City, suburbs and snobs
Richard Rogers' warnings about middle-class flight to the countryside are wide of the mark.
The architect Lord Rogers of Riverside warns that the middle classes are fleeing inner London, and accelerating the class divide (1). Really? Average house prices in Hackney rose six per cent last year to £259,000, in Islington by eight per cent to £352,000 and in Camden by 10 per cent to £485,000. Rogers has it the wrong way around. It is the working classes that are fleeing much of inner London, priced out by the wealthy and their newfound love of urban chic.
He is right, of course, that people are moving out to live on land that once was countryside earmarked for farming. But that is not such a bad thing. Of course we worry that Britain will be concreted over. However, the facts are that only one tenth of the landmass of the UK is developed (you could double Britain’s urban areas, if you wanted, and still leave 80 per cent undeveloped). Back in the Second World War we needed three quarters of all land to farm. Under the Common Agricultural Policy that level of cultivation was sustained artificially, even though more efficient farming meant we were wildly overproducing grains and livestock. Now more and more farmland is being abandoned because it is surplus to our needs. That land is available for development.
Rogers’ nostalgia for the nineteenth century blueprint of a country strictly divided between compact cities and extensive farmland has no rationale today. Then radicals like Karl Marx and William Morris dreamed of overcoming the antagonism between town and country. Today that change is happening in the influx of working people into the countryside – what sociologists call a ‘counter-urban cascade’. According to government statistics, 43 per cent of the population already live in suburbia, in contrast to just nine per cent in the urban core.
Lord Rogers has been trying, like King Canute, to turn back that tide. His 1999 Urban Task Force report popularised the idea that we should ‘build up, not out’. But it was a generalisation of the ambitions of one, narrow section of society, the new urban yuppies, who were recolonising our city centres. Good luck to them, but the rest of us have to live somewhere, too. Planning restrictions on green-field developments have helped to push house prices skywards. There is no ‘one size fits all’ housing policy. Younger, trendier and single people might want loft apartments in town, older people with children often want detached houses in the suburbs, others want bungalows in the countryside.
Excoriating the ‘ugly’ houses sprawling across the Thames Gateway, Lord Rogers is in danger of sounding like a snob. Maybe they are not designer houses like Ralph Erskine’s Greenwich Millennium Village (where children are bussed into the school from off the peninsula to create the semblance of a community). But they are people’s homes. And with new building falling short of housing needs, we need more and better homes. Now, if architects could only be persuaded to get excited about that prospect, we would be on our way to solving the problem. But boxing people into already over-dense cities cannot be the only answer.
James Heartfield is a director of Audacity.org, the regeneration think-tank.
(1) Middle class flight and poor design damaging cities, warns Rogers , 23 November 2005
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