Thursday, 19 March 2015

The Achievement of Peter Hall

It is almost impossible to summarise the achievement of Peter Hall. Many have only read a small proportion of his vast written output but his importance as an urban designer cannot be doubted, a designer who worked not with images but with words.  This is clear even if you have read no more than three of his books.
Peter Hall fulfilled many important roles such as the President of Town and Country Planning Association  and Professor of Planning at The Bartlett, University College, London.    Yet what was his achievement? He was both theorist and practitioner, authoring   over 50 books on planning and acting as advisor to successive British  governments. 

                          Peter Hall on a TCPA trip to Denmark

Although he was a brilliant, and in many ways original urban designer, he thought it important to attribute a  genealogy of urban design theory. In his book “Cities of Tomorrow”, perhaps the most important work on planning published in five decades or so, he seemed to regard one single source as pre-eminent.

It is invidious, but it needs saying: despite doughty competition, Ebenezer Howard ( 1850-1928) is the most important single character in this entire tale.

The history of the origins, growth and development of British Cities  is too complicated to sketch out here, beginning with its origins in Roman/Medieval times or perhaps even earlier. In the view of  Peter Hall, the discipline of planning evolved as a response to the blind growth of cities which took place in the Nineteenth Century:

Victorian Britain regarded the problems of the inner cities as the “the one great domestic problem which the religion, the humanity, and the statesmanship of England are imperatively summoned to solve.”

No one who has studied the state of Victorian slums could doubt that the Nineteenth century produced cities unfit for human habitation. And unfit in so many ways. As well as poor access to medical services, education and employment a central part of the problem was  poor housing. This has to be understood in many senses including the urban/strategic sense.

                      High density horror: with its inadequate light-wells,
                      this example shows what architecture can be reduced to
                      without the interventions of legislation.

It has been well established that cities which do not encourage people to walk will produce unhealthy people. It has also been established that patients in hospitals can be partly nurtured to recovery by the sight of trees and sunlight. There is a third factor that might be identified. Peter Hall, in his book Cities of Tomorrow,  observed that cities, in the form unfettered growth had allowed them to take, can also be diametrical to health.

There was an interesting reaction to growth and overcrowding in the European capitals: both in London and in Berlin, fears began to develop that the city population was in some way biologically unfit. Around 1900, recruitment for the South African War exposed the fact that out of 11,000 young men in Manchester, 8000 were rejected and only 1,000 were fit for regular service. Later, in World War One, the Verney Commission reasserted that the physique of the urban part of Britain tended to deteriorate and was maintained only by recruitment from the countryside. Similarly, in Berlin, only 42 percent of Berliners were found fit for army service in 1913, against 66 percent of those from rural areas

It is depressing to think that war was  a  major impetus in forcing the holders of political power to rethink their attitudes to urban design but as the above passage makes clear, it does seem to be the case. Necessity is the mother of virtue and whether or not politicians thought better urban design was a matter of national survival is hardly the point. Attitudes to urban design did change.

                         "Homes fit for Heroes" was a key issue in
                         the 1918 election. Perhaps "Homes fit for
                         Workers" might prove a suitable rallying cry today.

This is the point at which Peter Hall’s narrative on planning really kicks off. If cities were not to be ruinous to people’s health, lessons would have to be learnt regarding why people from the countryside were in better health than those from the cities. The lessons learnt were felt to be numerous. It was felt that cities could be allowed to become too big. Agricultural workers were no more involved in manual labour than industrial workers so exercise was not a key factor. Agricultural workers do tend to live in small urban conglomerations i.e. villages. Villages established a strong connection with nature simply by virtue of their size, even if their inhabitants lived in apartments, no need to reinvent the typology of the house with garden here. Villages represented concentrations of built density  within the landscape ( see Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City for the anti-thesis to this approach). And so, city size was felt to be not a key component of urban design theory but THE key component.

This had huge implications. The growth of existing large cities was thought to be something that needed to be restrained i.e. the need for green belts was immediately felt. And its implications were widespread i.e. it was felt that  new growth should be directed towards satellite cities.

