Ever since I was at John Prescott’s Urban Summit at Brindley Place, Birmingham in late 2002, and was collected by my wife and youngest lad on our way up to visit family up north, I have had a bee in my bonnet about our so called “urban renaissance”. Amongst Birmingham’s regenerated canal district Britain’s National Sea Life centre has been opened. I took my lad in @ 4.30 on a midweek afternoon only to be told it was closing. On asking why, it was explained that there were no families living close by and the centre was only busy at weekends and school hols. Here I was amongst shiny new buildings, landscaping, canals, restaurants and shops and hundreds of new homes. But the whole emphasis was on singles and childless couples. The concept that a child could enjoy the freedom of a city just hadn’t crossed the minds of the planners.
Over the next months, on regular visits to northern cities such as Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool I became increasingly fixated on new apartment blocks, with all units sold and yet quite clearly, judging by how few lights were on in an evening and judging by the few people actually visible in the streets, those units not bought “to leave empty” and sell in pristine condition a couple of years later were occupied by a monoculture of young professionals and students Surely this was far away from the “sustainable communities” that we were being encouraged to deliver. Surely “sustainable communities” was about a mixed set of people putting down roots, not about a transient, no matter how cool, one dimensional demographic. Yet for most, putting down roots still means starting a family, and try starting a family in the type of accommodation available in these cities. Try feeling comfortable about your kids popping out to the shop to pick up some milk.
I contrasted this to our second home in Perth, Australia (OK I know it sounds flash, the carbon footprint concerns us but we learn a lot about urban design and sustainable living from travelling there every Christmas and we bring back ideas and put them into practice to the benefit of many, promise!), where with our four kids of various ages we live right in the centre of a medium size city (1.9 million), have wonderful play, recreation and sports facilities right outside our door, where we can get onto cycle routes and go for miles without having to negotiate the city traffic, where public transport from our front door is free and regular. We have no anxieties about allowing our 9 year old to pop to the Video store or to pick up some milk, or to go and kick a ball in the adjacent park, the streets are “traffic calmed”, kids are out and about, it feels normal, it feels like they should be there. We love our city centre home in Perth, its got everything and more than our UK home in rural West Sussex. OK the climate helps but its not just the weather, our kids have always felt free there and I want “ free range kids”.
Neither are we the only family who enjoys city living. Just like many European counties there is a significant number of us who enjoy what cities have to offer but here because of a lack of family thinking we choose to move out.
But often in the UK, even where there is space for what many kids like to do, play football, we stick “no ball game” signs up and force them inside to watch the idiot box or play on bloody game consoles. When they are old enough to drink we have stopped them having a social beer in a park whilst playing some informal sport and coerced them into boring pubs where there is precious little to do rather than get plastered. It seems that we are designing out all the youth freedom that my generation grew up with. With 10 metre gardens the norm in new housing, with every bit of spare land being swallowed up by infill development where can we build our dens, where can we hide under a tree with a “found” copy of Penthouse? We have the jobsworth council play officer, obsessed with his upcoming “health and safety audit”, providing play areas that consist of a few bloody spring chickens. They wont allow you to build play areas full of sand (because evidently dogs will do stuff in them… what about fences or in the lame excuse that babies will eat the sand… but its only £1.99 a bag at B & Q so its not expensive to replace!!) They wont allow untreated timber or fallen trees to be used for kids to play on for fear of splinters or a broken limb or two.. diddums ….children need to learn about risk and we must learn to avoid going further down this “risk averse” cul de sac.
Some might argue that cities are doing very nicely without families or that it is just too difficult to change? Yes it may be difficult to introduce significant green and recreation spaces into cities with a city centre industrial heritage like Manchester, it may be difficult to introduce more parking, better public services, but some figures released in the Centre for Cities publication “City People..City Centre Living in the UK” must make worrying reading for non London councils and developers alike. The research shows that the most significant contributor to city centre growth numbers is the student population (up to 80 per cent) , consisting of low disposable income renters contributing to a 3 year churn of almost the entire city centre residential population. Surely such transient communities cant be the whole solution to the regeneration and a growing repopulation of our centres or is it the way of UK life that we spend a certain part of our life living in town and city centres and then we move out to the suburbs? Either way things must change, if as the research shows, we consider city centres to be transitory places to live, then we must stop destroying our once leafy suburbs with crap infill and we must stop the destruction of places where we can bring up “ free range kids”.