CITIES are improving. Dashing late one evening from a meeting in the centre of Birmingham to the railway station last week, I noticed that there were still people going to and fro long after the shops in the pedestrianised streets had closed. There was a welcoming bustle of activity. This was no longer the bleak city centre I used to know. London is much more satisfying than it was 15 to 20 years ago. Now that Leicester Square, for instance, is closed to traffic, I am glad to recommend it to visitors; in the old days I was ashamed of the place.
Not all is gain, however. I was recently in the middle of Liverpool, also in the evening, The area around Lime Street station and St George's Hall is a sort of urban hell - featureless except for a few islands of the old Liverpool still standing, cut through with new roads along which the traffic sweeps, as if fleeing the city, unconnected with what is around it.
"Connections are what make successful cities. Unsuccessful cities are unconnected," writes Robert Cowan in a pamphlet on making cities work, echoing the famous opening lines of Anna Karenina - "All happy families resemble one another, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." All successful cities connect; all unsuccessful cities are disconnected in their own way. At a recent meeting in Hammersmith in west London, which was part of a participative exercise in finding methods of improving the borough, the focus was largely on re-connecting communities that had been disconnected by major roads. Hammersmith has seven major east- west routes passing through it, not least because it stands between Heathrow airport and the centre of London. Even here the ideal is the connected city. But what to connect? How to connect? The short answer is - ask the real experts. These are not, by the way, architects, planners, road engineers, local government officials and the like, but the people themselves. Residents know exactly what works well, and what doesn't, what is pleasant, what depresses them, how far they have to go for some fresh air, what are the local no-go areas, what could quickly be improved. Thus in Hammersmith and Fulham, where the Architecture Foundation, whose chairman is Richard Rogers, has been working with the local authority to improve nine sites, consultation with local people has been the starting point. The method was to arrange day-long workshops. In attendance were various specialists, as well as members of the design team for the site. Local people turned up in moderate numbers, but there were enough of them to make the exercise meaningful. Between 20 to 40 people participated in each workshop. The inner suburbs of every large town in the land have problems similar to Hammersmith's. How to remove, for instance, the sense of danger that deters people from using the vast area of playing fields and open space called Wormwood Scrubs, a name familiar to most people only as a grim prison rather than as an amenity. …