Ian Nairn and Subtopia

After my four-part entry on Jane Jacobs and her magnum opus Death and Life of Great American Cities, it follows that Ian Nairn more than deserves at least an entry or two.

Like Jacobs, Ian Nairn’s writing on architecture and planning emerged from his role as a journalist. Where Jacobs wrote for the American magazine Architectural Forum, Nairn was British-born and based and wrote for the Architectural Review. Unlike Architectural Forum, which ceased publication in 1974, Architectural Review is still alive and well, and continued to be held in high esteem in the industry.

While they both had journalistic backgrounds and were very skilled at storytelling and weaving a compelling narrative, I would say the similarities end there. Nairn, unlike Jacobs, had a technical background. He was the son of a draughtsman for a the R101 airship (zeppelin), a government-backed project to expand civil airships capable of long-distance journeys between London and key routes within the British Empire. While Nairn was not a trained architect, he was a qualified pilot who did extended national service in the RAF and graduated in Mathematics from Birmingham University. Nairn was raised in Surrey, which even by the 1930s was already essentially a wealthy suburban belt of London, and it was here he cultivated his deep-seated hatred of the suburbs. The exploration of his aversion to the suburbs led to his Outrage! project where he coined the term Subtopia.

Nairn’s views of the suburbs, therefore, were inverted to those of Jacobs. While Jacobs seemed to have a positive predisposition towards the suburbs, never really articulating it but implying in her “eyes on the street” concept of neighbourhood surveillance that the one thing cities are lacking is a suburban mindset, and that the conditions that allow big cities to afford the right to anonymity of their inhabitants should be eradicated to as great an extent as possible.

Nairn, on the other hand, sees the suburbs as a scourge. In his view, they spread mediocrity and prevent creative and intelligent thinking, numbing all the senses by their blandness and striving to make life as free as possible of the discomfort and friction city life requires its inhabitants to navigate on a daily basis. One wonders, whether the British sense of apathy and quite frankly, levels of acceptance of abuses inflicted on the ruling class to ordinary citizens that would simply not be tolerated elsewhere, is a cultural trait or one that has been exacerbated by the post-war drive to bland, conflict-averse society organised in neat little suburbs characterised by individual family homes, small private gardens and reliance on private transport.

While they had different attitudes towards the suburbs,  it is fair to say that Nairn and Jacobs had in different ways both had strong views on increasing the density of cities and aiming for as high a density as possible. For Nairn, this was largely to protect the integrity of the countryside, keeping it as wild and free from manmade interference as possible. Jacobs, on the other hand, didn’t make much of a mention of the interaction between city and countryside, instead aiming for a walkable city composed of lots of different neighbourhoods, or mini cities within a bigger city, in which people would live, work, and play without ever needing to venture out into the greater metropolis to which they belong.

In recent years, Jacobs’ concepts has become extremely popular in Europe as a response to climate change and the move to decarbonisation through people-centric urban and residential planning. The walkable city, or 20-minute or 15-minute city, is gaining popularity as a strategy to try to phase out car traffic from city centres and reduce congestion. For example, the Scottish Government has embedded the 20-minute city in its national planning framework, Mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo is backing a 15-minute city model, and other cities are following suit, including Barcelona. The Catalonian capital has long been a pioneer and perfect case study in urban planning and testing new human-centric concepts from Cerdà’s superblock plans and design for Eixample in overcrowded 19th century Barcelona still constricted by medieval city walls to the more recent port area redevelopment. From Jacobs’ point of view, her focus on increasing density as a way to make cities “smaller” and more liveable and manageable rather than Nairn’s wish to increase density of cities to protect and conserve the integrity of the countryside was perhaps largely because the US is a vast, expansive territory and land is not exactly in short supply. Britain, on the other hand, as Nairn never fails to remind us, is a small, overcrowded, and at the time of Outrage! still a highly industrial country. Towns, therefore, had a propensity to spill over into the country, even in the remotest rural corners such as the Highlands of Scotland which even in 1955 were still pock-marked with man-made activity. Jacobs realised early the damage planners could make by building cities around the needs of the motorcar (let’s not forget her rise to fame was connected with her role and subsequent arrest in mobilising Manhattanites against the Robert Moses plan to build a highway cutting through dense city areas), Nairn’s view was complementary to this in his early realisation of the extent to which the rise of car ownership could damage the countryside by extending the reach and the spread of the city. In Outrage! he notes that

“Spread is dependent no longer on population increase but on the services a power-equipped society can think up for itself. With radio and supersonic speeds you get the capacity for infinite spread, the limiting factors of time and place having ceased to operate. The city is to-day not so much a growing as a spreading thing, fanning out over the land surface in the shape of suburban sprawl.

However, something even more sinister is at work: applied science is rendering meaningless the old distinction between urban and rural life; the village is becoming as much a commuter as the citizen; the old centres of gravity have been deprived of their pull at both ends and in the middle; no longer geographically tied, the industries which once muscled in on the urban set-up are getting out of the mess they did so much to make, and making a new mess outside.”

In time, both have proven to be correct, and we live in a world where the life of the average city dweller has been so ravaged by the use of the private car that it’s not even questioned anymore but taken as a usual and normal part of living in a city. Whether that’s excess deaths from air pollution, contribution to a changed climate, to appalling city planning, streets crowded with cars (both moving and parked) so all other street users are pushed aside and forced to make themselves as invisible as possible and take up as little space as they can. All of this is barely questioned by urban planners, especially in countries such as UK and the US where the fossil fuel industry have a chokehold over governments and the organisation of daily life. Speed, efficiency, and private consumption are also at the core of our global economy, and the private car is certainly seen as integral to this, especially in Europe where governments will not invest in mass-scale state of the art public transit systems and high speed trains as a great scale.

The UK is currently going through some extreme ideology manifesting in the disintegration of rail infrastructure because of a stubborn refusal to dip into shareholder profits to give it the upgrade it so badly needs. The country’s economic system is currently in what can really only be described as meltdown and this is just one symptom. In the US, it’s criminal that such a large, expansive country has such diabolic rail coverage and no high speed connection to speak of.