The Death and Life of Great Urban Concepts

article by Wouter Vanstiphout
26 July 2011

“There seems little doubt that for most of the still growing world cities of the present time, the Dutch solution is the right model.” Peter Hall 1966

“For me, this inter-urban landscape of marinas, research labs, hypermarkets and industrial parks represents the most hopeful face of Britain at the end of the century. The countryside as we used to know it, apart from the National Trust’s colour-coordinated nature trails, is now little more than an agribusiness by-product. We live in the TV Suburbs, among the video shops, take-aways and police speed-check cameras, and might as well make the most of them, since there is nowhere else to go.” J.G. Ballard, 1994

One of the most succesfull urban models to have been developed by London planners is the Randstad Holland. The year 1966 saw two British publications that would have a worldwide impact and would shape the international reputation of Dutch Planning and its legendary self confidence: Peter Halls World Cities and Gerald Burkes Greenheart Metropolis.

World Cities Peter Hall presents seven agglomerations, that contain such concentrations of talent, power, culture, education and economic force, that they are truly World Cities. Furthermore, these metropolises present a wide range of shapes that World Cities can have in order to fullfill their task, from the centripetal and the hierarchic Paris, the immense London, to the dispersed and fragmented Ruhr Area in Western Germany and the sprawling low rise density of Tokyo. The most excentric choice is the Randstad Holland, a morphologically unique ‘composition’ of moderately sized cities in a horse shoe shape bent around a green heart of natural and agricultural areas, a model Peter Hall holds up to the other cities in his book as one to follow.

What did the Randstad have that his own city, planned according to the paradigmatic Abercrombie Green Belt plan, did not have? At the time of writing, the Green Belt was just over twenty years old and had had a spectacular effect, not just on the London city and region, but worldwide. By drawing a huge but relatively tight corset of agricultural and natural landscapes around the existing city, and then jumping over the green belt and designating a number of state of the art planned New Towns, while allowing existing towns to grow, London had effectively harnessed one of the most inevitable dynamics of modern time: urban sprawl. The planners had managed for a while to contain it in a limited number of spatial vessels in a ring around the great city. Already however, after twenty years, the sprawl - like a bacteria resistent to antibiotics - had redressed itself. The demographic and economic succes of the area outside of the GreenBelt had caused a new type of sprawl, bigger, wider, even less controllable, on a regional or even national scale, around the motorways and trainlines, the powerstations and airports in a radius of dozens of miles outward from central london.

It was therefore no wonder that the Randstad Holland could be recognized as the next model: Green Belt 2.0, i.e. Green Heart. The year World Cities was published, the London planner and Townscape pioneer Gerald Burke dedicated an entire book to this Dutch phenomenon, with the title GreenHeart Metropolis and likewise presented it as the best model for the cities of his time to start following, now that the concentric sequence of City, Greenbelt and Satellites that London had perfected, was showing signs of wear and tear.

The Randstad and The Green Heart however were never meant to be urban, nor were they meant to be a model. The first time the Randstad was recognized by Dutch planners was in 1958, less than a decade before the English planners sang its praises. That year saw the publication of the ‘development scheme 1980’ describing how major Dutch cities were positioned in a horse shoe shape around an agricultural zone, separated from each other by swaths of open space. The Bill then went on to argue that this structure of separated communities should be conserved, also under pressure of demographic growth. The Bill was aimed at creating the opposite of a GreenHeart Metropolis or a World City; it was an example of state driven negative containment planning. Also the second Bill on Spatial Planning from 1966, with its concept of “Clustered Deconcentration”, and its hugely optimistic prognosis of a population of 20 Million in the year 2000, allowed for each city’s modernist dreams of highways, megastructures, and highrises. The planning models for the Randstad were never meant to transcend the different identities and to imagine a new whole collective megacity, like in London and the South East Region. They were meant to maintain a level playing field and a clear spatial division that would allow each city and each town to fullfill its modernist destiny.

A simple comparison of the situations of London and that of the Randstad goes far in explaining this fundamental difference in perspective between the Dutch planners and their British admirers. If we would compare the Randstad to the South East Region in proportion to the state they are part of, we see an urbanized region that takes up nearly half the country, versus a single city that takes up just a corner of the land. For the Dutch to conceive of the Randstad as one City, or even as one urban identity, would be like expecting the British to understand - and plan - most of England as one coherent urban entity: an urban region 5,5 times its current size and 3,5 times its current population. This comparison also uncovers the latent mega-thinking hidden in the pages of World Cities and Greenheart Metropolis.

The Idea of a world city of millions, consisting of different cores and draped around a large piece of open country side, specked with some rural towns, as proposed by Peter Hall and Gerald Burke, reads as a retroactive manifesto for Holland, but should be understood as a manifesto for London and the South East of England. The scale jump from a single concentric metropolis to an entirely urbanized country was very much part of it.

