Let London live again, for all our sakes

Our capital is dirty, expensive and dangerous and Londoners are voting with their feet. Yet it still has the potential to be a cultured, balanced, sustainable city, writes Richard Rogers. First we must save it from the mercy of market forces...
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The Independent Culture
I have lived in London for more than 40 years, and, like so many of its architects in the past, I have spent much of my professional life struggling with its problems and dreaming of its opportunities. London has been one of the world's most powerful financial, commercial and cultural capitals for the best part of 400 years. The legacy of that prosperity resides in its architecture, its parks, its theatres and museums.

London is still a world leader in finance and culture. But today the capital faces grave economic, social, and ecological problems. London must urgently adopt a new and sustainable approach that encourages its public life, discourages urban sprawl, and protects the environment for the future.

The London that welcomed my Italian parents and many others in the early 1930s was a democratic haven from the persecution of European fascism. But the humanism of this great city went far beyond political tolerance. London was the first city to create a complex civic administration which could co-ordinate modern urban services, from public transport to housing, clean water to education. London's County Council was acknowledged as the most progressive metropolitan government in the world.

Fifty years earlier, London had been the worst slum city of the industrialised world - overcrowded, congested, polluted and ridden with disease. Public outcry, and Victorian confidence, backed by support from the press, led to inspired planning legislation, and, crucially, to the creation of the LCC.

This pioneering approach to London's management survived 100 years. But in 1985, Conservative central government destroyed, rather than attempted to reform, the Greater London Council - a vindictive and politically-motivated act.

The GLC's responsibilities now fall between five government departments, 33 London boroughs, the City of London and some 60 committees and quangos. London, Europe's largest city, no longer has a strategic planning authority. Instead it has the London Planning Advisory Council, based in Romford, 13 miles from the heart of the capital, which has the sole mandate of offering "advice" to government.

London was the first modern European capital with an elected government authority; now it is the only capital without one. Elsewhere in Europe, city authorities have embarked on ambitious programmes of urban regeneration; across Europe there is an emphasis on renewing urban culture.

By contrast, London is being transformed by policies designed to empower the market rather than its citizens. People no longer believe that London can provide a healthy, secure, and affordable quality of life. They are voting with their feet. Over the past 30 years, central London has lost a quarter of its population.

To this dire situation, a new issue has been added. London is one of the dirtiest and least ecologically sustainable cities in Europe. London is spreading outwards in ever-increasing circles. It is now served by a commuter belt 200 miles wide, from Cambridge to Southampton. The capital is both sprawling and emptying out at the centre.

This pattern of development has produced a city of huge contrasts. One of the richest cities in the world has seven of the 10 most deprived boroughs in the country, most of these in the east. As the city spreads, rot sets in at the core. Five per cent of inner London - large sites in areas such as Wandsworth, Vauxhall, Greenwich, Shepherd's Bush, Lambeth, Hoxton, Waterloo and King's Cross - is derelict. This figure excludes the huge empty sites of Docklands.

The time has come to halt this anti-social pattern of growth. London's civic heritage - a constellation of towns and villages from Hampstead to Westminster, Notting Hill to Limehouse - should consolidate the city around sustainable, diverse and compact urban neighbourhoods. The fact that London is made up of a collection of distinct towns and villages means that each community benefits from its own sense of character, visual identity and history. Instead of letting London sprawl and allowing these communities to decline, we should be actively reinforcing neighbourhoods. Areas of dereliction should be used to establish mixed and diverse communities.

The Government's laissez-faire, market-led approach waits for developers to select sites and apply for planning permission. The market favours out-of-town sites, where land is cheap, and invariably developments are for single-function activities - retail, housing, business, or light industry, but specifically not mixed neighbourhoods.

In cases such as these, it is up to the local authority to take action. This often leads to expensive public inquiries, an inspector's report, and finally a decision by the secretary of state. This process, as far as the citizen is concerned, is reactive rather than proactive. Costs of public inquiries often run into millions, but only the developer reaps the potential profits from the increased value of the land.

