28 JUNE 1963, Page 13


The Humanity of the City


EIGHTEEN years after the end of the war in Europe London is still lightly peppered with

bombed sites. Their existence reflects the imme- morial sanctity of private property in Britain and also the time consumed in reconciling private ambitions with town planning restraints.

When the gaps are noticed at all, it tends to be a; aesthetic blots, although they are far more important for symbolising the difficulty of changing London from squalor to comeliness. As each one is finally filled in. and a new build- ing cemented into an eighteenth-century or even a medieval street, a further act of devotion is made to an obsolete road network. Occasionally, as in the Shaftesbury Avenue shambles, a developer succeeds in amassing a big enough plot to propose redrawing the streets, but that is exceptional.

Unfortunately the obsoleteness of London's historic fabric is too little emphasised. Continual exposure to noises and smells and to the turgid embrace of humans and vehicles in streets such as Piccadilly and the Strand seems to have con- ditioned Londoners to accepting it all. Traffic lights and zebra crossings are insufficiently recognised as palliatives that hinder the flow of vehicles without guaranteeing pedestrians safe passage. Worse still, the accumulation of all these half-digested manifestations of 'progress' has devalued city life. Only in places such as Parlia- ment Square when the expectation of a royal procession fills it with people but empties it of traffic, can the city's humanity be expel' enced.

Yet so long as London is rebuilt an office block here, a slab of flats there, the shortcomings of current city life will be prolonged. New Zealand House, for all the praise heaped upon it for its appearance, is almost as badly marooned as that pathetic bit of urban flotsam, St. Mary-le-Strand.

One solution to this particular problem is the construction of a new ground level for pedes- trians twenty feet above the street, This is being done both at the Barbican and around the Festival Hall where unified ownership of the land makes co-ordination easy. The attachment of a similar platform to existing buildings in Oxford Street has been proposed (it would bridge

the road) but so far to no effect. What might be done can be seen in the City of London. There, with a fine English sense of gradual progress, property developers are including pedestrian decks complete with shops and cafés on isolated sites. At first the resulting jigsaw pieces of raised pavement will lead nowhere, but eventually they will probably be linked to form a network of walkways from St. Paul's to the Stock Exchange.

Alternatively the precedent of the Temple can be adopted and precincts created that are closed to through traffic. Leicester, spurred on by envy of Coventry's shopping mall, is adopting this plan for its handsome old market. The applica- tion of this sort of thinking to central London could bring about fantastic improvements in the quality of its ambiance, St. James's Square might not become a tree-sprinkled Piazza San Marco but on sunny days it could be a place for people, not just a rather grand carpark. What is needed is more disgust with the status quo among coun- cillors and the general public.

Perhaps the proposed reorganisation of London will help. The new boroughs will be larger than their predecessors and they will have chief architects. Whether this will be a first step towards providing the professional staff neces- sary to examine and redesign London with the meticulousness evident at Leicester remains to be seen. At present the LCC has neither the staff nor a suitable planning organisation to do so except in a few neighbourhoods such as the Elephant and Castle or Warwick Crescent in Paddington.

The aim of the large-scaIe urban design would not be the total demolition of huge areas of London, but the gradual adaptation of them to changed circumstances. Side streets -might be closed to traffic or turned into culs-de-sac. Shop- ping-streets like the Strand that are trunk roads might be covered by decks. Householders and shopkeepers could be helped to rebuild co-opera- tively. For what is at stake is the morale and well-being of all people who use the city.

A necessary preliminary to such progressive thinking is borough councillors of high calibre. The paying of at least chairmen of committees has been proposed as one means of enabling young and dynamic people to serve. This may conflict with the traditional view of voluntary public service, but there is a real need to attract into councils people other than the self-employed or the retired.

Amenity societies such as are found in Hamp- stead, Blackheath and other 'villages' can be valuable in stimulating civic changes. Unfor- tunately there seems to be a commuters' law decreeing that the further people live out in the suburbs the less they care about the places they work in. The recently formed Westminster Society will therefore be significant if it succeeds in embracing both the merchants of Piccadilly and the residents of Pimlico.

Yet far-sighted councillors and local enthu- siasm are not enough. Some tangible means are needed by which everyone can see proposals and measure progress. In Philadelphia there is a monster model for this purpose and the equip- ment of every chunk of London with a compar- able one would be valuable.

Unfortunately central London has a couple of residual problems that make the remodelling and civilising of it specially hard. To start with, it already has capacity for such large numbers of workers, and attracts them from such remote suburbs, that commuting to and from it is a nightmare. The LCC estimates that this working population will grow by 175,000 by 1982 as a result of old buildings being replaced by larger new ones. It has therefore requested Parliament to limit office development by statute. One way would be to free the Council from having to compensate developers when it withholds per- mission to increase the size of buildings.

If the compensation rule persists, the LCC will certainly be unable to pay it and the pre- dicted expansion will be unavoidable. But even if the growth of London can be checked, the benefits and the potential cost of modifying its existing immense and obsolete fabric must be set against the benefits of building universities, schools, clinics and houses in a dozen provincial towns from York to Norwich. When this sort of national bookkeeping is done a strong case emerges for giving priority of expenditure to provincial towns which could begin to counter- act the magnetism of the capital. The successful revamping of London at the expense of neglect- ing other parts of Britain on the other hand would increase the capital's attractiveness and redouble its problems.

Not surprisingly the demographic attack on London and the symptoms it produces are mirrored in all the great cities of Europe from Glasgow to Milan. The seriousness of the prob- lem in France was recently summed up by an architectural magazine in the phrase:'Paris est investi par la France.' Given this common ail- ment, perhaps there is some hope that generally applicable solutions will emerge as well.

The continued presence of bombed 'sites in London is therefore more than a reminder of the past war and of the idiosyncrasies of a property- owning democracy. The sites are the smallest cogs in a huge malfunctioning demographic mechanism all parts of which need repair. Inevitably there is a tendency to concentrate on them, to complain about their unsightliness, and to speculate whether the construction of a sky- scraper on a particular one would change a familiar bit of London skyline. But at a time when the very life of the city—let alone the enjoyment of its views—is in jeopardy, concen- tration on skyline aesthetics is like bemoaning a scratch on someone suffering from a disease of the blood.