Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Memoranda


Memorandum by The Regeneration Practice (WTC 10)

WALKING IN TOWNS AND CITIES

The Contribution of Walking to an Urban Renaissance:

  People walking and enjoying being outside in their community are signs of a healthy neighbourhood and therefore, pre-requisites for successful towns and cities.

The decline in walking and the obstacles to increasing journeys by foot:

  A steady reduction in the proximity of places in which people live and work over time caused by public choice to raise families and live close to the countryside has been supported by fast, all-weather transport, particularly by car. This trend has increased mobility demands in urban areas beyond the capacity to travel offered by walking.

  In 1830, Cheapside was the High Street of the City of London, adorned with lofty buildings and noted for goldsmiths, drapers and haberdashers shops, rivalling the West End as a shopping centre. The resident population of the City at that time was 120,000 whereas today, it is only 4,000.

  By 1930 the rise of the suburb, saw the beginnings of the ruin of the urban street and square. Designed for horse and cart, but sacrificed to provide carriage and open storage for the private car. The dignity and infinite variety of our built heritage and public spaces savaged by noise and pollution, places for social pleasure and interplay turned into aggressive barriers dividing communities.

  A creeping disconnection between people and place driven by social and economic trends has been exacerbated over the last 50 years by the land use planning system which has encouraged mobility demands, the disintegration of living and working communities and social dispersal. Concentrations of the poor in inner urban areas has added to crime and vandalism of public places, further discouraging the enjoyment and safety of walking.

  Economic forces respond to public choice to encourage urban decentralisation, placing increased demands on use of the private car;

    (a)  by increasing car ownership and use;

    (b)  by providing low density suburban housing isolated from employment;

    (c)  by providing single person housing at high density, pricing local employment, family or "key worker" housing out of town and city centres;

    (d)  by requiring cheaper supermarket goods from ever bigger, car dependent, retail outlets.

  Successive Governments have failed to address the root cause of the problem. Post War policy saw the Comprehensive Redevelopment Plans to provide healthy housing and a bright new "high rise" future for families living in Victorian slum terraces—but this only exacerbated the physical and social isolation of public tenants and the insecurity of people in the public realm. The Enterprise Zones created large scale mixed use redevelopment but could not reverse the dispersal of well-to-do families to the suburbs exacerbating the demands for travel and the damage caused by the private motoring.

What could be done by Government

  Creating new city squares and home zones will help create greater security and a more attractive outside place for a few. But isolated measures are simply displacing traffic to exacerbate the environmental and economic problems in surrounding streets. Such policies will be overwhelmed by the macroeconomics of urban growth, in particular, the relentless, year on year increase in car ownership. These measures are more likely to generate resentment and stress for adjoining businesses and residents than herald a sustainable reversal in the destruction of the public street or square as a place for social interaction or walking.

  Measures to control traffic must result from the ignition of public will to improve the environment of neighbourhoods. But due to the historical pattern of social dispersal in towns and cities, public perception of "neighbourhood" for most extends as far as the front door. Without major fiscal, planning and public service reform, the inexorable forces which have set the pattern of decline in public pleasure and use of our streets and squares over decades is set to continue.

  Central Government can reform the planning system to:

    —  Instigate Neighbourhood Plans to provide local access targets against which market development proposals could be considered in respect of employment, shopping, housing and access to public services. The Plans should take full account of local shortages or excess supply, the long term sustainability of and future trends in employment, existing and proposed public and private transport infrastructure. For the first time, in cases of market failure, the cost of provision of non-market local shopping, affordable employment or affordable housing by Community Trusts should be costed. This will provide a real basis for a reformed system of planning obligations enabling the needs of urban growth to be balanced with a sustainable local access strategy.

  Central Government can reform the tax system to:

    —  encourage ownership and new development of local shopping, affordable employment or affordable housing by Community Trusts in cases of market failure. This will engender a sense of pride and ownership in the surrounding public streets, squares and pavements currently enjoyed only in private sector development.

  Central Government can reform public service funding to:

    —  encourage Local Strategic Partnerships to own and manage local health, education and leisure facilities. This will engender a sense of pride and ownership in local schools, libraries, parks and community health facilities, enabling service provision to match a sustainable local access strategy.

  Walking is a sign of the connection of people and place. The historical priority in the growth of urban areas of market values has eroded this connection. The growth of a social enterprise culture by major reforms in the planning, fiscal and public service systems has the capacity to revitalise walking and enjoyment of public places in urban neighbourhoods.

Paul Latham Dip (Arch) RIBA

Director, The Regeneration Practice

December 2000


 
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