Tuesday, 23 October 2007

Big bad cities

The pun may have been weak, but the message behind WWF's headline ("Cities need to green up their act") seemed pretty clear: cities are the problem.

WWF (formerly, and perhaps formally, known as The World Wildlife Fund) has come up with a catchy and polemically useful way of describing our ecological footprint - the amount of the earth's natural resources needed to sustain our current lifestyles and consumption patterns. We - in the UK - are living a 'three-planet lifestyle'. That is, if the whole world were to live as we do, we would need three (or 3.1, to be precise) worlds to support us. That we are still alive is only thanks to people like the Indians, who make up for our profligacy by living a '0.4-planet lifestyle'.

The WWF report compares the performance of 60 British cities, and creates a ranking. Newport and Plymouth perform best, and Winchester comes off worst. So, these urban dens of eco-iniquity are dragging the rest of us down. Or are they? When you look at the figures again, it looks as if British cities are actually doing rather well: more than two thirds of them are performing better than the UK average. The press release seems to have forgotten to mention this.

This does not, of course, contradict WWF's main message, that we ought to consume and live more frugally and responsibly. Sure. But why are cities always the villains in this piece? In some ways (for example, sourcing food locally) it may be harder to live a one-planet lifestyle in a city. But Tesco's pandemic spread across the UK suggests that not everybody in rural areas shops locally, and in other arenas (public transport and higher density living) cities should have a natural advantage.

Asking how the green potential of cities could be better unlocked would be a constructive approach to this debate. But the green movement seems unable to move on from its utopian, pastoralist roots, regarding everything since the invention of the spinning jenny with deep suspicion. Green and pleasant land good; dark satanic mills bad.

Our cities may be part of the problem. But with a growing population, they will have to be the core of any solution.

Friday, 19 October 2007

Magic and loss

Tread softly when you tread on a childhood.

I surprised myself, when I read reviews of The Seeker: The Dark is Rising, and when I saw the trailer. I felt angry, let down, even personally affronted.

One has to put away childish things, but Susan Cooper's sequence of novels were probably the most important books I read as a child. Dad read me The Lord of the Rings (del capo, one hell of a job), and Narnia always looked a bit naff. But The Dark is Rising was perfect. It was about a child growing up near the Chilterns, where I grew up, and the books were rich, humourless and terrifying in a way that only a kid can appreciate.

The supernatural elements were prehistoric and portentous: mutilated sheep, horses' skulls and sad sea hags, not muggles, recidivist billy-bunterism and magic spells. They alarmed, but also inculcated a curious supernatural patriotism, educating the 1970s child about British folklore, and its casual and persistent horror, like a cross between The Wicker Man and the didactic monotone of Willard Price's novels.

Susan Cooper has been chillingly polite about the film, acknowledging the need for novels to change, but also questioning why an 11-year old English child had to be changed to a 13-year old American child in England. Others have also noted that an evangelical Christian director has reduced an essentially pagan world view to one that is reassuringly Manichean (anticipating the row to come over the films of Philip Pullman's novels).

Interestingly, she also reveals that she wrote the books as an exile in the USA, conjuring a vivid image of a distant Britain that is even more lost today than it probably was even then. I probably won't watch the film. But the books still grip me, and haunt me when I walk, and when I imagine I walk, in the old hills of England and Wales.

Thursday, 11 October 2007

Fairways...and foul

Aside from looking as if a sporran, or some other Highlands rodent, has taken up residence on his head, there was never much to tie Donald Trump to Scotland, before his battle, reported in yesterday’s Guardian, to take over Michael Forbes’ coastal landholding 13 miles north of Aberdeen.

Mr Trump wants to build 1,000 homes, a 45-room hotel and a golf course on the site. The houses are regrettably necessary as a cross-subsidy for the nine-hole golf course, which is presented as a good thing in itself (and a saviour of the dunes, rather than, as Scottish Natural Heritage see it, a destruction of important natural heritage). Mr Trump’s sensibilities are particularly offended by the state of Michael Forbes’ property: “... the area is in total disrepair. Take a look at how badly maintained the piece of property is: it's disgusting. Rusty tractors, rusty oil cans.”

It sounds a mess, but the countryside isn’t neat. The countryside can be beautiful, alarming, calming and depressing. It can smell beautiful or rank, and can be muddy, sandy or soft. But it is rarely neat. Modern farmyards are some of its least appealing features: lean-to sheds, decaying farm machinery, scraps of blue plastic sacking and strange rivulets of chemicals vie to disabuse us of any pastoral fantasies. This, the shambolic yards seem to say, is a productive place, not a pretty place.

Golf courses, on the other hand, are neatness incarnate. Flying into Heathrow or Gatwick, you get a privileged, if not particularly sustainable, view of these made-up meadowlands, which pepper south-eastern England with their curiously pock-marked landscapes. Golf courses may be neat, but they are a whole barrel of ugly too: privatised green spaces, permitted within the green belt on the basis of being a 'leisure' use, but bearing as much relationship to the countryside as Mickey Mouse does to the rodents under my floorboards.

With the rising demand for land for housing, and insistent questioning of the sustainability of green belt policies, we might be tempted to follow the example of the Mayor of Caracas, who suggested seizing golf courses to house the city’s poor. Even at a fifth of his proposed density (5,000 people per course), we could use England’s 1,800 golf courses to house nearly two million people, which must go some way meeting the Government’s annual target of 200,000 new homes.

If that turns out to be a touch controversial – as it may – here is another modest proposal. We could simply reclassify golf-courses as previously developed ‘brown field’ land (which they surely are, given the earth moving and ersatz planting that goes into their creation), and let the housing market do the rest as land values rose.

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

It's been a long time

I've been distracted, having holidays, not smoking, all sorts. I've also been reading Robert Caro's biography of Robert Moses, The Power Broker.

The book is a monster of nearly 1,200 pages, and its subject comes over as pretty monstrous too. From the mid 1920s to the 1960s, Robert Moses dominated public projects in New York, covering the five boroughs and Long Island with new toll roads, beaches, parks and bridges, creating the type of alienating, car-dominated urban landscape that Jane Jacobs has taught all good urbanists to despise. He achieved these feats through a combination of thuggish arrogance and low cunning, with unattractive top-notes of racism and class prejudice.

And yet, governor after governor, and mayor after mayor, found him indispensable, unsackable. Whatever his methods, Moses got things done, and he got them done within electoral timescales. When he was building his first parks on Long Island in the mid-1920s, he had $1 million out of a total of $15 million. Instead of completing a few projects within budget, he assembled land for a much larger number, thereby forcing NY State Congress to vote him the remainder. Caro reports him as saying: "once you sink that first stake, they'll never make you pull it up."

What would Moses have made of Crossrail's latest faltering step forwards? When I worked on the Jubilee Line extension project in the mid 1990s, Crossrail was the next big project. Offices were being set up, and engineers recruited. And then, nothing. And now, maybe something? But breakthroughs are reported so frequently, and to so little effect, that it's hard to feel too excited by the news.

We seem to be very good at stopping big projects happening in the UK. The Treasury feels that it has been burned by so many wannabe-Moses characters, that it publishes volume upon volume of guidance on stopping big projects. The safest answer is always 'no'. Soon after London won the 2012 Games, I had a meeting with a senior civil servant. "You've got the Treasury in an awful spin," he said. "You've robbed them of their three standard strategies: delay, descope and say 'no'." At the IOC meeting in July 2005, London (Jowell, Livingstone, Coe) put some stakes in the ground. They won't be quickly forgiven.