The influence of Ebenezer Howard runs like thread throughout the work  of Peter Hall, both as  theorist and practitioner. However, although he was  an urban designer who whilst acknowledging a generic source, he always managed to think in very site specific terms. In the 1960’s he embraced the fashionable political anarchism of the era by advocating planning-free zones. In the 1980’s he did almost the same thing by acting as an advisor to Margaret Thatcher’s government. London’s docklands are basically a testament to this. Yet although he was capable of embracing planning-free zones, largely due to a sense of political realism I suspect, his heart I always thought, was in order not chaos. It is doubtful whether if , in recent decades, there was a single planning problem, from inner-city regeneration to Thames estuary airports, on which he was not consulted. He acted as  part of the team that produced the Urban Task Force report, chaired by Lord Richard Rogers. He probably knew more about planning than anyone else alive.

As I lay these verbal flowers upon his grave, I imagine some of my readers are thinking: why are you telling us things we already know? Why not tell us something original?        
I was lucky enough to meet him once at a lecture I attended entitled  “Object vs City;” this debate which took place some time ago (2008) when I managed to put questions to both protagonists in the debate, Peter Hall and Will Alsop. The debate took place in a fairly traditional format with both participants making an opening statement followed by questions from the floor. The opening statements took the form largely of two images each participant chose to present. I recall that Will Alsop chose to present a photograph taken on his iphone of a Frank Gehry building in New York. The man chairing the debate, Hank Dittmar, presented some of his own images and these staked out a position quite similar to that advocated by Peter  Hall. They spoke of the ideals of Ebenezer Howard and the sort of places I have illustrated in my own photographs such as Hampstead Garden Suburb.

The lecture covered fairly familiar ground, complete  with a reference to Howard’s three magnets diagram without which, it seemed, no Peter Hall lecture was complete.  Since the main subject was the possible synthesis between architecture and planning, Peter Hall turned his attention to his recollections of his time as a guest critic of student projects at the architecture department in The Bartlett. His reminisces proved quite a criticism of the state of architectural education:  

We look at the architectural students proposals which we don’t understand. They don’t understand our ideas either.

                                      Projects by Will Alsop

Will Alsop spoke about therapeutic drawing projects he had developed with mentally handicapped people. The most interesting part of the discussion was when the discussion was opened up to questions from the floor. I asked the following question which I quote from memory:

The most basic spatial unit  of urban design seems to be the neighbourhood which can be added to culminating in a polycentric city. Ebenezer Howard’s most basic idea was that the growth of cities, the accumulation of further neighbourhoods, must at some point be arrested. A green belt  must be laid down and further growth directed to satellite towns. Could the government’s Eco-Town initiative be seen as a contemporary expression of this?

Peter Hall started his reply by stating that:

I could talk about this for a couple of hours.

It was, I admit, something of a rhetorical question since I had imagined Peter Hall would be in his element answering this. The venue was filled, it seemed, largely with architectural students who seemed to understand little about the subject so perhaps a rhetorical question was needed; Peter Hall managed to sketch out, within the space of a few minutes, many of the ideas that had been derived from Ebenezer Howard. Planning theory had indeed developed since this period. Ideas such as satellite towns now seemed somewhat dated, they were now viewed as mixed-use nodes, indeed the ideas of Ebenezer Howard could be seen as the basis of regional planning with only a few exceptions ( See Patrick Geddes).  Peter Hall was broadly supportive of the eco-town initiative, indeed it seemed it the fulfilment of many of the ideas he had long been arguing for. Of course, this was only one of the approaches to planning advocated. I remember talking to him about Woking and how it been expanded. Peter Hall practiced what he preached. He never argued that satellite garden cities were the solution to all urban design problems. Whilst some planning lecturers at The Bartlett chose to commute in every day from Milton Keynes, he chose to live in London. 

