Tuesday, 14 June 2011

What doesn't make for the good city?

Yesterday morning was enlivened by a discussion on Radio 4's Start the Week - about what makes for the good city.

To be honest, and across the West, you're hard pushed not to single out and identify the many ways in which planners, developers, builders and traffic engineers can build the bad city.

Richard Sennett
(above), prodigious spokesman for a certain type of left-learning urban theorist, was easily the most incisive and analytical contributor to Andrew Marr's radio show. And what did he say? The good city integrates the pavement and the building; it allows you to pass through the permeable membrane between them. Insides open into and spill out onto outsides; workers and passers-by mingle; sitting talking and sitting meeting fade into one another. Overall frowny-faced, blocky great walls, closed-off glass towers and the straight lines of both modernity and post-modernity are to be dissauded.

Not rocket science, really. And indeed all of a piece with Richard Rogers' 'Towards an Urban Renaissance', published way back in 1999 - an era that feels like a lifetime ago in terms of optimism about government action and public space.

But never really implemented. For all its praise of Brighton's Lanes, or Leeds' redevelpoed canals, there's still far too much 'absolute' or 'catastrophic' money on show when we come to build and rebuild our urban spaces. So Sennett and Rogers have often been frustrated.

Instead we're treated to disastrous macro-structures born of Sennett's 'accelerated, febrile capitalism'. I live in Bristol, where the most famous edifice of recent times (often praised as regenerating the city centre) is Cabot Circus. It's not bad on the inside, really, all vaulting glass roof, proper street names and higgledy-piggledy angles. But on the outside there's a huge curtain wall cutting it off from the rest of the city, presenting you with a medieval citadel when you drive into the city, and generally obliterating a sense of continuity and fluidity throughout the city centre - casting half a billion pounds worth of blight and ruin outside its hallowed halls. Just a few narrow alleyways run out of it apart from towards the 'old' post-war shopping area of Broadmead - straight into empty areas of urban dereliction or onto great big roads. 'Urban design' and 'inclusivity' aren't phrases that spring to mind.

What doesn't make for the good city? Come to Cabot Circus.

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