David Boyle

In search of wabi-sabi planning

Town & Country Planning, December 2004

I was involved over the summer with the launch of a campaign by the New Economics Foundation called Clone Town Britain. Unlike some of the campaigns I have been involved with over the last couple of decades – when the result has often been less than thrilling – I was absolutely staggered by the response.

It is true that Clone Town Britain – an attempt to highlight the way that everywhere from Ashford to Aberdeen now looks almost exactly the same – was sprung on the world during the so-called ‘silly season’, when the media is notoriously short of copy.

But even so, not only was it covered by every national newspaper – with full- or double-page articles – but BBC radio’s flagship Today programme devoted their entire Saturday edition to the subject, broadcast from an unsuspecting Boston in Lincolnshire.

The reaction was immediate. Local newspapers called to express their amazement at their own ‘clone town’ survey results – in the case of Reading, because it appeared to be what they called a “near perfect clone”.

Local campaigners called up to ask for advice. In one case, they said they had discovered their local regeneration area was to be barred to locally-owned shops, on the grounds that these would be ‘untidy’.

Even officials from regional development agencies called up, terrified that their favoured development areas might be described by anybody as ‘cloned’.

The whole event, still going strong – ahead of the publication of a final report in the spring – struck me as a real watershed.

People have had a deep-seated fear of this spread of identikit places for some time – even Pete Seager’s song about ‘Little boxes made of ticky-tacky’ expressed some of it even in the 1960s – but until now the professionals dismissed such timidity as backward.

Worries of this kind have been rejected for the past couple of generations as a fear of progress, or simply a fear of change – which was all the ‘progress’ word came to mean.

Now the argument is not so clear. As a society, we no longer quite believe in progress – at least not that kind of progress without benefit or value, and are unconvinced of its inevitability.

And just in terms of townscapes, we can see all around us all too clearly where this kind of narrow ‘progress’ ends. Bustling high streets, full of life become ‘rationalised’. The shopkeepers who used to recycle what they earned between them, and create local wealth by so doing, re-organised into the ordered, mildly slavish employees of a retail combine.

Streets which a generation ago were full of life, light and individuality – and individuality, because it is the basis of specialisation, is a basic pre-requisite of regeneration – have become blank concrete walls with the occasional entrance to underground car parks.

Or if you are lucky, a large air conditioning vent.

We have all seen similar. But for sceptics, I encourage people to walk one day down Lambeth High Street, once home to the bustling local shops that supplied the households of William Blake and Captain Bligh – the haven of humanity activity that gave us the ‘Lambeth Walk’ and much else besides – now just rationalised concrete walls and a few air vents.

It is not really human – this is landscape for cars, neat landscapes of the bureaucratic mind – and it is therefore not quite real. It certainly isn’t ‘progress’.

Probably the loss of human contact is the most serious disappearance from both the new clone towns and ghost towns that are emerging around the UK. That has serious repercussions for other aspects of life.

“One ordinary morning last winter, Bernie Jaffe and his wife Ann supervised the small children crossing at the corner,” wrote Jane Jacobs, who – despite her hostility to Ebenezer Howard and English planners in general – is probably closer to the TCPA tradition of human-scale planning than anyone else alive. “[They] lent an umbrella to one customer and a dollar to another; took custody of two keys; took in some packages for people in the next building who were away; lectured two youngsters who asked for cigarettes; gave street directions; took custody of a watch to give the repair man across the street when he opened later…” and so on.

She was describing two small owner-shopkeepers in a human place, and it is real in a way that the modern Lambeth High Street is simply not.

There is a parallel here between the emerging physical landscape and the emerging mental one. Jerry Mander, the American social critic, has argued for decades that there is an intimate connection between the landscape and what we see on television.

The result is what he describes as “a homogenised mental landscape that nicely matches the franchises, freeways suburbs, high-rise buildings, clearcut and speeded-up physical life of the external universe.”

In fact, his 1973 book Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television was originally called The Freewayification of the Mind.

You can see what he means. Turn on the television and we get bland identikit programmes, interspersed with rather too many advertisements, and much the same when we leave the front door.

We get reality TV-style architecture and planning: places that pretend to be real but actually are just fake environments where the producers are in control, and busily pulling the strings.

Like Big Brother also, there are cameras everywhere. Like ChangingPlaces, we get a few designers with inflated opinions of themselves dashing into people’s homes, but the result is tacky and completely unliveable.

We get new buildings commissioned by corporations and designed by architects who have seem to have no interest in their impact at ground level or on the lives of ordinary people, who have to walk along the road underneath – out of sight of the ‘brave’ glass towers on the skyline – with an unremitting diet for the eyes of concrete or reflective glass.

“The trouble is that some people really seem to think that tall buildings are the devil’s work,” my cousin told me recently: he is an architect of tall buildings, egged on currently by London’s mayor.

I don’t know about the devil, but anything that makes the majority of people feel belittled, out of scale, and feeds them a steady street-level cornucopia of faux marble and air conditioning, seems to me to degrade their humanity.

