Lecture at Chatham - Archbishop calls for fresh approach on new neighbourhoods
Wednesday 16th March 2005In his Lecture at Chatham 'Sustainable Communities', the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, has urged developers and planners not to condemn the next generation to "the curse of living nowhere in particular."
In a keynote address to a conference on new neighbourhoods at Chatham in Kent, Dr Williams said that one major threat to sustainable communities was "the sense of living without landmarks in time or space."
He went on: "How much building and development in recent decades has proceeded as if the aim was indeed to create an impression of nowhere in particular?"
Reviewing suburban and municipal development for much of the last century, Dr Williams said: "Communities were created that looked essentially like warehouses for people, areas which, while not technically anonymous, could have been called anything."
He added: "A landscape which proclaims its sameness with countless others - in its layout, building materials, retail outlets and so on - is a seedbed for problems."
Dr Williams said it was important to create not only a sense of distinctive space but also of time: "Our age is one in which a mixture of aggressive commercialism and unbroken global communication technology have between them ironed out for many people what once seemed obvious rhythms in our lives - day and night, work and rest. Communities that work well, I suggest, need differentiated time as well as differentiated space - that is, they need some sort of calendar."
Dr Williams noted that some improvements had taken place in the last decade, but a lot more was need. He highlighted the importance of local shops, schools and places of worship to community well being and cohesion.
"Planning, then, should look seriously at how the reality of faith becomes part of the landscape - how religious buildings figure among the landmarks of a community," he said.
Dr Williams concluded: "There are things we can do to give new development 'a local habitation and a name'... If we can act in this way, we shall be planning for communities that can in turn act and plan for a shared future. We shall have shaped a human environment that nourishes imagination - and in the widest sense, nourishes faith."
A transcript of the lecture follows:
Lecture at Chatham
What comes to mind when we hear a term like 'sustainable community'? As with 'sustainable development', it's surely about living in an environment that has a future we can imagine. And to talk of a future we can imagine is to talk of certain plans and hopes that are shared. 'Sustainability' is not a matter of how we create something that never has to change; it's to do with how we cope with change in a way that has integrity and continuity, that secures for us a background of trustworthiness which encourages a bit of creativity. Sustainable development is development that does not wreck and deplete the environment so seriously that there is no secure background for human labour and society. So perhaps we should be thinking of sustainable community as the sort of social environment that does not wreck and deplete human capital so much that there is no energy left for initiative and discovery.
If we are going to plan sustainable communities, then, we have to have a good nose for what depletes human capital. And I want to suggest tonight that one major threat to human capital is the sense of living without landmarks in time or space. A friend of mine once said that he thought airport lounges were a device to make us ready to be shipped into outer space because they were designed to be 'nowhere in particular'. But how much building and development in recent decades has proceeded as if the aim was indeed to create an impression of nowhere in particular? Human beings from their earliest days work out their identity by learning to cope with a specific set of triggers and stimuli, the geography of a room, the rhythms of feeding and sleeping, a face that becomes familiar. As their awareness expands, they still work out and define who they are in relation to patterns of activity in time and to a differentiated space; their mental world is in part a set of routes between familiar points. We inhabit a map. It is most dramatically expressed in the Australian aboriginal idea of the 'songlines' that give structure to the world: the aborigine knows the landscape as a series of songs to be sung as you move from this point to that. Geography is a set of instructions for responding with this or that song to the visual triggers you encounter.
Now of course any landscape, any physical environment, has such triggers. But it seems fairly clear that a physical environment that is repetitive, undifferentiated, can fail to give adequate material for a person to develop. A varied environment with marked features – that perhaps have narratives and memories attached to them – offers multiple stimuli to respond to. There is a local geography that is more than just an abstract plan of the ground: it invests places with shared significance. But for this to happen, places must be distinguishable, differentiated. A landscape which proclaims its sameness with countless others – in its layout, building materials, retail outlets and so on – is a seedbed for problems. If it's true that I can't answer the question 'Who am I?' without at some level being able to answer the question 'Where am I?' the character of a built space becomes hugely important. There will always be small scale domestic answers to 'Where am I?' because we all imprint distinctiveness on our homes and are 'imprinted' by them; but when this is restricted to the domestic, we should not be surprised if there is little sense of investment in the local environment outside the home.
