A speculative design proposal – now the basis of a film by Grant Gee – shows that London can expand inside the Green Belt , says its author Peter Barber
100-Mile City is a speculative proposal made in the context of the current housing crisis in London. Furthermore it is a necessary and provocative response to the Adam Smith Institute’s 2016 paper which insisted that “London’s Green Belt must be built on to curtail the housing crisis”.
The project is work in progress but currently takes the form of a plaster model and drawings by Peter Barber Architects and an essay film by director Grant Gee, entitled ‘The True History of the Hundred Mile City’. It proposes that we build a street-based, linear city 100 miles long, 200 metres wide and four storeys high. Wrap it round London. Give it little factories, schools, houses and shops laid out in terraces along intimately-scaled streets and around squares. Make it a dense, intense edge to London – a confident purposeful boundary fronting a revitalised productive countryside.
The 100-Mile City is a linear Barceloneta, a circular Rome, a stretched Porto. Surburbia reprogrammed, hybridised, compressed.
Ride the 100-Mile high-speed orbital monorail, a souped-up Circle Line, with the loose ends and frayed edges of London’s transport system – its isolated city-edge train and bus termini – instantly, meaningfully, usefully connected with circus ride technology. Bexley to Brentford in 40 minutes: super-functional, super-fast and super-fun.
And, in time, watch our city grow inwards, spreading like a wildfire through wasteful, anti-social, car-choked suburbia. Eastwards from Richmond, west across the Newham Marshes, up from Eltham, across the hills of Greenwich and the empty golf courses of Enfield. Metroland back-filled, integrated, urbanised. An inside-out Ville Radieuse, Blighty style. So rather than building out into the Green Belt why not build inwards?
Gee’s film takes this question and proceeds as a kind of lightly ironic, archaeological field trip into the past of the 100-Mile City. What was once there? What did prospective inhabitants want? What administrative and logistical problems had to be overcome? To investigate such questions, the filmmakers set out by bicycle on an epic journey along the site of the future city, circumnavigating London 15 miles out, just inside the Green Belt. We filmed a single scene at each mile along the way: 100 miles, 100 shots.
Film is combined with the voices of a wide range of people whose lives would be touched by the 100-Mile City: families now unable to afford a home; developers and politicians who would design and administer the massive project; current residents of suburbia who’re quite happy with the way things are; smallholders outlining the ways in which adjacent land would become a major new agricultural region; lost tourists, bored teenagers, golfers, street ranters. Their voices combine and overlap to become a forum discussing the vision of the city, like a particularly lively Question Time but with better jokes.
As the film progresses along the route of the future city, and the contributors’ voices begin to accumulate and give us a richer image of what, exactly, that city might be, the imagery of the film gets richer too. We get glimpses of and moves through our model of the 100-Mile City. Images of the current suburban scene are video-projected onto the model. The filmmakers travel to other cities to film urban elements that inspired the original vision of the city: Porto, Barceloneta, Wuppertal (for the great monorail). Scenes of these various good-city elements are spliced into the video of existing suburbia to produce a new space. The film becomes a collage-city.
Stylistically, the film lies somewhere between Patrick Keiller’s deadpan dissection of the British landscape in ‘Robinson in Space’ and DA Pennebaker’s rollicking, visual-jazz montage ‘Daybreak Express’. The soundtrack is joyful, stomping rhythm and blues: pounding out the miles.