Exit from the city of destruction

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The Independent Online
Today, those of us with money and a degree of health and security are offered an ever increasing choice, not only of things, but of ideas and ways of ordering our lives. The free market enables those who live in cities to satisfy our apparently insatiable and urgent demand for whatever we want - a quarter-pounder with cheese, London buses the colour of a packet of Refreshers, 15 pounds' worth of unprotected sex, sushi and Thai noodles at four in the morning, the occasion to play the good Samaritan dropping the odd coin into the lap of the homeless on London's Hungerford Bridge, and the rich, and ultimately indigestible, recipe of fashionable bars, cafes and shops that those lucky enough to be in work can afford.

Whatever we want, whenever we want it; that's the magic of the modern city. In a free market everyone's choice is valid. There are no longer powerful trade unions or entrenched restrictive practices to hold back entrepreneurs from the pursuit of a quick buck. We can all buy shares and enjoy a bit of the profits ourselves. We are freed from the nuisance of having to think about that elusive and Victorian concept: the public good. There are no rules to tell us what is good or bad. The freedom of choice we seek means, ultimately, that nothing is better, just more expensive.

This notion of infinite choice has been the underpinning of the cities that successive governments have helped to build in Britain over the past 15 years; cities, but not necessarily communities. No city, of course, can be perfect. Christian, the hero of John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, sets out on a journey from the City of Destruction to find the Celestial City that stands behind closely guarded gates on Mount Zion. That city is the City of God and is reachable only after death. This, however, has never put off the living from trying to beautify cities. To do so, from the earliest recorded cities in what today we call Iraq onwards, a degree of planning and co-ordination was necessary. No beautiful city has ever come from the workings of the free market. A perfectly free-market city might be profitable, but never a thing of beauty. It is more likely - Tokyo, for example - to be exciting but physically chaotic. The dream cities we go off to for weekend breaks - Paris, Rome or Siena - to escape our cities of destruction have all been highly planned, or, at least, represent a likeable mixture of regulation and deregulation.

Our cities have often failed to get this mix right. In deregulating and privatising civic services, spaces and utilities, and abolishing the Greater London Council, national government has offered Londoners a diversity of public services and utilities in exchange. Many are cheaper to run and offer lower fares and prices than before.

Many London bus drivers, for example, take home about pounds 150 a week. This means low costs. But is a low-wage urban economy a good thing in the long run? Deregulated bus services may or may not offer a good service. Some do, some don't. What we do know is that drivers no longer receive the expert training they once did under London Transport. The vehicles are shoddy things that get the job done in a perfunctory way. They are no longer the classics of 20th-century design that once made their way into studies of exemplary urban design worldwide.

Deregulation in other areas of the urban economy might also seem to be liberating. By freeing entrepreneurs from minimum wages and maximum hours, for example, the deregulated city offers employment for more people than ever before working in our much celebrated new wave of cafes, bars, restaurants, shops, and clubs. The city can stay open far longer than it did in the days of national and local government hegemony. By keeping wages low, we find jobs for those coming to this country to escape tyranny and poverty abroad. My local car wash was able to cut its price recently, from pounds 8.95 to pounds 5, when it replaced Yugoslavian cleaners with those recently arrived from the Gambia and Nigeria. Should I really be pleased that I have saved pounds 3.95 on washing the car? Whether I should own a car and live in the city centre is another question: we are all a bag of contradictions.

Deregulation and diversity promise choice, but cannot always deliver. Free from restrictive planning and design guidelines, developers and their architects worked up all sorts of fanciful facades and elevations. Competitive tendering, design and build contracts and architectural competitions have all helped to cut the costs once imposed by architects and to shorten design time. Yet the resulting buildings - a plethora of secondhand designs imported from Chicago and New York, have not exactly enhanced the capital.

Meanwhile, what were once public spaces have increasingly been privatised. We live in cities where malls and arcades are heavily policed and locked at night, in which the video camera plays an ever increasing role.

Regulation, order, civic pride and other such concepts might seem old- fashioned. Yet the high-quality public services and utilities, beautifully designed, were never designed solely to delight the eye of the aesthete, architect and connoisseur. They matter because they offer to every citizen regardless of class, creed, colour, age or income the very best we can create and make work at any one time.

