Peter Hall, who died last week aged 82 was a planner, but also one of the most lucid writers about cities in any language. I routinely give my humanities students his Cities of Tomorrow (1996), an encyclopaedic account of the twentieth century’s attempts to rethink cities from England’s industrial north, to Berlin, to Le Corbusier’s Paris, to 1960s Hong Kong, and countless places in between. Its key argument is that cities need to be thought of as dynamic regions, rather than collections of historic monuments. It was published too early to say much about China – but as an account of what has most preoccupied Western planners and architects, there is nothing better. Not only comprehensive, it’s a funny, humane book that shows planning, fundamentally, as a discipline of ideas.
Cities of Tomorrow also shows how impoverished our conversations about cities can be. In the humanities, academics (and students) tend to despair change in general, and urban change in particular – which is why in places where their influence is strong, conversations about cities tend to revolve almost entirely around questions of surface. Europe’s historic cities fall into this category, and have become trivial places as a result.
Shortly after reading Cities of Tomorrow for the first time, I moved to Edinburgh to work. I arrived on a bright late summer’s day where the Firth of Forth and its coastline described (I thought) a big, complex urban region not unlike Bay Area where Hall had a professorship during the 1980s. I was instructed later that day by colleagues that Edinburgh was in fact the Old and New Towns, and to a civilised person, nothing else mattered. Edinburgh has been disappointment ever since. That said, rather influenced by Hall, I’ve always tried to inhabit it as an urban region, living its peripheries as much as its centre, and all points in between. Perhaps one day its leaders will think along Hall’s lines, and celebrate its regional character.
In context, Hall’s most provocative text remains the New Society essay he wrote with Reyner Banham, Paul Barker and Cedric Price, ‘Non-Plan’. Superficially an anti-planning diatribe, it’s in reality an argument for freedom, underpinned by the belief (shared by all the authors) that the relatively unplanned landscape of southern California had produced a better living environment for more of its citizens than the English equivalent. After many visits over the years to California, I still believe on almost every count they are right – and I still give ‘Non-Plan’ to students as a corrective to their highly aestheticised, conservation-minded view of cities. A few of them get it every year. Most don’t, it has to be said, although they appreciate its humour and optimism, and the accompanying cartoon-like sketches.
It’s not surprising my students don’t generally get ‘Non-Plan’., for they have a lot invested in what it attacks. They hope to make lives around conservation and history, and enough of them have the wealth and connections to make this refined life a possibility. But if anything, ‘Non-Plan’’s prescription seems more urgent than ever. Those cities of the world that have wished to restrict growth for aesthetic reasons have become cities of the rich. San Francisco’s average house costs $1 million London’s real estate is so highly valued, it has mutated from housing to become a global reserve currency. That can’t be right in the long term – and slowly governments in places
where this has become a problem have started to look at regional solutions. In the UK, that means devolution of power to metropolitan regions, and the development of a series of New Towns, both policies Hall had advocated for at least 40 years. Perhaps even ‘Non-Plan’ will get another run too. In any case, Hall’s marvellous work lives on.
Paul Barker, Reyner Banham, Peter Hall and Cedric Price, ‘Non-Plan: an experiment in freedom’ New Society 338, (20 March 1969)
I’m not convinced that preserving old buildings is the cause of rising land values and rents. The engine of this lies outside any locality’s zoning and preservation laws, and is occurring globally. With capitalist gentrification, there are two choices: 1) preserve old buildings; or 2) tear down the old buildings and construct luxury condos/hotels. Both routes lead to high land values and rent.
The larger problem is gentrification itself, but a smaller problem is the idea that preserving buildings stops gentrification. It’s usually smaller land owners who push this plan, seeking landmark status or historic districts, both of which have the effect of increasing exchange-value, but remove the pressure from larger developers to raze the building/area and construct luxury condos and hotels. The Bowery in NYC is a good example of this, where both routes are being pursued simultaneously. Last year the Bowery Historic District was created, even as development continued. It’s a two-prong effort; unfortunately too many people think preservation slows the process.
I don’t think there’s a solution outside of removing housing from the capitalist marketplace. But this would take an effort that I don’t see, not locally anyway. People who support preservation, even tenants and especially small business owners, are too quick to begin their argument “I support capitalism, but…”
I’d agree with all that, and your expertise may well be greater than mine here. My extrapolation from the UK (and Edinburgh in particular) has to do with the combination of (1) preservation, and (2) restrictions on land supply, which together have restricted growth. Edinburgh ought to be 50% bigger than it is based on its economic performance over the past 20 years. It’s for someone else to do some proper analysis. I’d stand by the cultural argument, though – what;s striking about Edinburgh, and other small European cities is the difficulty of any public conversation about growth. Growth always = bad; development = evil.
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Thanks so much for posting the link. I read your piece after I’d posted mine: a wonderful, balanced memoir. The fact he liked trains explains a great deal. Just as not liking trains explains so much of Thatcher. I never met Hall, and I’m an outsider as regards planning. But I wanted to say that there are a lot of fans of his in the humanities. We’d recognise his mistakes, but appreciate the clarity of his writing, and his capacity for meaningful provocation.