Farewell to the city?

Ignore the New Urbanists and 'Londonostalgics' - the end of the boundary between town and country is a liberation, not a loss, says a writer on urban issues.

James Heartfield

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At a recent event at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London, I was asked to talk on the subject of the ‘future of cities’ (1). I had to say that it was a bit like being asked to contribute on ‘Steam Power in the Twenty-First Century’, or ‘Tomorrow’s Patriarchy’. The city, you see, is already way past its sell-by date. As a mode of living, of organising homes and workplaces, the city is redundant.

For the proponents of Urban Studies, such a proposition would be an anathema. Their patron saint – the late Lewis Mumford – wrote a book called The City in History. The ‘City out of History’ would have been a more accurate title. Mumford’s monomaniacal scholarship went looking for cities throughout the ages. And as Buckminster Fuller said, a man with a hammer finds a world full of nails. Mumford organised his material to support the thesis that the city has always been with us, only changing in its form, from the original necropolis through the ancient city of Ur, the Greek city-states, the Renaissance city, Cottonopolis in the nineteenth century, and so on.

In a minimal sense, Mumford’s work had a point: people have lived in relative proximity since they took up farming. But assimilating all these wildly different forms of association under the rubric of ‘city’ only made the term so abstract that it told us nothing.

Mumford’s protégé, Jane Jacobs, had the measure of him when she said that in the end he did not really like cities. She meant he did not like the real complexity of relationships that made up city neighbourhoods, the untidiness of city life. But then Jacobs sowed confusions of her own. She elevated the idea of the neighbourhood community, a kind of Sesame Street vision, actually derived from the Bohemian Greenwich Village of the 1950s.

Jacobs’ idealisation of the small-scale city neighbourhood was not just an observation – it had a message, it was normative. The message was that the suburbs being constructed by the planners, in particular Robert Moses, were a soulless mass. Jacobs’ case against the suburbs has had a second outing in the theories of the so-called New Urbanists. In Britain, Herbert Girardet – who influenced Sir Richard Rogers’ Urban Task Force – made the case for the ‘sustainable city’ (I have dealt with Herbert Girardet’s environmentalist arguments elsewhere, (2)). He meant that high-density urban living could reduce the pressure on the environment.

In the hands of Lord Rogers of Riverside, the New Urbanism was worked up into a grand policy, to ‘build up, not out’. The Green Belt would be tightened to save the countryside from the planners, and urban blight would make way for a renaissance of Barcelona-like Café Society. Rogers’ prescriptions did find an echo in the gentrification of urban centres, like Hoxton, London, and the canal-side redevelopments that have appeared in most major cities. Writers Iain Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd developed a romantic literature of place appropriate to the time, which I have called Londonostalgia – that is, a nostalgia for the ‘edgy’ cityscape instead of nostalgia for the evocative landscape (3).

Most problematically, the incoming Labour administration, not wishing to resurrect Old Labour’s council housing policy had not thought about what to put in its place, and left it up to their new friend Lord Rogers. The result was simply unworkable. Under his influence, local authorities restricted new development, in favour of small, cramped high-rises, packed into vacant lots. The net result of this, and the reason why Rogers eventually fell out with the Labour Party, is a spectacular shortfall of homes relative to demand, adding to spiralling house prices. As the New Labour government’s communities minister David Miliband made clear to me, the current stress is on getting the houses built rather than saving the Green Belt (4).

The failure of the Urban Task Force’s policy was predictable – and predicted (5). At best, the trend that Rogers (following Jacobs) identified was a counter-current to the main movement in human settlement. At worst it was a hysterical nay-saying to the all-too-obvious changes taking place.

The facts of the matter are these: only nine per cent of Britons live in the urban core; fully 43 per cent live in the suburbs. The movement that has been taking place since the 1920s has slowed and quickened at various points, but it has never reversed. Suburbanisation, or more precisely dispersed living, is the future. Urbanisation is the past. (For a defence of suburbanisation, see Robert Bruegmann’s new book Sprawl: A Compact History.)

Richard Rogers, Jane Jacobs, Herbert Girardet, London mayor Ken Livingstone and Max Hastings of the Council for the Protection of Rural England all decry the fact – but there it is.

Of course it is true that some well-heeled yuppies and dinkies moved back to re-conquer the inner cities from the unemployed, Bangladeshis and West Indians in the 1990s. But that was an eddy moving against the main torrent of people out of the city, which former Number 10 adviser Geoff Mulgan called the ‘counter-urban cascade’, ‘from the most urban areas to the suburbs; from the suburbs to the fringes; and from the fringes to rural areas’.

What is driving the counter-urban cascade?

The best way to understand this is to ask the question the other way around: how did it come about that Britain was divided between town and country in the first place? The question is one that preoccupied radicals for generations. Ever since Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote The Communist Manifesto, the goal of overcoming the antagonism between town and country has featured in every militant socialist programme, whether it was Leon Trotsky’s or William Morris’.

