The aim of the last entry was to introduce Ian Nairn and his ideas, although it went down a rabbit hole of comparing two influential post-war urban theorists, ethnographers and flaneurs – almost centrist-Situtationist psychogeographers of the rising Anglo-American middle class on either side of the Atlantic. The two did have certain traits in common and a similar place in the societies to which they belong either side of the Atlantic. Indeed, they were mutually aware of each other and they did meet in New York in the 1960s where they collaborated briefly following Nairn receiving a grant by the Rockefeller Foundation. Nairn’s work clearly influenced Jacobs and his Outrage! is referenced in “Death and Life” and subsequent essays.
So, now let’s talk about Outrage! and the follow-up, Counterattack. In 1955, Ian Nairn issued the Architectural Review with his critique of the concept he termed as coined Subtopia, or the slow tentacles of suburbia spilling over increasingly into the British countryside. In effect, it is a call to arms to increase urban densification and protect the countryside from a process of urban sprawl. Written in 1955, it is eerily prescient and the dawn of mass ownership of private car certainly accelerated this process in the following decade. As the distances that people could easily travel increased, so did the reach of towns into lower density settlements into the countryside as city dwellers increasingly sought larger homes with bigger gardens and more space without having to compromise city living and access to work.
In essence, Outrage! calls for better town planning strategy in the Dutch style of densely packed cities with clearly demarcated green belt countryside between each. There’s a lot to say for this, and I certainly see huge merit in compact, walkable (or cyclable) cities, particularly from the point of view of minimising carbon footprints and promoting urban cohesion. However, this requires careful land planning strategies and coordination at a national level, which is certainly lacking in the UK with successive governments pushing for more and more planning deregulation. It also requires a significant degree of social cohesion, which is extremely weak in the UK, partially due to a deeply engrained national obsession with individualism and privacy. However this has been significantly exacerbated by past brutal 12 years of Thatcherite razing state institutions to the ground so that the state barely exists anymore, turbo-charging the dismantling of public services and privatisation of any notion of collective space. With that comes extremely weak social ties, and a zombie UK state left completely hollow and in a fragile and weak condition with spiralling levels of inequality and deep-rooted structural problems in economy and society that I cannot see improving in the foreseeable.
Ian Nairn would no doubt be horrified at the condition of Britain today, and in many ways Outrage! was eerily prophetic without ever expressing any political dimension. In fact his politics seem somewhat unclear, much less so than that of Jacobs. He never really articulated the reasons for the march of Subtopia, and Outrage! seems largely an exercise in nostalgia for an golden era where the private car didn’t exist and the countryside consisted of idyllic villages and the rural peasant life.
Outrage! and the follow-up Counterattack! are beautifully illustrated by one of the lead Townscape theorists Gordon Cullen. While Nairn didn’t seem to present any immediate solutions to the rapid, messy and short-term thinking behind the sprawling out of post-war Britain’s urban, the beauty of his two polemics lie in his engaging narration style, and a running commentary of the concerns and fears of those living through the social democratic, state-led reconstruction of a Britain ravaged by the war. In particular, his manifesto at the back of Counterrattack! on what not to do when planning cities, and his case-book of bad practice and examples of ugly bits of town planning in a route he took from Southampton all the way up to the Scottish Highlands.
The short book rich in illustration and photographs offers a window into a time when Britain was re-moulding itself following the bloody first half of the twentieth century. Looking at it from the perspective of someone who has grown up largely under a period where the state has been weakened and diminished into something unrecognisable from the state-led development from 1945 onwards, it’s easy to forget that this was a huge period of significant social change which no doubt led to a degree of upheaval for those living through that time.
