Inner City Living

Inner City Living

Flicking through the ‘Arts’ section of BBC iPlayer recently I came across a documentary from 1969 entitled ‘I love this dirty old town’. A documentary narrated by author and critic, Margaret Drabble, about the workings of the city and the lessons lost during the post-war rebuilding of what we referred to as the slums.

Interestingly, the issues commonly raised now about high-rise social isolation and the loss of the street were clearly being noted back in 1969, so there’s nothing new in any of this. The film discusses how suburbia had promised to bring that ideal of the ‘edge of countryside’ living to post war, upwardly mobile families and couples, but in doing so has created a different kind of ghetto. An expansive, under-serviced zone of almost purely residential properties, separated by no-mans-land areas of grass and verge where its inhabitants exist in their defensible boxes without the need or excuse to interact with one another.

We now understand that places work best when they are ‘mixed-up’. The dense city centre is vibrant, efficient, valuable and inclusive not out of design but evolution and necessity. People want to be at the centre of things, they drive the opportunity for business and culture, and vice versa. This originates in geography and geology and doesn’t necessarily rely on town planning. Something will work or won’t, and ultimately the people decide. This is why mixed-use is on most planners’ agendas, amongst other ideals, bringing residential uses back into the city centre.

The slums and tenements that we see on Sunday evening shows like ‘Peaky Blinders’, and the historically more recently, ‘Call the Midwife’, worked on a social level because they allowed, or should I say, forced, neighbours to live together and share space. The street was the playground and the social space, and somewhere the washing was hung out to dry, and hence was naturally overlooked, well used and relatively safe. In contrast the isolated and featureless grassed spaces between the tower blocks that replaced these streets were uninhabited because there was no reason for their residents to inhabit them.

The acid test are the youngest generation. Kids will naturally want to migrate to places where something might be happening, where they might meet someone, friends, potential dates. In suburbia one of the few opportunities to do this is next to the local shop, and what do we do, deter them with signs and sonic devises. “There’s your playground, behind the fence, go and play there”. People generally need social interaction and the street, in its best form, provides this.

However, not everyone can live in the city centre, so this thinking is now driving the design of our new residential areas in the form of home zones. The idea revolves around the mixing of street users and changing the pecking order, so that the private car no longer appears to enjoy priority. Could there be other answers to this question however? The houses that form these new places still provide little capacity for social interaction onto the street, and once inside the home the priority becomes the access into the minimum 50sqm back garden, which is wholly private and usually enclosed in close-boarded fencing.

One response to this might lie in rethinking the garden spaces. Perhaps an alternative might be to reduce or remove the front garden that nobody ever uses. The balance of space could be moved to the rear where a combination of private and shared space could provide opportunities for social gathering and a wider range of activities within a much larger combined area. OK, so there exists the potential for conflict with such arrangements, and this setup might rely on resident agreements and a management company. But people tend not to create conflict with people they have to make contact with on a regular basis. These new places must also contain the reasons for people to want to be there, the schools, shops, places to meet and eat and even work, in the form of flexible office hubs.

Has our legacy of underutilised suburban space and physical barriers to social interaction largely come about due to the ‘necessity’ to fully accommodate the private motor car within the fabric of our urban spaces? It seems quite likely, but this is destined to change with the advent of AV technology, car sharing and increasing carbon reduction legislation which ought to, in time, form a shift in transport habits. In a time of sharing bikes, cars and workspace, it is not beyond our imagination that we might again share our living spaces, gardens and streets in a more meaningful way, and with it build a more sociable future.I Love This Dirty Old Town –

Dale's experience spans a wide range of project sectors, sizes and stages and has particular interests in environmental design and earth-sheltered construction. His favourite projects reuse and breathe new life into under-loved existing buildings.