Creating Human-Scaled Places - Continuing Tradition But Building New

A beautifully written article about how current development practices do not build the kind of places people are attracted to - the foremost topic in architectural circles today. It talks about the power of a mayor to direct a vision, and the power of people who stick up for places they love and want protected. By Simon Jenkins, author & former editor of The Evening Standard.

I don’t care who fights for a less ugly London, so long as someone does. Thirty-two years ago the Prince of Wales made a speech attacking a new wing to the National Gallery as “a monstrous  carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend”. He was savaged by architects as being an arrogant, unelected nobody. But his outburst did the trick. Everyone got cold feet and we were spared a miniature cooling tower in Trafalgar Square. Instead we have Robert Venturi’s witty but discrete pavilion. 

Last week, the prince made another speech, which deserves to be as influential. Receiving an award from the Evening Standard he reflected on how often his views, on everything from food to penology, had been dismissed as “bonkers” yet turned out to be right. He again turned his gaze on London’s appearance and asked why the authorities refused to listen to what kind of city Londoners wanted, rather than let developers and architects impose their own version of profitable greed. 

The prince pleaded for buildings “that people would prefer to live amongst, caring as much about public spaces as private ones, creating human-scale places where there are no ‘zones’”. He added: “The most successful communities mix the private with affordable housing; enclose green spaces within squares and communal gardens; have walkable mixed-use neighbourhoods and an identity that fosters pride and a sense of belonging.” His foundation for “building community” is seeking to promote “mid-rise mansion blocks and rediscover the timeless value of squares and terraces”. 

This is hardly new. In 1961 Jane Jacobs said it in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, a masterpiece of urban understanding which planners love to read and choose to ignore. If it was not for bitter battles to save Georgian and Victorian streets and squares London would look like a cross between the Barbican and East Germany, where streets are either banned from gated citadels or planned as free-fire zones against civil unrest. The integration of houses and flats, old buildings with new, shops, markets and informal spaces, is entirely foreign to most modern architecture. 

It is never too late to revise a city because it is always changing. But the gulf between Jacobs and today has never seemed wider. Walking recently across the Soviet-style wilderness that is the Stratford Olympics site I was reduced to screaming out Jacobs’s message like someone from the Book of Mormon. 

Boris Johnson’s dream of a new London is a zoo for lumpy mastodons, a builder’s yard of giant structures in scattered zones. It is a denial of everything that has made London the messy and diverting city most of it still is. 

This has nothing to do with “needing more houses”. Hong Kong can cram in thousands of people to an acre but the densest housing in London remains that of the Victorian terrace. Westminster’s abortive attempt at a Paddington Pole would have had fewer homes than street terraces on the same site. Johnson’s rejection of a new street layout for Clerkenwell’s Mount Pleasant in favour of some isolated slabs was for fewer homes not more.

A new survey by the think-tank Create Streets comes to a clear conclusion. A recent Ipsos MORI poll found that 60 per cent of Londoners thought the city’s tower-fixation “has gone too far”. High-rise building was not popular with most people. It was associated with “high levels of stress and mental depression… inimical to effective child-rearing and hostile to social capital”. 

Create Streets, a champion of “high-density, low-rise”, points to the lack of communal cohesion around towers, and to their “social atomisation”. Compared with streets they are inherently unfriendly places, as Jacobs maintained. They also “hit the ground dead”, as can be vividly seen around the More London icebergs on the South Bank or along Euston Road. Look for a lively street or square in London and nine times out of 10 it will be pre-20th century. 

I once lived in a tower. It was non-existent as a “neighbourhood”. Towers tend to be most popular with males (twice as much as with females) and with “the prosperous, the childless and second-home owners”.

Why do architects and planners so hate what people claim to want and ignore the evidence of what has made London so popular and habitable? Why can they not create the neighbourhoods in which they themselves mostly live?  Is it that they are no longer taught how to make that living, breathing dynamic space called a London street? It is as if they were artists never taught to draw.

The answer can only be that architects are victims of a cult, an ideology of Corbusian orthodoxy in which they “know best” what is right for other people, even if not for them. Whenever Prince Charles talks on this subject architects protest that he is abusing his position, imposing his private views on the planning process. But that is precisely what architects do every day as they rip apart the street pattern of London. 

The prince has no role in the planning process and offers no “planning gain”, code for inducements that so corrupt London’s planning system. He cannot offer “money for a school” or “access to a swimming pool”. The prince has no influence beyond persuasion — any more than I do in writing this article. 

True power lies where it should lie, in the mayor who is elected to decide on London’s overall appearance. The first two London Mayors, Johnson and Ken Livingstone,  created a London skyline that is a visual car crash. 

Their decisions have, mostly, been environmental disasters. Standing next to the prince last week was a certain Sadiq Khan, the new Mayor. He was applauding enthusiastically. We wait to see if he meant it.