It was not the first time that Dutch planning was irradiated with the manifestoes and models coming from London and other World Cities in the twentieth century. Right after Ebenezer Howard had published his Garden Cities of Tomorrow (1898), the Dutch were among the first to translate it and to establish Garden City societies. This was the start of a century of modernist urban planning concepts being projected on the Dutch territory; from the early garden cities in Rotterdam and Amsterdam, via the Van Eesteren plans for Amsterdam in the thirties and the Team X megastructures by Jaap Bakema in the Ijmeer, all these concepts focussed on the extensions of single cities, in absolute size often less than 10% of cities like London and Paris, but relatively, and psychologically to their inhabitants, of equal size and importance. None of these plans ever took the Randstad as their starting point. The concept simply did not exist; each city saw itself as a singularity.

Why then this insistence by Hall and Burke on the model Randstad? Why this projection of ambitions and pretensions on a region that was in fact being planned in a wholly different way, rather bottom up than top down, rather consensus seeking, than visionary? The Netherlands has always been an early adopter of radical urban planning concepts, but has always managed to whittle them down to a non radical matter-of-factness. Nowhere have the hexagonal webs of Walter Christaller been more faithfully reproduced than in the Noord Oost Polder, but not as part of a web of village-town relationships that was theorized to cover an entire continent. It has remained one discreet, neatly finished and isolated composition, now applying for the status of UNESCO world heritage. The same could be said of the Dutch high rise suburbs of the fifties and sixties; despite their predictably bad reputation with the Dutch, they have nowhere reached the alienating otherness, or the hopeless segregation in relation to the existing cities, as they have in French or English cities. And only a decade ago, it was a Dutch city that offered Rem Koolhaas and OMA their first chance at constructing an entire city centre, thereby potentially unleashing the entire ideological arsenal of the Office for Metropolitain Architecture upon its voluntary prisoners. Again the result is a complete, neat realization of OMA attributes in a didactically crystal-clear urban ensemble, but again without any dystopian glamour, any ideological fervour, any frisson of being at the cutting edge of urbanism that we would have expected from this office.

The Randstad is a laboratory for the testing of radically new urban concepts, in the sense that just like a laboratory it creates an antiseptic and artificial environment, wherein isolated elements of new ideas can be tested out, with a minimized danger of contamination or catastrophe. Part of this has to do with the particular administrative structure of the Randstad, one that consists of basically dozens and dozens of municipalities with a more or less equal status. compared to the hierarchical structure of the South East, that goes from Extra large (Region), to Large (Greater London), to Medium (London) to small (boroughs); urban planning decisions in the Dutch Randstad are dominated by the smallest unit, the municipality, of which there are dozens and dozens of more or less similar size and weight. Urban planning decisions in a centralized structure like the English or the French are slower to make, but can have an immense impact, cutting through all scales and levels, with either disastrous and/or redemptive results for the entire urban population. the Dutch political conditions for planning can be described as a cell structure, creating great possibilities for trying out new models, but always containing their effects within a reasonable scale, and killing off any attempt that would try to break through the cell membranes. These are the ingredients for a planning situation that creates the impression of being plannable and open to new model thinking, but in fact is heavily immunized against any real transcendent change. International interest in the Netherlands is therefor nearly always of a theoretical, and very rarely of a strategic nature. The Randstad is the anti-New York: If you can’t make it anywhere, you can make it there.

This certainly holds true for the shortlived British interest in the Dutch Model, which in retrospect can be seen as a last-ditch effort to formulate an all-encompassing centralist top down urban planning model that would be able to contain the megacity region that London had become. Shortlived it certainly was on the part of Peter Hall; in the same year World Cities was published, he visited Los Angeles for the first time and experienced nothing short of an epiphany, which then led to a conversion. In an article called “The City of All Futures’ Hall sang the praises of the Californian city, with its loose network of freeways, irrigating endless fields of opportunity for burgeoning ethnic communities, exotic industrioes like the movies and the defence contractors, to a spoundtrack of the Beach Boys, Country Joe and the Fish, The Doors and sprinkled with flowers and basking in the eternal sunshine. It forever cured Peter Hall from whatever preconceptions he might have had about the lack of urbanity in the suburbs, and from a youthful trust in top down statist masterplanning. Hall was at the forefront of a whole group of Londoners who swung their gaze westward, away from old Europe and straight to California. Very soon Reyner Banham would write his wonderful ode to Los Angeles. Los Angeles the architecture of four ecologies, and explicitly presented it as a treasure trove filled with models, examples and tools for British cities to follow. Paul Barker, editor of New Society for which both Hall and Banham wrote, published extensive excerpts from Herbert Gans’ “The Levittowners”, the sociological study proving that there is just as much urban vitality in the low density post war suburbs of American Cities as in Greenwich Village and Soho.

