Blog: 4 January 2017An Urban Vision

Peter Newton

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Peter Newton

Architectural Director

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It’s not often I get to open architectural writing with a reference to Hollywood, but the home of film has long had an association with promoting political messages within the US as has, to perhaps an even greater impact, American TV.

In the 1980’s, Cagney and Lacey lived a city life which was grim, hard and dangerous, in stark contrast to the ideal lifestyle portrayed in Little House on the Prairie, of country living, or sumptuous suburban mansion living in Dallas. Similarly, American cities suffered a decline in standards of living throughout the 1970’s and 80’s, to such an extent that some cities such as Detroit have become global case studies in showing the ‘shrinking cities’ phenomenon.

There was however a seismic shift since the 90’s. Whether it was politics or social aspiration, suddenly US TV was flooded with city living examples. From young, aspiring friends living across the hall (Friends), to Ally McBeal as she set out on her new career, or Frasier living with his father and dog in a high-rise apartment, these shows began to reveal an aspirational urban lifestyle. They highlighted the substantial benefits on offer in city living e.g. jobs, culture, compact but comfortable living, friendships and relationships, fun and the variations of lifestyle urban living can support, as the US, and the rest of the world entered into the ‘post-nuclear family’ era.  

But despite a vast raft of the UK population consuming these programmes throughout the 90’s and 00’s, UK television showed little sign of change. Here soap operas rule the TV landscape. EastEnders and Coronation Street still dominate our popular culture and yet they hardly portray an aspirational city living opportunity.  The dark view of Cagney & Lacey seems to still prevail in the UK, as city living is consistently portrayed as dangerous and dirty, filled with nasty people and crime. Think of the last city based programme you watched – I bet it didn’t portray an urban idyll?!

So what? What does popular culture have to do with the way we drive and build our cities? For me it’s about how we establish cities as the hub and opportunity they really are. How can we set out a positive urban vision, that enables us to get past the continuous wrangles of green belt, urban sprawl, low density development and unsustainable living patterns, to really tackle our housing crisis, when popular culture and therefore the perspective of so many individuals across the UK remains that cities are not desirable?

As a country we need high density, urban solutions to create opportunities for an emerging generation to find independence, but in the UK we don’t have a vision of what urban living can be. What would the portrayal of positive urban city living look like for us?

I firmly believe that part of the issue here is the way in which we have delivered apartment living to date. Those portrayed in Friends and Frasier have a generosity of space that shows how apartments can offer more than a tiny warren of miniature rooms, and are not all sumptuous multi-million pound pads for the super wealthy. Where are the apartments that are generous in size and space standards with outdoor terraces for summer evenings in the UK? Where are the apartments that would rival the Victorian terrace house for space and comfort?

As Architects (and TV producers/writers) we should be designing apartments that are a real alternative for a wide cross section of society including young people and families, over peripheral semi’s and terraces. Places that combine internal space that is generous enough for a family to live in, with the social economic and environmental benefits of compact urban living.

I await the UK ‘Friends’ equivalent!

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