/ja447@cam.ac.uk

[xi] http://issuu.com/johnsampson/docs/us_issue_3?e=1351154/2619057

[xii] http://www.neweconomics.org/projects/entry/five-ways-to-well-being

[xiii] See iii


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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.