It's little things that can make the difference in urban renewal

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CITIES are improving. Dashing late one evening from a meeting in the centre of Birmingham to the railway station last week, I noticed that there were still people going to and fro long after the shops in the pedestrianised streets had closed. There was a welcoming bustle of activity. This was no longer the bleak city centre I used to know. London is much more satisfying than it was 15 to 20 years ago. Now that Leicester Square, for instance, is closed to traffic, I am glad to recommend it to visitors; in the old days I was ashamed of the place.

Not all is gain, however. I was recently in the middle of Liverpool, also in the evening, The area around Lime Street station and St George's Hall is a sort of urban hell - featureless except for a few islands of the old Liverpool still standing, cut through with new roads along which the traffic sweeps, as if fleeing the city, unconnected with what is around it.

"Connections are what make successful cities. Unsuccessful cities are unconnected," writes Robert Cowan in a pamphlet on making cities work, echoing the famous opening lines of Anna Karenina - "All happy families resemble one another, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." All successful cities connect; all unsuccessful cities are disconnected in their own way.

At a recent meeting in Hammersmith in west London, which was part of a participative exercise in finding methods of improving the borough, the focus was largely on re-connecting communities that had been disconnected by major roads. Hammersmith has seven major east-west routes passing through it, not least because it stands between Heathrow airport and the centre of London. Even here the ideal is the connected city.

But what to connect? How to connect? The short answer is - ask the real experts. These are not, by the way, architects, planners, road engineers, local government officials and the like, but the people themselves. Residents know exactly what works well, and what doesn't, what is pleasant, what depresses them, how far they have to go for some fresh air, what are the local no-go areas, what could quickly be improved. Thus in Hammersmith and Fulham, where the Architecture Foundation, whose chairman is Richard Rogers, has been working with the local authority to improve nine sites, consultation with local people has been the starting point.

The method was to arrange day-long workshops. In attendance were various specialists, as well as members of the design team for the site. Local people turned up in moderate numbers, but there were enough of them to make the exercise meaningful. Between 20 to 40 people participated in each workshop.

The inner suburbs of every large town in the land have problems similar to Hammersmith's. How to remove, for instance, the sense of danger that deters people from using the vast area of playing fields and open space called Wormwood Scrubs, a name familiar to most people only as a grim prison rather than as an amenity. Actually Wormwood Scrubs is 15 minutes drive from my house . Until I went to see it on Sunday evening, I was unaware of its existence as a huge grassy area, almost a prairie; that is what being "disconnected" means.

Or, to take another example, how to bring the Thames into the imagination of Hammersmith. Residents hardly ever see it. Access is so poor that it is a pleasant surprise when one suddenly glimpses the water flowing by. Another group studied the question of what to do when a flyover, carrying a lot of traffic, runs right through the middle of town. But in a little group of streets close by, the problem was quite different. It was how to handle the unfortunate "other", the homeless who were turned out of bed and breakfast accommodation for the day and congregated in local streets and bits of municipal park, and were felt as a threat.

The solutions put forward are all small scale, designed simply to facilitate pedestrian movement, soften or even hide harsh features and find the cracks in the city fabric where space can be created to fill the lungs with fresh air. Transform the great West Road into a tree-lined boulevard with surface crossings rather than underpasses. Calm the traffic. Put raised lookout points along the river; provide a river bus service. Cut off noise from the motor ways coursing through the borough with landscaped earthworks. Think of the Hammersmith Flyover as a canopy and place flower and plant markets underneath.

Perhaps all this sounds trivial. But think of what is absent from the process. The sites are in the public realm, so property developers with their narrow objectives are not involved. Nor even are proper architects who design landmark buildings.

Charles Jencks has argued that "the truth of city building is that good architecture and good urbanism are opposed ... good architects, like good artists, are primarily concerned with the language of form, while good urbanists must have an equal commitment to the things that erode such language: compromise, democracy, pluralism, entrepreneurial skills and patience". The planners, too, have largely been absent from the Hammersmith process. Nor have highway engineers had a role.

In truth, the issues are small and the solutions are so obvious that one feels they are merely common sense. At the final meeting in Hammersmith, one speaker showed a slide illustrating how a small corner of Barcelona had been transformed merely by introducing well-designed outdoor seating. When the solutions are so modest, a lot can be done Reconnecting the disparate bits of cities is one of the best way of reviving the joys of city life.

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