The Marxists identified the division between town and country as a problem with good reason. The expulsion of peasants from the land was the original moment in the creation of a propertyless class of wage-slaves. Forcibly separated from the means of subsistence, by acts of enclosure in England, clearances in Scotland, they had little choice but to work for Gradgrind in his mill. As the late EP Thompson documented, it took many decades of struggle to undermine the customary rights of commoners to the land (7).

By defending their monopoly over the land, elites did not just hang on to territory. They were defending the social relationship that divided society into propertyless wage-slaves and property-owning employers. That is why landed estates, trespass laws and Green Belts have been such a strong feature of British life. It is also why the land-owning class continued to command respect from the industrial elite long after they had stopped making any productive contribution to the nation’s wealth. Their policing function, excluding commoners from the land, was their real contribution to British capitalism.

As a true Victorian, Karl Marx preferred the town to the country. He had an instinctive detestation of ‘rural idiocy’, and its romanticisation. The ‘cult of nature’, he thought, ‘has managed to be reactionary even in comparison with Christianity’ (8). But the more reflective Marx did not just reverse the romantic discourse and champion the town over the country. He wanted to overcome the opposition between them. Trotsky, too, looked forward to the day when we could ‘wipe out the frontier between town and country’, where the town would absorb ‘into itself the advantages of the country (spaciousness, greenery) while the country had been enriched with the advantages of the town (paved roads, electric light, piped water supply, drains)’ (9). Tragically, Trotsky lost the argument over Russia’s future to Stalin, who rose to power by exacerbating the conflict between rural peasantry and urban workers.

The prospects for overcoming the antagonism of town and country seemed greater in the more developed West, and through the utopian novelist John Bellamy and municipal reformer Ebenezer Howard the socialist goal informed the policy of creating new garden villages. Howard’s garden village plan was loosely the model for the new suburbs that grew up between 1920 and 1950. But though suburbanisation did see the expansion of homes, first for the middle classes and later for the working classes, into the countryside, its idealism was severely blunted by the reaction against the hated ‘ribbon development’.

In the interwar recession, and the postwar reconstruction, working-class people took every opportunity to escape from grim cities and re-assert their rights over the countryside that the landed classes had bagged for themselves. The late Benny Rothman, a Manchester communist, led a mass trespass of Kinder Scout in 1932. Families from the East End of London started to live in the holiday huts they made at Pitsea such that ‘by the end of World War II there was a settled population of about 25,000 on 75 miles of grass-track roads, mostly unsewered and with standpipes for water supply’. In 1949 it was designated a new town – Basildon (10).

It was the ribbon development, though, that persuaded the authorities that they had to replace the old aristocratic monopoly over land with a state-enforced one. In the place of landed estates, first the Greater London Council (1938) and then the Tory housing minister Duncan Sandys (1955) created Green Belts to restrain the spillage of towns into the countryside. Great ‘national parks’ and a ‘national trust’ were created as a supposedly more democratic alternative to landed estates – but their essential purpose was the same: to keep the people off the land; to maintain, artificially, the division between town and country.

The end of the division between town and country

The socialists envisaged the end of the antagonism between town and country coming as a result of the abolition of capitalism. But that window of opportunity was closed off by the 1980s. And yet the geographic expression of proletarianisation has lost most of its technical rationale.

If the fundamental monopoly over land has persisted, technological change has undermined much of the reason for the division between town and country. There are two important changes. The first is the continuing revolution in agricultural output, which has made it less and less necessary to keep so much of Britain under pasture and the plough. The second is the transport revolution that has made the distance that people can cover in their daily commute greater by the decade.

Increased yields have made much of Britain’s farmland redundant. That is no small thing, since fully three-quarters of Britain is earmarked for agriculture. Now farmers are leaving the business, and seeking to get rid of their land. The tell-tale statistic released by the government in the wake of the foot and mouth crisis of 2001 is that even in the countryside proper, agriculture is not the main source of wealth. (Indeed, even in the most rural areas, agricultural employment only accounts
for a fifth of all jobs – see State of the Countryside, published by the Countryside Agency, p89). The vacuum left by vacant land is a powerful pull factor for new developments.

At the same time the way people travel makes it easier for them to live at a distance from their work. The amount of time people commute to and from work is surprisingly static, about the same time as they did in 1950. But over the same 50 years the distance they travel in that time has increased six fold, from five to 30 miles a day (11). Nor is the transport revolution letting up. Between 1991 and 2001 the share of the population with no access to a car dropped from 20 to 12 per cent.

Land vacated by agriculture, hypermobility – these are the changes that are driving the revolution in living. Far from taking the population into high-density cities – that is a solution for a minority only – the main trend is towards suburbs, and exurbs.

Today there is no London, as such. The city has lost all definition, as its outer edges have blurred into the dormitory towns around it. A century ago Ford Madox Ford imagined a London that was a hundred miles across, taking in Oxford in the West, Cambridge in the East, Brighton to the South. ‘It’s on the road, this change’, he wrote. ‘It has to come: all south-eastern England is just London.’ (12) In his science fiction projection, Ford imagined a non-stop monorail carrying commuters from Oxford to London in half an hour. Today the fast train to London takes about an hour, so we are on the way. In their comprehensive atlas of the 2001 census, People and Places, Daniel Dorling and Bethan Thomas observe that ‘the metropolis of Greater London…now extends across all of Southern England’, ‘from Gainsborough in the north to Penzance in the west’ (13).