The result of this market-led approach is most clearly illustrated on the Isle of Dogs in Docklands, with its chaotic zones of commercial development, clumps of offices here, clusters of housing there. Central government gave big business massive tax relief. Government will now have to pay the lion's share of the Jubilee Line extension. Instead of gaining a vibrant and humane new borough, Londoners got a chaos of commercial buildings linked by an amusement park train. The taxpayer lost money, the community was alienated from the decision-making process, promised everything, and left only with big buildings and more traffic.

I am convinced there is a chance of creating fantastic opportunities for London's future. The new rail link to Europe provides hope. Fifty years ago, "Heath Row" was an unknown village; now it is the world's busiest international airport, which has generated development to the west.

With vision and strategic planning, the rail connection could have a similar effect on east London and the Thames corridor. But this time we need to make the development of the city to the east the subject of broad public debate. Architects and planners from around the world should be consulted, to consider structuring growth polycentrically around ecologically and socially sustainable towns.

Recently, the Department of the Environment admitted that government planning policy allowing out-of-town shopping centres has caused the commercial ruin of our market towns - an effect that was already proven 40 years ago. But London's towns and villages have suffered as much.

Small businesses are weighed down by high rents and business rates, and polluted and congested streets. Individual boroughs are struggling to improve their commercial viability and physical vitality, but this approach must be co-ordinated across the metropolis and accompanied by incentives for businesses that stay and reinforce communities.

London also needs homesthat offer an affordable and friendly quality of life. London's local authorities built only 300 new homes last year. Last night, more than 2,000 people were sleeping rough in the streets. There are 120,000 people, including families with children, living in London without the security of a permanent home. That's about the same as the population of Ipswich.

The typical estates of the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies were anti- city in their form, and notoriously badly run. They have alienated people from the rest of the community. But north London estates such as Broadwater Farm, Clapton Park or Hornsey - until recently sites of unbelievable degradation and hopelessness - have been transformed by a partnership involving housing authorities and residents, local knowledge and resources. This must be encouraged and sponsored by government funding.

In London, new housing, even when (partially) funded by the taxpayer, is organised through private developers or private associations. Their projects are designed to satisfy consumer demand, and their results are assessed by central government for commercial efficiency. Schemes with communal facilities incorporating squares, parks, shops, and schools are sacrificed in favour of rows of houses with small gardens. This approach perpetuates London's low-density sprawl, cuts communities off from neighbourhood shops and amenities and stifles innovation.

There is, however, an alternative: in many countries, most public housing is subsidised housing, built by self-governing public housing associations, co-ordinated by the local authority and debated publicly. Tenants are involved in the whole process, including the selection of the architect.

Transport lies at the heart of any strategy for making our cities sustainable. Fear of traffic has a profound effect on the way we behave. Parents are not allowing young children to cross the road on their own, and this is isolating children from their friends, and making them less independent. Over the past 25 years, the number of seven- and eight-year-olds going to school on their own around the country has fallen from 80 per cent to 9 per cent. This issue of road safety is also encouraging parents to move away from the centre of cities.

A staggering two-thirds of journeys within London are by car. The Government itself predicts that there will be a rise of 142 per cent in vehicular traffic over the next 25 years. But while £3bn of taxpayers' money was spent on roadworks in Britain last year, major public transport initiatives have been shunned. Compare a Thirties Underground map with one of today, and you will see that they are basically the same.

Today, London has no concerted transport policy. Pollution is contributing to one in seven children in London suffering from asthma or more severe respiratory disease. In London last winter, record traffic pollution was blamed for 155 deaths in just four days. (It is estimated that 10,000 people in the UK die every year from dust particles emitted from vehicles.) In 1989 alone, the Confederation of British Industry estimates, traffic congestion cost London £10bn in wasted energy and time.

Average ticket prices in London are approximately twice those in Paris, and five times more than Madrid. With the belated exception of the Jubilee Line extension, new lines, such as the Chelsea Line, or Crossrail, continue to be delayed, referred or simply abandoned.

Other cities are addressing their problems of congestion and pollution with far more determination, vision, and courage. London needs to implement policies to reduce pollution and congestion, and improve public transport.

