Catherine Max: I love this dirty town

Catherine Max: I love this dirty town

“A marvellous mixture of pleasure and convenience. Jumbled and delicious.” (Margaret Drabble, I love this dirty town (available on iplayer: BBC4 London Collection).

London may be shrinking away and closing down, but Londoners are fast finding new ways to “connect” with each other, that mental health mantra which has particular poignancy at a time of enforced isolation. There are suggestions for virtual book and film clubs, even yoga classes via Zoom. And we still have the option of walking in our many wonderful green spaces (parks in Paris are closed): try the Gojauntly app for local routes which help you “take notice” as well as connect with nature. It’s my birthday soon, and I’ve put in a request for the Dig It pedal-powered sound system to tour my neighbourhood (take that, you folk-singing Italian apartment dwellers).

I’ve also started trawling Simon Jenkins’s London Collection on BBC iplayer, which I first stumbled upon last year when I discovered I Love This Dirty Town, Margaret Drabble’s 1969 paean to city life in general and London in particular. It’s dated in some ways (those accents!) but really it’s timeless. Drabble’s joy in density, mixed use neighbourhoods, cultural vibrancy and, above all, walkability is recognisably the stuff of good urban design as we know it today.

It makes a great odd couple pairing with Clive James’s Postcard from London (1991), which looks back on his arrival from Australia in the 1960s, noting that walking remains the quickest and, of course, cheapest way to get around. As a recent open letter from researchers to government says, “Social distancing will make many sports and gym-based exercise impossible. However, walking and cycling can be compatible with social distancing if people are responsible. Transmission risks will be very low if people stay 2-3 metres apart.” Some official policy to ensure this remains possible is, surely, essential.

I Love This Dirty Town signs off with a nod to activist Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Jacobs is legendary for her opposition to large-scale, top-down and often car-led urban renewal programmes, typically led by male urban planners. Instead, she argued for planning which was more neighbourhood-based and responsive to the needs of diverse city-dwellers. Jacobs’s work is not without its critics, particularly those concerned about the risks of gentrification, but “streets for people” thinking is pretty orthodox now – the Mayor’s Transport Strategy includes a suite of Healthy Streets indicators which put people and their health at the heart of decision-making.

Indeed, “What would Jane do?” is the unofficial slogan of the Urbanistas network of built environment professionals, which aims to amplify women’s voices and ideas to make cities better for everyone. Its London chapter hosts regular “expos” where members share emerging project ideas and are supported with constructive criticism, offers of support and useful contacts. Sister network Women in Planning has a similar mission to increase the visibility and profile of women in the industry, and likewise convenes a London-based group of planners from both public and private sectors. A new RTPI report Women and planning: past, present and future finds that female planners experience more frequent obstacles to career progression than do men, and that men continue to dominate senior roles in both public and private sectors – this despite the fact that planning is more diverse than other related sectors.

The concept of gender mainstreaming is something which was adopted by the UN as policy in 1995. It’s an approach which actively addresses the diverse needs of women and men equally, the rationale being that the results are fairer and more humane. Evidence of its impact in the UK is so far limited, according to RTPI report author co-author Professor Aude Bicquelet-Lock. But its associated ideas of inclusion, accessibility, walkability and security resonate widely and and seem to find their way more swiftly into policy under female leadership.

In Paris, for example, mayor Anne Hidalgo’s re-election campaign includes the concept of the 15 minute city, which has its echo in the Sustrans 20 minute neighbourhood manifesto ask during the last General Election. In Vienna, strategic planner and gender mainstreaming expert Eva Kail has challenged historical urban design based on strictly timetabled, male-dominated traditional commuting in order to take into account the needs and preferences of people, usually women, who undertake unpaid labour such as childcare or shopping, mostly making short journeys on foot throughout the day. You can read an account of a recent visit to Vienna by London-based Urbanista Natalya Palit here. Palit was the 2019 winner of the RTPI George Pepler International Research Award and is investigating what the UK can learn from Vienna with regard to adopting gender mainstreaming.

Meanwhile, in Barcelona, a collective of architects and planners Punt 6 was established in the wake of the eight-point Neighbourhoods Law (2004). It is named after the sixth point, which incorporates a gender perspective into the design of urban spaces and facilities. Stephanie Hegarty’s short BBC video, widely shared in recent months, shows how Punt 6 are successfully deploying ideas endorsed by deputy mayor for urbanism Janet Sanz, and making the case for a city designed around the whole population’s needs. Walking and space for both children and adults to play safely feature highly.

Which brings me back to Coronavirus and London’s response to the pandemic. Images of still-packed rush hour tube carriages are circulating and major supermarkets are struggling with panic aisle sweeps. But pollution-free cargo-bike schemes like Pedalme are supporting local independents with staying afloat and even transporting office equipment to where people live to enable home-working. West End Lane Books in North London, famed for its “bookshop lock-ins” is keeping its doors open for the time being, offering to package up orders to collect at the door as one way of maintaining service.

Inspired by circulating images of American families creating streets for social distancing London-based play expert Dinah Bornat and Developer editor Christine Murray have asked what positive lessons for new ways of living together might come out of the pandemic. It’s a tiny handful of examples, but these are all potentially sustainable ways of living and working in our dirty old town for years to come. In the meantime, the Royal Parks are tweeting visions of spring to help keep our spirits up: we should repay them with our physical presence as soon as we are able.

To quote Margaret Drabble once more: “Don’t they know people have plans of their own?”

Catherine Max is a health and sustainability consultant who helps organisations improve wellbeing and reduce health inequalities. Read her Sense Of Place blog here and follow her on twitter @catherine_max.

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