The Londonostalgics avoid the obvious conclusion – there is no city of London anymore, but a 100-mile radius conurbation. Not the countryside concreted over, but the city liberally interspersed with green spaces (take a look at Google Earth some time: England’s green and pleasant land is not in danger). Instinctively radicals will resist the conclusion. They remember how the Tories struggled to frustrate a London-wide authority, and raised a reactionary slogan of a London of villages. But today, you would be hard pressed to deny the fact that London has been disaggregated. Is Southall part of the same city as Walthamstow, or Camberwell? Is central London part of London, or a service/tourist centre serving Europe? And is it not quicker to get to Brighton than Forest Gate?

There is no point bemoaning the end of London’s community. Physical proximity was never the real basis of community anyway. The champions of the new urbanism talk about ‘cosmopolitanism’ but it is a word they do not understand. When Diogenes coined the term two-and-a-half thousand years ago, he was not praising city life, but decrying it. It was his rebuttal to the city dignitaries who had exiled his father. His loyalty was not to the city, he said, but to the world: ‘I am a citizen of the world’, he said; ‘Kosmopolites eimi’.

The way that people really relate to one another has precious little to do with the arrangement of their houses, but the activities they engage with. Who seeks out the company of their neighbours? You are more likely to spend social time with your workmates, or fellow enthusiasts of some cultural activity, or other collaborators, in networks that are voluntarily based, not geographically given. Nowadays, a lot of that time will be mediated through mobiles and email as well as face-time.

Of course it would be a mistake to prescribe dispersed living, just as it was to prescribe high-density dwelling. As a political goal, we should aim for the maximum liberty in choosing where and how one lives. For younger people, cities will carry more attraction. Couples with families might see more benefit in suburbs, or dormitory towns. If you work in media, an inner London suburb makes sense, if only because of the paranoia that you might be missing a story. But if you are in computing, why not part of Cambridge’s string of new towns? But as a matter of sociological observation, the average trend is going in one direction, and that is towards more dispersed living, the same direction it has been going in for 50 years.

For the ‘New Urbanists’ and Londonostalgics, the dissolution of our urban centres is a melancholy conclusion. But they have mostly drawn the same conclusion. London Orbital author Iain Sinclair has moved to Hastings. Sir Crispin Tickell of the Urban Task Force lives in a Somerset Farmhouse. Lord Rogers does live in London, but not so densely – he has two Georgian terrace houses knocked together in Chelsea. Even Jane Jacobs moved out of Greenwich Village to that great American suburb, Canada.

But what is there to be so nostalgic for? The demarcation of Britain into town and countryside has served its purposes, good and bad. It was already redundant at the start of the twentieth century when Britons abandoned farming to concentrate on making money, buying in agricultural goods from New Zealand and other colonies. Then people voted with their feet to re-conquer the countryside with rambles and chalets. Only the political reaction of world war forced us to return the countryside to agriculture in the generalised paranoia of food security. Only the neurotic policing of Duncan Sandys’ Green Belt stopped the wholesale dispersal of the captive populations of the nineteenth-century industrial cities.

Over time, though, the underlying trend has reasserted itself. Demographers Daniel Dorling and Bethan Thomas point out that outside of London, all major cities are declining in population, and that ‘the population of the UK is slowly moving to the South’. It might not be quite as Karl Marx envisaged, but the end of the boundary between the Town and the Country is a liberation, not a loss.

James Heartfield is speaking on the end of the town and country divide at the Rural Futures conference in Plymouth, 5-7 April 2006. He lives in Archway, London.
(1) The Nature and Future of Cities, ICA
(2) Herbert Girardet and the plastic concept of sustainability, Rising East, January 2006
(3) Blueprint, September 2004
(4) ‘People, not architects, make Communities’ an interview with David Miliband, AD, February 2006
(5) ‘New Labour has caught itself in a clash between a lofty ideal of urban villages and untouched countryside on the one hand, and the reality of people’s actual choices about where they want to live on the other.’ James Heartfield, Town and Country in Perspective, in Sustaining Architecture in the Anti-Machine Age, 2001, p 150
(6) Geographic Mobility, Performance and Innovation Unit, p 13
(7) See Thompson, Whigs and Hunters, Pantheon, 1976 or Customs in Common, Merlin, 1991
(8) In Alfred Schmidt, The Concept of Nature in Marx, New Left Books, p 131
(9) Problems of Everyday Life, New York, 1973, p. 238-9
(10) Peter Hall, Colin Ward, Sociable Cities: the legacy of Ebenezer Howard, John Wiley, Chichester, 1998, p.76
(11) John Adams, Hypermobility, Royal Society of Arts lecture 21 November 2001
(12) Ford Madox Ford, writing as Madox Huefor, ‘The Future of London’, an appendix to W.W. Hutchings, London Town: Past and Present, Volume II, Cassell, 1909, London
(13) People and Places: A 2001 Census Atlas of the UK, Bristol, The Policy Press, 2004, p 7, 183

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