Peter Hall viewed the future of planning, at any rate in Britain, with a degree of pessimism. One of his last essays was entitled “The Strange Death of Planning.” He viewed planners not as purveyors of  some sort of aesthetic frippery but as essential problem solvers. In Britain they were, however, “prophets without honour,” i.e. their contributions were simply ignored by those in power. They had vital insights to offer; they knew that badly designed sprawl would result in vast consumption of non-renewable resources. They knew that excessively built up areas could lead to bad health.  Only intelligent planning could resolve the seemingly antithetical demands of city dwellers. Other  countries were well positioned to take advantage of the post-oil economies we would soon be embracing whereas Britain would not. Other countries might have happy, healthy workforces whereas we might not.  In short, Peter Hall, realised that  good urban design was not something superficial but perhaps even a matter of national survival. 

When he died, his colleague on the Urban Task Force, Lord Richard Rogers paid tribute to him with the following generous words:

Peter Hall was a great humanist and the most important planner in post-war Britain with a wide knowledge of the nature of cities around the world.
 I had lunch with him only a few of weeks ago where we discussed the best examples of cities in Europe, a subject brilliantly covered by his last book ‘Good Cities, Better Lives’.

 I got to  know him well when I chaired the Urban Task Force where his advice was indispensable.  There was only one area where we had a disagreement - his argument for garden cities and my belief in the compact city as the only sustainable way to accommodate growth - but he was as civilised in disagreement as he was in agreement.  His continuing commitment to the garden cities movement was reflected in his writings on the legacy of Ebenezer Howard, and in his presidency of the Town and Country Planning Association, but his interests and scholarship ranged far wider.  
He was an inspiring colleague, a good friend and is truly a great loss to the profession.

               Basingstoke, though often mistaken for a "New Town" is
               actually a greatly expanded existing town. These "Urban
               Renaissance" high-density housing units have fundamentally
               changed the fabric of Basingstoke, probably for the better.

I re-established contact with Peter Hall at the time of the Wolfson Prize on Economics for garden Cities. I had plenty of ideas of my own on the subject of garden cities but felt I did not understand enough about the economics of the subject. It was widely agreed that the rise in land values had to be captured for the benefit of the community but, over and beyond that, I felt a more nuanced approach was necessary. I asked him for advice on a reading list on the subject but his advice was less than forthcoming since he told me that he was planning to enter the same competition himself.

Still, there was a remarkable convergence of ideas in the Wolfson Prize, a convergence which was achieved without conferring. Nearly all the prize-winning entries (and mine) had one idea in common; whilst the “Urban Renaissance” had achieved many things, density in places like London had been taken as far as it could go. Building on the Green Belt was not the answer. Neither was it necessary to consider a series of New Towns, similar to that achieved in the 1950’s and 1960’s. The answer might lie in expanding small to medium existing towns. This could be achieved in many ways. It might not even be necessary to consider enlarging the footprint of existing cities i.e. I suggested converting Oxford’s business park into a mixed-use neighbourhood complete with a tram linking it to the centre.

Some of Peter Hall’s predictions and warnings  have arguably been vindicated. The Independent newspaper published a piece entitled “Victorian Diseases: Back from the dead” which tended to confirm his views on the likely health consequences of over-crowding in the inner cities. Peter Hall was opposed to sprawl and felt that only public transport could structure cities. Since British governments have declined to take much of a role in public transport, only private initiatives could provide public transport infrastructure ( see again The Independent) in the form of developments such as the new Reading station and HS2. It remains to be seen whether these will suffice to make  the necessarily vital contribution that mass-transit makes to urban design.

Peter Hall occupied an absolutely key role in the British  debate on planning  Moreover, he was that rarest of things, a planner who did not hide behind obscure jargon but who made the effort to communicate with the public, writing in clear English. Now that he’s gone, of course,  the torch has been passed to new generation.

(Thanks to  Wiley for  quotations from “Cities of Tomorrow” © 1988, 1996, 2002 by Peter Hall. Also thanks to Thanks to TCPA for photo of Peter Hall, ALL-Design for Will Alsop images, RSH for Rogers quotation. All other images  are either by author,have had copyright ownership traced as far as possible or believed to be in public domain)