Richard Rogers and Anne Power
Faber and Faber
Coinciding with the publication of the government's long-awaited urban white paper Our Towns and Cities: The Future (subtitled Delivering an Urban Renaissance), comes a popular version of the urban taskforce report written by its chairman, Lord Rogers, and one of its members, Anne Power, a professor of social policy with extensive experience of low-income communities.
A rallying cry for the creation of more cohesive and compact neighbourhoods, this book provides the vision and strategy that somehow seem absent from the white paper, along with a much needed dose of enthusiasm. In small square pages supported by plentiful charts, photographs, and references, this volume presents a more manageable text than the report itself. It also contains an abundance of lists and charts to show how an urban renaissance could work.
Both the book and the white paper reveal how much thinking on urban issues has shifted over the last couple of decades. The simple vicious circle of "economic decline, physical decay, and social polarisation" has been replaced by a multifaceted set of problems, requiring joined-up solutions. Community involvement and bottom-up solutions are now seen as essential, rather than reliance on local government or the market alone.
Crucially, Rogers and Power put the cause, as opposed to the effect, down to the erosion of the urban population base through suburban sprawl and drift. They want to revive the "buzz" and vitality that comes from high density living, which is also linked to the growth of the "new economy". They bemoan the failure of the government's Neighbourhood Renewal Strategy to come to terms with the importance of physical conditions and, tellingly, the word "beautiful" keeps reappearing. Lord Rogers must be credited for getting the idea of "design excellence" added to the physical, social, and economic dimensions that have influenced policy until now.
But if the tide is turning in the centres, will it reach the suburbs? The authors note that cities such as Manchester have lost two-thirds of their manual jobs over the past 20 years, without gaining the educational levels or intercity transport links needed to compete effectively in the global information economy. But they are not economists, and do not see the decline in resources available for public investment as a result of the very loss of productive capacity that has given us so many brownfield sites to develop.
It is hard not to be pessimistic when so much good research and eloquence, so many working parties and meetings, not to mention some superb diagrams, have failed to produce a policy that gets covered properly in the Sunday papers. With 4000 run-down neighbourhoods and hundreds of demoralised and underresourced local authorities, it will take more than good graphics and management-consultancy-speak to rebuild confidence in our cities.
Yet a quiet revolution is under way, even if governments tend to follow, not lead, and this book helps show the way forward. I recommend it as a basis for understanding the art of urban renaissance. It sees cities as organic systems, whose future depends in part at least on whether they capture the energy and creative power of the pioneers, who then make way for the settlers. It recognises that the secret of "neighbourhood renewals" is starting small – breaking problems down into bite-sized chunks, where all the stakeholders get some benefit out of development. If regeneration takes a generation, hopefully enough people will buy and read this book to keep an important message from the urban taskforce alive long after its membership has been forgotten.
Nicholas Falk, founding director of URBED (Urban and Economic Development Group) and joint author of Building the 21st-Century Home.