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Urban planning

High-rises, congestion and shanty towns: are we building cities for residents or developers?

Jonathan Power says that city planners and leaders need to focus on constructing the type of metropolis that emphasises liveability, not high-rises

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 13 September, 2017, 12:42pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 13 September, 2017, 7:31pm

“What did these vain and presumptuous men intend? How did they expect to raise their lofty mass against God, when they had built it above all the mountains and clouds of the Earth’s atmosphere?” This is St. Augustine writing about Babylon in his City of God. In more modern times, Jonathan Raban has written in Soft City, “The city has always been an embodiment of hope and a source of festering guilt: A dream pursued, and found vain, wanting and destructive.”

St. Augustine wrote in a state of sorrowful contemplation. The city of man, he believed, ought to reflect the City of God. In actuality, it is vulgar, lazy and corrupt. St. Augustine would surely write the same way of Atlanta, Mumbai, Johannesburg or Riyadh.

Who can forget Alan Paton’s dark description of Johannesburg in his beautiful but painful Cry the Beloved Country? The old, liveable, city got overtaken in the 1950s. “We shall live from day to day. And put more locks on our doors, and get a fine, fierce dog when the fine, fierce bitch next door has pups, and hold on to our handbags more tenaciously, and the beauty of the trees by night and the raptures of lovers under the stars, these things shall we forgo...” Johannesburg has its own peculiar burden, but which city dweller would be brave enough to say this is the way our own city might go, if indeed it has not already gone?

But another instinct orders us to construct a better city. Plato did this in his Republic. Napoleon asked Baron Haussmann to build a beautiful Paris. Le Corbusier tried with his radiant city, but be warned, Le Corbusier’s vertical city with its skyscraper tower blocks of pre-stressed concrete must be man’s worst attempt at the soulless “lofty mass” since Babylon.

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Britain is still reeling from the Grenfell Tower blaze in June that engulfed a high-rise for workers in London. At the other end of the scale, a fire broke out at luxury flats last month in one of the world’s tallest buildings, in Abu Dhabi.

Increasingly in Europe and North America, city governments are realising that renovation of old houses at street level or building ordinary houses is a better bet than wholesale slum clearance and acres of new blocks. Not only is it often cheaper, it is quicker. Joined with imaginative schemes to plant trees, reduce traffic flows and build cycle lanes, it provides an earthbound style of living that makes many high-rise occupants jealous. Most working-class people think they have been vertically ghettoised.

I’ve seen Mumbai mushroom upwards while, in-between the towers, shanty towns thrive. In Calcutta there are no tower blocks and few homeless. The big shanty towns have been destroyed, and the city’s stylish, graceful, houses and mansions, inherited from the British, are renovated. Parks with boys playing cricket and parents walking their children abound. Crime is the lowest of all the world’s large cities.

A little less architectural vanity, a little less presumption and urban man will be a lot happier.

Jonathan Power is a foreign affairs columnist and commentator