Where there's a Willesden there's a way

Friday, September 26, 2003

Coast to Coast

First in a new series of "Supercities UK", and for once an actual vision of urban planning. If Will Allsop's buildings were as elegant as he claims they were, I'd sign up to his vision of the future right away.

The last time we had real vision in urban planning was in the 1920s, when the Garden Cities were built. The idea was fantastic- create urban spaces with all the joys of the country, designed to be stable and pleasant communities. We've let that vision slip a little- their ideas of essential green spaces became the empty bland grass verges of poor areas in Hertfordshire. And in Hemel Hempstead, the post war government tried to implement these on the cheap. The idea of a New Town (as opposed to a Garden City) was essentially to move people out of London. Poor people are much easier to move than rich people, so an entire class of people were told they were not wanted, and moved out to these towns which were always destined to become hotspots of poverty. They were poorly planned, cheap and large.

Fifty years on I'm living with the effects of this. Hemel and Borehamwood are hellish, concrete environments lacking purpose and hope, and with poverty comes crime, teenage pregnancy and anti-social behaviour, all things the government wants rid off. The New Towns were a huge social experiment, and it's impossible to stand in the centres of these places and say the experiment worked.

So why am I ranting on about this, apart from the fact that I'm stuck in Hertfordshire? Well, the government is planning to build a *lot* of houses in the south east of England. Whole new communities springing up in just a few years. Two possible outcomes:
i) There's a development plan, a grand scheme that makes sure these places don't become traffic-chocked concrete hellholes of crime and poverty. Taking into account cars, transport systems, fostering a genuine sense of community and all those other essentials for a functioning town.
ii) It's going to look like Hemel Hempstead.

In the absence of hearing about any major plans, can we assume ii) is the most likely? It's all going to happen again, isn't it?

If you doubt this is an issue, compare how you feel in Borehamwood High Street with Central Square in Hampstead Garden Suburb. One environment is peaceful, breathtaking and pleasing, whereas the other is noisy, dusty and ugly. I believe cities affect their people as much as people affect the city. So this is very important.

What we need is a Garden Cities Society for the new era, one that understands that towns actually have to have a good effect on their inhabitants and create a happy and healthy environment, whilst being aware of consumerism, traffic and crime.

It's either that or we can let more of the country be covered with depressing urban sprawl, where we can stick the poor and forget about them.


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