One way would be partially to finance public transport by a metropolitan tax levied on residents and employers. The normal subsidies would still hold for senior citizens, the poor, and the unemployed. But other citizens and London employees would essentially be buying a yearly travel card at a lower price than they do now. Visitors would still need to buy tickets in the usual way, but public transport would be free to all residents and employees at the point of use.

Travelling by car would begin to be perceived as a luxury. This would encourage people off the roads and so improve the efficiency and capacity of the bus service. That service could then be expanded alongside long- term public transport initiatives, such as trams, undergrounds, light rail, and cycle paths.

London needs a co-ordinated transport strategy that has been evaluated in economic, ecological and social terms. Car travel is cheap because it is sponsored by the taxpayer. The external costs of driving - roadbuilding, maintenance, subsidies for business cars, pollution, corrosion of buildings (currently a massive 3 per cent of GNP), disruption to the local community, and ill health - are simply not reflected in the cost of car, road or petrol tax.

We are used to being told that public expenditure on public transport is unjustifiable. There are many economists, of all political persuasions, who reject this notion. We must strive as a society to differentiate between notions of short-term accounting, and the idea of investment. The cost of the public transport infrastructure must be viewed in the long term, and in the context of the overall improvements to the city as a whole.

The experience of the "ring of plastic" in the City of London is encouraging. Designed as an emergency measure to counter terrorism, the restriction of through traffic, imposed by the Corporation of London, has debunked theories that the commercial vitality of a city centre relies on accessibility by car. The scheme has improved air quality in the City and reduced road casualties and crime. It is so popular with City workers that it is being considered as a permanent policy. Imagine the implication of such restrictions when applied to other parts of London.

The real heart of London is the river. Look at any satellite image and it is the Thames that dominates. Today the river separates the poorer south of London from the more prosperous north. It is this huge and beautiful waterway that holds the key to revitalising the metropolis. It must once again become a cohesive element linking communities.

We need an effective river transport system, which would make the Thames a stepping stone from which to reach the rest of London. We need new transport piers from Kew to Greenwich, with a riverbus service that is integrated into London's transport network. Local piers should also locate the heart of new communities, with shops, and amenities - forming the basis of a linear city focused on the Thames.

We have only one third of the number of bridges compared with central Paris. London needs many more. A well-designed single-span bridge for pedestrians and cyclists costs around £3m. Where the pedestrian flow is substantial, we could build inhabited bridges, like the old London Bridge.

The stretch of the river from Westminster Bridge to Tower Bridge, at the very centre of the nation's capital, is an under-used public amenity, bordering London's richest and poorest communities. This area should become the focus of a great Millennium Project - a project about public place rather than national monuments.

The banks that border this stretch of the river contain some of our most famous buildings, and some of our most important cultural institutions - the Houses of Parliament, the Tower of London, Tower Bridge and the Festival Hall. It is also less than 500 metres from Covent Garden, St Paul's, the Strand, the Old Vic, and Waterloo station, although we never associate these places with the river.

In 1986, we proposed a new riverside park from Parliament to Blackfriars on the north bank of the Thames that would involve rerouting the road. It would consolidate the existing gardens to create a sweeping 2km-long riverside park with cafes and restaurants - the first major London park to be created this century. The park could also spill out into the river, on to floating islands with moored ships, pontoons and continuous boardwalks linking major monuments.

At the South Bank Arts Centre, we are looking at ways of reinforcing the vitality of the riverside. The proposals include an undulating crystal canopy enclosing the terraces, and spaces between the Festival Hall and the Hayward galleries - an open-air structure that could increase and control the temperature of the open public spaces below it. A difference of three degrees could give it a climate similar to Bordeaux. This could change the use of this beautiful promenade throughout the year. The rich combination of river, landscape, culture and heritage would draw life back to the great Thames, and give Londoners a powerful public space at its very heart.

A project like this, thatcrosses the boundaries of so many boroughs and authorities, could only be realised by an overall authority for the capital. London must not be abandoned to the mercy of the market - to cars, pollution and poverty. London offers every opportunity to create a cultured, balanced, and sustainable city. But to achieve this, its citizens must be empowered to shape their future.

The fifth of Sir Richard Rogers' Reith Lectures will be broadcast on Radio 4 next Sunday at 7.30pm and published in the `Independent' next Monday.