Our model should be a well designed civic square, covered market or even a custom-designed red London bus. On its two decks is all of London life, chattering, gossiping, chewing gum, glued to mobile phones. There is no need for a bus to be the colour of Jacob's coat to prove that it belongs to the world of the free. The red London bus, designed and developed over 60 years, offered the highest standards of design and engineering as well as aesthetics for all Londoners and visitors to the capital. It did not discriminate. Design is not some sort of aesthetic bolt-on goodie; it is a way of working for people, of ennobling those we design for. The buses were a part of an integrated and famously well designed public transport network that, from 1933 to the 1980s was co-ordinated and run by London Transport.

That we have agreed to abandon this co-ordinated enterprise is sad, not least because its wilful destruction is a symbol of the way in which we have abandoned the very notion of the cohesive city. The London Transport model as a way of making sense of the modern city may, however, appear to be too forced, too contrived and too limiting. Of course there is a danger that regulating a city may make it too chaste or too rigid. Civic enterprises such as London Transport, the London County Council and its successor, the GLC, were always in danger of becoming complacent, self- regarding bureaucracies run by jobsworths and men and women trained to take no risks.

And yet a city that orders its basic services and utilities, and has a long-term plan, even a very gentle one, for its streets and squares, its parks and river, is a city that is free to breathe freely. And without such a basic order surely a city lacks a spine and the basic components of a nervous system. It cannot hold together; cannot work out when it is in ill-health.

Disorder can, of course, produce variety, excitement and its own hit- and-miss beauty. No dog is more handsome or loyal than the highly deregulated mongrel, while those of us who cannot abide supermarkets and the culture of couch-potato passivity they bring in their space-consuming, car-generating wake, love the messy vitality of street markets.

We support them not only because they offer wide choice and low prices, but because they are part of the civic drama we dream of when we think of sipping an espresso in an open air cafe in a piazza in Rome or Siena. Why not London or Manchester, Liverpool or Glasgow? A well ordered city provides a beautiful and workable backdrop to the theatre of the streets.

This civic drama is an active and not a passive play: cities with a future, as history shows, are highly active transformers creating music and poetry out of chanting and tribal dance, love out of sex, architecture from shelter, art from craft and civic order from rude nature. In Lewis Mumford's words, "the translation of ideas into common habits and customs, of personal choices and designs into urban structures is one of the prime functions of the city". A translation the opposite way causes the city to decline and fall.

Order and some degree of regulation do not mean turning London or Manchester into a vision dredged from the notebooks of Albert Speer. LCC housing estates from the turn of the century, designed by young socialist architects, still surprise with their gentle and civilised order. Here, were not just so many soulless "housing units'' as we have learnt to call homes for the poor, but a celebration of the ideals of John Ruskin, William Morris and the Arts & Crafts movement: formal, ordered, yet not without beauty, designed to be a decent home to the poorest Londoners, the cockneys of yesterday, the Bengalis of today, and a far cry from either Broadwater Farm or their free-market successors.

Equally, the city with a strong backbone can support the most gorgeous festivities and buildings as wild as Daniel Libeskind's magnificently controversial design for a new extension to the Victoria & Albert Museum. Framed by black cabs, red buses and Giles Gilbert-Scott telephone boxes, Libeskind's building will have the power to thrill and yet be kept in its place.

Can we create this vision of the democratically ordered but vibrant and diverse city? If we want to, of course we can. First we have to want a civic society rather than an urban miasma of individuals. And, second, we have to overcome a wish to have as much as we can of everything for as little as possible financially.

If, however, we continue to give in to the politics of selfishness, the modern city will disintegrate into ever smaller splinters, none of them capable of nurturing or providing the big civic gestures, whether Frank Pick's London Transport or the floundering millennium exhibition at Greenwich. These are the gestures that, like giant firework displays or music played live in public parks, lift everyday life above the mundane, encourage visitors and long-term business investment and which make us feel we share something in common rather than scurrying around like confused rats in a decaying sewer.

Perhaps, like stubborn children, we have allowed ourselves to be caught in a self-made stew of political dogma and lust for money dressed up as rational economics; if so, we will stay at the bottom of the hill in the City of Destruction with its Day-Glo buses, prostitutes' calling cards, teenagers sleeping rough, public spaces made private, and our only motivation, as passive customers rather than active citizens, a cheaper ride.

This article is an edited version of a lecture on the future of the city given to the Royal Society of Arts.

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