Disputed city futures

As a manifesto for planning sustainable cities (often from scratch), green architecture guru C J Lim’s Smartcities and Ecowarriors ticks all the right boxes. Low energy consumption, integrated transport, and – his special emphasis – bringing agriculture back into the city in the interests of local food production, useful employment and social cohesion. The whole thing would be “an ecological symbiosis between nature and built form”. The many illustrations in his book, most of plans rather than actual cities, certainly look attractive, in schematic way.

They also embody everything which Austin Williams dislikes about what he claims is the dominant discussion of future cities, or future anything. Sustainability, he thinks, is a symptom of a failure of ambition, and turning away from the enlightenment project, and progress. Williams, a cultural critic who is a kind of Frank Furedi for architecture, points out that agriculture is what some people came to cities to get away from. He likes his cities edgy, congested, anonymous, high energy, and a little chaotic. It’s an easy view to sympathise with, in part. I am an urbanite through and through, and have no desire to grow my own food. Everyone in Bristol seems to want an allotment. Fine by me, but I’d rather do something else. On the other hand, I’m happy to see them , and more local food production (by other people) seems like a fine idea.

So it was fun to chair a session at the British Science Festival in Birmingham the other day where they both spoke. The contrast was pretty stark. I think Austin enjoyed trashing Lim’s ideas, “a vision of the past projected onto the future”. And Lim enjoyed the challenge of responding.

They didn’t really resolve their differences – hard to see how they could. Lim believes there are limits to growth, and urban expansion from here on needs to take on a radically different character. Williams doesn’t – period, as far as I can tell.

As well as that, though, I think there’s a radical difference of temperament. Lim related how he comes from a small village in Malaysia – quite a trek by bus from Kuala Lumpur. His ambition is to retire there and enjoy a higher quality of life (an interesting confession, surely, for a jet-setting architect who holds a chair at University College and runs a successful London studio). Williams left a Welsh village upbringing behind him, and has no desire to return to that life. “I don’t want to know the neighbours”.

Plenty of people end up in the cities they live in through no choice of their own. A lot more will do so in the next decades. Still, I was left thinking that one realistic hope for the future is that we may have more scope to choose cities which suit our temperament – either intuitively, or (harder) through accurate self-diagnosis. In a few decades, there will be thousands of cities with half a million people or so, so we can hope for plenty of variety.

For instance, I like cities, a lot. I also like peace and quiet. You can get that in London, but it’s hard to find near the centre. In a smaller city (which means less of some things I also like a lot) you can live a walk from the centre and still have a house which is pretty much silent in the daytime, as mine is, unless I decide otherwise. That is just one privilege among many (owning the house in the first place, having a park 2 mins walk in one direction, a supermarket, bars and cafes 2 mins walk in the other, a motorway which ends five mins from the front door, and so on) but it is one model for urban amenity to keep in mind when contemplating the hard problems of making the mushrooming urban centres of other countries fit places to live. Hell, I might even grow a few vegetables in the garden. Then again, maybe not.

P.S. The argument was reprised in Bristol on Sunday in a session Austin chaired, but also disputed a bit with George Ferguson (ex president of the RIBA), who spoke along with me. The divide was strikingly similar – community and limits to growth should be in the forefront of our thinking, or not. It took on a slightly different cast because it ran before a screening of the restored, even more epic than  before, Metropolis. Not much evidence of urban agriculture, or agriculture of any kind, in Fritz Lang’s astonishing vision. The film remains pretty nonsensical, though stuffed with indelibly memorable imagery. After three hours, I was struck by how far the creaky screenplay was from more recently developed notions of science fictional world-building – perhaps more often worked out in novels than films – where one pays some attention to more or less consistent economy, energy and food supply and political and cultural structures. Then, I suddenly realised that Metropolis is getting on for a century old. Viewed in that light (obvious, once you think of it) the film actually seems fantastically modern – astonishingly so. It also reminded me that Rotwang is my absolute favourite mad scientist, once  something of a special study of mine…


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