Helen Goodwin enjoys a timely and fascinating appraisal of politics and the visionary architect-planners of the 1960s
‘Boom Cities: Architect Planners and the Politics of Radical Urban Renewal in 1960s Britain’
Otto Saumarez Smith
Oxford University Press, 208pp, £65
“It would be easy, given the benefit of hindsight, to assume that one might now tackle this sort of job in a different way.” The casual reference to ‘this sort of job’ gives little idea of its gargantuan scale: Wood Green’s ‘Shopping City’, a monolithic 14-acre retail and housing megastructure, conceived as a new ‘Heart for Haringey’ and completed in 1981, was the last physical manifestation of an ambitious planning philosophy that dramatically reshaped British city centres from the late 1950s – a period forensically examined in a new book in which the above quote appears: ‘Boom Cities, Architect Planners and the Politics of Radical Urban Renewal in 1960s Britain’.
Author Otto Saumarez Smith describes how a “foundational ideological belief” that economic growth would bring social progress and prosperity saw the rolling out of city plans characterised by pedestrian precincts, dizzying ring roads, capacious multi-storey car parks and towering high-rise blocks, all carefully planned to allow the safe and happy coexistence of people and cars. ‘Boom Cities’ drills down into this hugely significant moment in the evolution of our urban environments, challenging many of the assumptions about modernist planning and dispelling the myth of the megalomaniac planner. It places the 1960s project of urban renewal in the context of an accompanying ideology, charting the connections between the architectural and political elites of the period and exploring the complexity of ideas that came together to shape the project of remaking the city.
This hugely readable and fascinating book is packed with anecdotes and quotes from contemporary papers and publications, giving a real sense of the priorities and preoccupations of these designers – notably Lionel Brett and Graeme Shankland, here portrayed not so much as architect-planner professionals but as socially-minded individuals with a deep moral commitment to society and a deep sense of responsibility for our urban heritage. Contemporary ‘Townscape-inspired’ illustrations evoke the optimism of the era, particularly for those of us for whom they conjure up vivid childhood memories of navigating labyrinthine walkways and traversing draughty concrete piazzas in these novel concrete environments.
‘Boom Cities’ helps us to recognise that many of the issues that challenged planners and divided opinions 60 years ago continue to provoke debate now: urban intensification and the threat to urban character and identity; the densification of the suburbs – or of ‘Subtopia’; struggling town centres, failing high streets and the demise of small independent retailers; the protection of our urban heritage; a new generation of planned garden communities across the unspoiled English countryside; public versus private sector investment and the question of who stands to gain; the often dubious social consequences of regeneration; and the intractable problem of cars. ‘The benefit of hindsight’ certainly highlights the urgent need for a new generation of visionary thinkers to tackle these ongoing challenges today.
Saumarez Smith’s book appears at a moment when appreciation of the importance of planning, and the role of the architect-planner, are enjoying a renaissance. Much of that work must address the legacy of the 1960s. The concrete pedestrian precincts of the 1960s that were called ‘environmental areas’ are a long way from our understanding of what such a term might suggest today, and the dominance of the car and of ‘traffic architecture’ has drastically damaged the quality of our urban environments, requiring radical action. Saumarez Smith’s anecdotes show us that we cannot say that we were not warned – not least by the 1966 Labour Party manifesto which stated that “whether planned or unplanned, all our towns are choked with traffic, and their population overspill threatens the unspoiled countryside around”.
Saumarez Smith points out that “so many of the worst catastrophes of city-centre development happened when local authorities did not have the internal wherewithal to steer it”. One of the changes that came about as a result of the planning culture of the 1960s was a shift away from the “purely physical” towards “a broader, more social approach which increasingly took in issues beyond the built environment and subsequently relied on expertise from a range of disciplines”. Financial cuts subsequently reversed this trend towards the building of internal planning capacity, but the tide is turning and varied expertise – including that of local communities – is increasingly recognised as essential to the task of planning to create thriving, sustainable towns and cities.