Somehow we need to rediscover the skills of creating real places – real because they are human-scale and recognise that people have three-dimensions to their lives. Because they do not assume we are the single-dimensional machines that ‘modern’ rationalised, McDonaldised systems require.

People may not be able to define an ‘authentic’ place, but they can recognise one immediately.

A friend of mine told a dinner party recently that he had bought a flat in Paris because the shops are ‘real’ there – and we all knew immediately what he meant.

They are indeed more likely to be owned by the person serving you. They sell fresh food made on the premises. They smell real, you can exchange the time of day in them. They are not the kind of shops that G. K. Chesterton dismissed as “branches of the accounting profession”.

That makes the kind of untidy landscape described by Jane Jacobs in 1960s New York real, and it makes the ‘clone towns’ so beloved of regeneration executives insidiously fake.

People’s rising concern about this issue, then, is a symptom of a rising awareness of this indefinable sense of authenticity in so many areas of life.

Take food, for example. Thirty years ago, we were told on Tomorrow’s World that the vacuum-packed just-add-water beef stew eaten by the Apollo astronauts was the future of food, and hat kitchens would disappear altogether.

But, although we do buy ready meals in their plastic-packaged millions, the culture is actually going another way entirely.

Organic food is enjoying an explosion of interest on both sides of the Atlantic. Cookery TV programmes and cookery books are some of the most popular. Farmers markets, stuffed with fresh produce straight from the farm, are popping up in towns and cities all over the country. The Campaign for Real Ale has transformed our drinking habits.

This is not to say that the market for fast food has disappeared, but there is a growing demand for what is authentic, local and trustworthy.

This trend is true of many other areas of life. Despite all we’ve been told for the past 40 years by corporate technologists and globalisers – that the future is entirely global and virtual – there is a sizeable minority who are increasingly committed to real food, real culture, real politics, real schools, real community, real medicine, real culture, real stories…

The rise of local brands, real ale, reading groups, organic vegetables, complementary medicine, slow food, poetry recitals, unmixed music, materiality in art and unbranded vintage fashions, are all symptoms of the same thing – a demand for human-scale, face-to-face institutions and real experience.

Advertisers have grasped the word ‘real’. Marketeers are experimenting with products with a sense of authenticity about them. That is why the demand that places should be ‘real’ has been making itself heard.

Real places are people places. Not the kind of ‘festival marketplaces’ that have overtaken the USA over the past generation. Nor the café culture inspired by Barcelona and so beloved of Richard Rogers, though both have their role.

Both these examples of ‘fake real’ assume that humanity is one-dimensional – that people are at the height of their human potential when they shop, or when they sit in coffee bars. The may occasionally enjoy doing either, but neither is the case.

Places will not be real until we spread that sense of authenticity to the whole city – where people live as well as where they play. That is a challenge among the miserable tower blocks around Barcelona just as it is in the cloned high streets and blank walls of Britain.

So, to draw some threads together, there is an architectural element to authenticity – the sense of life in the places were people live and work – just as there is an economic element to it. Planning can potentially bring those two elements together.

But how do we start creating real places now? Well, three rather futuristic suggestions:

  • Start using Section 106 agreements in retailing to insist on a percentage of locally-owned shops.
  • Extending the concept of monopoly to local or regional economies: one retailer might not have a monopoly across the UK, but it certainly might in a city region – and this is clearly anti-competitive.
  • If it was possible to decide the rateable value of a development according to the number of blank concrete walls at street level – a clear cost in terms of local economic health and well-being – we might see more exciting offerings beginning to appear on the drawing board.

The heart of the matter is that the purpose of planning is the creation of places, and the profession has allowed itself to become involved in creating places that increasingly people feel are fake.

It has involved itself in cookie-cutter regeneration schemes, with cloned retail nightmares that might as well be downtown Dallas.

It has allowed itself to be drawn into the creaking and sheltered visions of big name architects who believe that combinations of city centre cafés and forests of phallic glass stumps are the key to the future.

It has clung to the myths of modernism for too long, scared of what is old and human-scale. In short, it needs a sense of what the Japanese call wabi-sabi, the cult of the worn, comfortable and human.

Wabi means the beauty of simple things. Sabi is the charm of things that are frayed by their use over time. The combination comes very close to a meaningful definition of authenticity as understood by those who are starting to use the term. It means natural, human and decaying. It means the power of overlooked details.

Wabi-sabi does not mean shabby or run-down: it means the authenticity of planning by accretion, of renewal piece by piece, of atmosphere from different dimensions of activity – the kind of regeneration that can retain people, history and tradition.

Wabi-sabi planning is the key to making places real. The users of places, not the tidy-minded who know what’s best for them, are impatient for it.


title: books by David Boyle
Broke Voyages of Discovery Money Matters Blondel's Song Leaves World to Darkness The Little Money Book Funny Money The Tyranny of Numbers