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  • Author or Editor: John Houghton x
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Big places, small spaces
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Through a close look at major British cities, using Birmingham as a case study, the book explores the origins of Britain’s acute urban decline and sprawling exodus; the reasons why ‘one size doesn’t fit all’ in cities of the future and the potential for smart growth, mixed communities and sustainable cities. Based on live examples and hands-on experience, this extremely accessible book offers a unique ‘insider’ perspective on policy making and practical impacts. It will attract policymakers in cities and government as well as students, regeneration bodies, community organisations and environmental specialists.

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This chapter sets out the scope of the study and looks closely at urban and housing history, current dilemmas, and the urban future. It uses the metaphor of the jigsaw to capture the complexity and interconnectedness of modern British cities as it responds to powerful social, economic, and environmental forces. It explains that beginner jigsaws like early cities have few pieces and easily assembled shapes while advanced jigsaws have thousands of small and distinct but hard to distinguish pieces. It notes that modern cities are likewise hugely complex and sometimes seem to defy any order at all, often appearing as a confusing pile of indistinct spaces, structures, and functions – chaotic and unmanageable. The chapter focuses on growth and decline, sprawl and density, economic and environmental imperatives, racial tensions and social harmony.

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This chapter details urban history which illustrates the rough and ready pattern of development. It looks at industrial forces that shaped British cities. It notes that between 1801 and 1901 Britain experienced an amazing population shift that would be impossible to orchestrate. It explains that the total population quadrupled, going from 9 million to 36 million, and the balance between the urban and rural populations was dramatically reversed. It states that the immediate impact of the urban explosion on housing conditions in the early 1800s was nothing short of catastrophic and that it is almost impossible to overstate how ill prepared places like Manchester, Birmingham, and London were to cope.

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This chapter examines the role that housing and urban policy played in sucking out people in the interwar years, leaving decay and squalor behind. It notes that the reality of poverty, squalor, and disease drove new forms of town planning that were supposed to overcome the endemic problems of urban poverty. It claims however, that one Utopian model of urban and housing planning was developed in the early 20th century with real enthusiasm and exported all over the world. It notes that the Garden City movement managed to combine enterprise and cooperation, houses and gardens with public and social amenities, in a totally new form of philanthropic endeavour that was eventually to capture the imagination of governments. It also looks at the devastating urban consequences of the First World War.

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This chapter looks at why Britain failed to build a New Jerusalem after the Second World War, using the blunt tools of the bulldozer and high-rise building in green fields. It also explores the legacy of garden cities in the New Towns, Green Belts, and council estates following the Second World War. It notes that governments of all political persuasions have used their housing policies to encapsulate a much broader philosophical approach to the state of cities, and in 1918 and 1945 new housing was the reward for victory in war, a collective national effort. It further notes that the politics of mass housing became so dominant after the wars because people relied on councils to build for the masses and councils are political bodies. It explains that it made housing a stop-go, government spending spree, a quick vote-catcher and steering wheel rather that the undercarriage of urban development.

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This chapter uncovers the roots of urban recovery in the return to ‘small is beautiful’ and inner-city renewal. It explains that the shift to renovation demonstrated that renewal could be cost-effective and quick with nothing like the disruption and damage caused by demolition. It notes that renovation was immensely popular with tenants and low-income owners, particularly from minority ethnic groups who were still often excluded from council housing. It adds that the birth of ‘neighbourhood renewal’ through property renovation led to the rebirth of the inner city, attracting back more prosperous households, as well as holding onto existing communities, and generating new services, jobs, and investment. It explains that gentrification – the displacement of lower-income residents by higher-income newcomers – put pressure on existing communities, but far less than the brutal exclusions of wholesale clearance.

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This chapter examines the origins of the Sustainable Communities Plan within the divided and unequal cities, challenging the sustainability of the plans for ‘boom and abandonment’, particularly the intense urban growth proposed for the South of the country. It notes that in 2003 the government set out its big-picture of vision of continuing urban growth for England in the Sustainable Communities Plan, a radical attempt to ‘re-balance’ housing supply and demand in all parts of the country. It claims that the progress report presents a mosaic of encouraging dynamism and new thinking, alongside worrying signs of decrepitude and mistakes.

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This chapter argues for existing neighbourhoods and a closure of the North-South divide as ways of creating a better Sustainable Communities Plan. It notes that in the year after the plan came out, the government suggested that over the period of the plan up to 400,000 demolitions might eventually be required to ‘modernise’ and ‘revitalise’ declining cities – the very opposite of community renewal. It observes that the plan reinforced by the Barker Review of Housing reads like a house builder’s bonanza and made many existing communities shudder as it reinforced a renewed threat of the bulldozer.

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This chapter argues for a ‘smart city’ approach, recycling existing homes and spaces, relying on neighbourhood management and renewal to make existing communities more attractive. It suggests that in order to cope with such immense land, housing, and social pressures, government needs to win people back into cities that are safe, clean, and energy efficient, using less than half the current resources. It explains that smart growth means containing the expansion of cities by creating a fixed urban growth boundary, and intensively regenerating existing neighbourhoods to reverse the flight of people, jobs, and investment into land-gobbling, congestion-generating, and environmentally damaging urban extensions.

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This chapter explores three final conditions: environmental sustainability; mixing existing communities; and changing ways of running cities. It explains that smart growth, neighbourhood renewal, and these three conditions redirect our energies away from grand, sweeping plans to something more finely tuned, more careful, more respectful of what is already there and what the wider environment can support. It suggests that environmental damage can be reversed and more people can be drawn into cities through well-designed public space within the built environment. It states that the critical challenges within existing communities are threefold: to upgrade homes and environments to the point where they counter the attraction of new-build communities; to add with immense care the buildings needed within the spaces that are bare; and to make each existing and new home into a highly insulated, energy-efficient micro-generator and recycler. It also shows why mixed communities and devolution can make cities work.

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