Los Angeles was more than just an occidentalist fantasy on the part of a generation of Brits; the interest in California very soon became serious and operational. It really did re-orient the British planning practices and theories in a much deeper and more effective way than the Dutch example could ever have done. The first example is how the Californian urban thinker and traffic planner Melvin Webber became Guru of sorts to the planners of the third generation New Town Milton Keynes. “Los Angeles” is clearly visible in the free flowing and equilibrious road grid that acts not as a divider but as a non-hierarchical underlay for the suburban neighborhoods that are smoothly sprawl over the landscape, and also in the unabashed presence of commerce and entreprise in the city through shopping malls and roadside signage, creatings Britains first Pop Art Townscape. “I believe that Mel was the true spiritual father of Milton Keynes” Hall would write years later. Los Angeles would leave a deeper and more ideological mark in one of the most prophetic and curious projects hat have ever been made for England: Non Plan: An Experiment in Freedom. Non Plan was based on a deep disappointment with not just the outcome but also the ethics of public planning, and proposed a paradigm shift if ever there was one. Peter Hall and Paul Barker - the editor of New Society - got together with Architectural Historian Reyner Banham and Architect Cedric Price and set out to hypothesize on what would be the result if the new trends and tastes, the modern spatial practices and daily urban systems were left to their own devices. Each of the contributors took a tract of land and did exactly this, imagining linear roadway cities stretching through East Anglia, landscapes of leisure in Southern Hampshire, enterprise zones in the Midlands, all arranged in a natural and loose way over the landscape, produced by individual initiative and coordinated by local communities. Non Plan was illustrated by rudimentary maps and night time pictures of illuminated signs in the South East region, launderettes, night clubs, petrol stations: the early warning signs of the inescapable Californication of England. Non Plan created a furore in planning and political circles; both the Fabian Socialists to whom Peter Hall belonged as the architects of whom Banham and Price were part, erupted in outrage and shock against this trashing of everything they believed in and the sell out to America. Support did come however from the far left, from the Anarchist thinker Colin Ward, who saw in Non Plan a legitimation of the ideas of autonomy from the state, that he had been advocating for decades, and that actually were the core of Ebenezer Howards thinking, before the Garden City was coopted by State planning.

The critics however felt vindicated a decade later when the Thatcher government appropriated one element of the Non Plan ideas and implemented it to the detriment of state planning as it existed and to the more social-anthropological ideals proposed by Banham, Barker, Hall & Price. Halls Idea for Enterprise Zones as hypothesized for the Midlands, was picked up by the Tory ministers and would ultimately lead to the creation of Tax Exempt Enterprise free zones like Canary Wharf, as part of a package of planning policies that was a radical departure from the post war period of public planning. Part of this package would be the marginalisation of social housing and the abolition of the Greater London Council. With Non Plan it is difficult to discern between its prophetic and its projective contents; the South East of London does look more like Non Plan than it does like the Green Heart Metropolis or the Randstad World City, as presented a few years earlier, So much is sure.

We could even say that in the end, Non Plan and the Californian conversion by Hall, Banham, Barker and their generation of British planners and urban thinkers, would turn out to be actually prophetic for the Randstad itself, with which we come full circle. The prophecy has worked on many levels; the late sixties also saw in the Netherlands a rise of the automotive consumer culture, that would in the end create some arguments for understanding the randstad as a single urban entity, but also making it more and more difficult to achieve the spatial coherence of models like the Green Heart. The celebration of a consumerist urban landscape, based on leisure, enterprise and individuality and original used of space, combined with cartoonish graphics and happy modernist architecture, appeared 25 years after Non Plan in The Netherlands and then was named Superdutch. And now, more than thirty years after Margaret Thatchers revolution in Britain, the Dutch government has also radically rearranged the policy landscape of Dutch planning, along more or less the same lines as its Tory Grandmother. The State retreats from top down planning models, the landscape is opened up to enterprise through the buidling of new highways, environmental restrictions are relaxed, social housing is marginalized and planning is devolved radically to the lower authorities. Only now are we gradually learning to cope with the fact that we do not inhabit a laboratory for the testing of theoretical planning models, but that we actually inhabit the same type of “inter urban landscape”, the same “TV Suburbs”, and enjoy the same kind of nature as an “agribusiness by-product” that the English Science Fiction writer J.G. Ballard fatalistically celebrated over fifteen years ago. It might not be much, but at least its for real.

Paul Barker, Non Plan Revisited: or the Real Way Cities Grow, in: Journal of Design History, Vol 12, No 2
Gerald Burke, Green Heart Metropolis, 1966
Hans van der Cammen & Len de Klerk, Ruimtelijke Ordening: van grachtengordel tot Vinex-wijk, 2010
Peter Hall, World Cities, 1966
Peter Hall, It all came together in California, in: City 1/2

article for the London School of Economics