The most striking thing about Outrage! and Counterattack is their lightness on theory and political context. They barely make mention of the strong municipal-led politics and social democratic policies of the decades following the end of the two world wars that forged modern Britain and lifted many out of poverty and gave them free access to high-quality healthcare, subsidised and good quality housing, education, and the building up of a strong welfare state that ensured everyone had a decent start and end to life, supported by a consensus that this is what a modern state should look like between both Labour and Tories. This has been brutally dismantled since the 2008 crisis and erased from the collective imagination, to the point where Labour’s manifesto for the 2019 election was deemed as dangerous and insane by the political elite , when it reality what it wanted to do was re-imagine the welfare state of the 1950s and 1960s but updated to suit the needs of the 21st century. Clearly, the post-war cross-party consensus of caring for every individual from cradle to grave has retreated, and instead replaced with a Labour-Tory consensus of a return to a Victorian age where life was nasty, brutish and short for most, whose sole purpose of existence was to exploit just so that small hoard of landowners and business owners could live in ostentatiousness and eye-watering luxury. We, the left, lost that debate it seems and now we can do little but sit back and watch the horrors unfold.
Anyway: in the absence of social critique rooted in political context, Nairn’s main contribution was his stimulating additions to the debate on the quality and nature of town planning and its aesthetic considerations. He brought to the fore the Townscape theory, which Cullen was an advocate as well as Kevin Lynch, author of “The Image of the City” and wider questions around urban design which perhaps had been lacking in the town planning discipline until that point. His contributions as an outsider to the discipline (certainly he ruffled the feathers of technical experts in the profession such as architects and town planners), and his assertion that the character of place cannot be created in a top-down, technocratic manner but by large teams, including sociologists, cultural theorists, commentators and especially, regular citizens.
The Townscape theorists were concerned with how aesthetics and conservation of rural character of British countryside villages could be combined with the social democratic modernisation of post-war Britain. Nairn railed against “clutter” or man-made necessities of urban living – roundabouts, signage, fences, electricity pylons, lampposts taking over the British landscape, and wanted to see it carefully planned and managed so it could be harmonised with the rural landscape.
In Counterattack! Nairn maps out varying archetypes of lampposts and rates them in terms of their ugliness and lack of harmony with their settings. He also critiques local council’s attempts to manage public spaces, with the characteristic flower beds and hanging baskets that filled high streets and town centres, which I recognise from my upbringing in the suburb of a deindustrialising northern town in the 1980s and 1990s. I wonder today, how Nairn would take the average British northern town battered by over a decade of austerity. Gone are the hanging baskets, much of the lampposts and street lighting, and many councils have even removed trees in a bid to save money, which is a neat illustration of the sheer madness of such deep cuts to public spending as we face increasing challenges due to climate change. Trees are a great way to keep dense urban areas cool in the increasingly warm summers, as well as great for natural drainage as our climate gets wetter and floodrisk becomes a near constant threat each year. Our town centres now are sad places: colourless, joyless, soulless with barely any landscaping left, blighted by boarded-up shops and empty properties as high streets decline at a fairly shocking pace.
The starkest difference now from even 10 years ago and certainly in Nairn’s time is the sharp increase in homelessness as more and more people are forced into poverty by the cruel regime forced upon us since 2010. In any given British city, and increasingly also suburbs and smaller town centres, high street doorways are used to shelter an unforgivingly high homeless population. This is a crisis that shows no sign of abating and the noises made by the latest prime minister indicate that he has no intention of providing any structural solutions. In a country as rich as the UK, this is nothing short of a crime of the government’s making.
Planning departments now have been stripped bare, the only planners left in local authorities are mostly left to handle the consequences of an ineffective and inadequate community consultation process and managing the needs of private developers. The planning system has been deregulated and the idea of a cohesive, European-style state-led overarching planning strategy has been sacrificed to profit gains for private developers leading to fragmentation and competition for profit rather than collaboration over shared social goals. Long gone are the days where the municipal planning teams would count sociologists in their ranks. Nairn would be horrified that the densification and townscape debate have both been well and truly lost. The expanded suburbs, Barrattification, are now are seen as a sanctuary for the middle classes, shielding them in new-build estates with private gardens and a lives moulded around privacy and car use, from the horrors of the social and physical dereliction of provincial inner cities and towns that have been systematically hollowed out and left to rot.