So the first challenge for the building of sustainable community is whether a development has thought through its geography in such a way as to be somewhere in particular. We have been through a good many false starts in the last hundred years or so. So much of the philosophy of the interwar suburban developments and the postwar municipal growth assumed that absolute homogeneity was what was required. Communities were created that looked essentially like warehouses for people, areas which, while not technically anonymous, could have been called anything. And because all the pressure was towards increasing 'zoning', old urban centres became increasingly stripped of any residential element, and retail outlets in new developments were often in unattractive and vulnerable clusters. More recently, we have seen the challenge of massive new developments – like the Thames Gateway – offering new opportunities to disadvantaged communities, but with the risk of swamping them and making them more and more anonymous.
Functioning communities need to develop a sense of place, and that means developing variety, a real landscape, not just a territory covered with 'machines for living'. In the last decade, we have seen major shifts in some areas of response to the challenge. Simple things like variety in building styles and materials in new developments have made some difference; there has been something of a return to the older town centres; there have been several developments, notably in a number of dockland or waterfront locations, that have clearly set out to maximise the particularity of a setting. So it is a good time to take stock and to try and outline how the communities of the next generation can be saved from the curse of living nowhere in particular. I have no blueprint, but here are a few thoughts on the possibilities.
(i) Something is contributed to a sense of place by using, where possible, local building materials or at least making use of local styles. This is not to condemn builders to an endless round of pastiche: fresh things can be done and have been done in this connection; and the advantage of such a strategy is both to offer some sort of continuity with a visible local history and to offer a visible set of marks for recognition of a specific location in the present. It affirms that the community now is here because of a past, because of other lives, other stories. It is not locked into itself in a sterile eternal present. This is one of the things, after all, that may prompt people in the present to act so as to leave a legacy – to 'imagine a future', as I put it earlier.
(ii) We need some thinking about how retail outlets are to be planned. In spite of recent reversals in policy which favour town-centre retail sites, it is unlikely that we shall see a significant reversal in the drift to large-scale out-of-town malls and supermarkets – and town-centre sites are in any case likely to be dominated by retail chains and fast-service smaller-scale supermarkets. For the foreseeable future, most shopping that is not done via the internet will still be done in such a setting. But there need to be challenges to at least some of the assumptions behind this, and some strategies that limit the cost of this. I am thinking not only of the devastation of small businesses it can represent but also of the straightforward environmental cost of shopping habits entirely dependent on private motor transport. This might be addressed in two ways. One is by careful planning of public transport facilities in relation to large-scale retail parks, following through the existing provision of courtesy buses by some large retail outlets: we need a standard policy of tenants in such environments making provision for travel or accepting a levy that would subsidise public transport. Another is to ask about further incentives for certain sorts of outlet to remain in smaller clusters within residential areas. But such clusters would need to be something more than the single depressed-looking parade of shopfronts we see in most mid-twentieth century suburbs and estates. Clusters would need some landscaping, and some leisure space comparable to what many malls offer; and they would need to be fairly well-distributed, with an eye to what a neighbourhood might look like, with a focal space inside a certain walking distance. Being bold and fanciful, I wonder whether the arcade format ought to be looked at again, as something that could provide sheltered space and might be combinable with fairly dense residential development around.
(iii) Increasingly, schools in newly built areas see themselves as a major community resource in terms of space and other facilities, and are designed as such. The school is still in many significant ways a necessarily public space, practically the only one in some environments. Designing schools with this dimension in mind is imperative – and once again there are some good examples. A school is ideally somewhere where the affirmation of a community can be fostered, and it needs to be committed to holding on to memories older than simply the creation of this particular housing development. If it is well-designed and has a thoroughly positive attitude to community access, it contributes enormously to 'a future we can imagine'. If I had a specific dream around this area, it would be of planning that integrated school buildings with some of the common space for small-scale retail development that I've just been speculating about. This could conceivably mean the making of a really common space: leisure facilities, educational and arts facilities, the simple availability of places for both personal and group meeting, all in physical proximity, would help to shape a civic landscape which gave the message that people were naturally expected to want to meet, to relax in common and to learn together, from childhood onwards. It is always worth looking at a plan for any building and any complex of buildings and asking, 'What does this take for granted about what people most want?' The answers in respect of an awful lot of development over three quarters of a century suggest a pretty diminished view of human aims and desires – dwellings that are both undifferentiated and mutually isolated (just as true in the executive estate as in the tower block), an assumption that living space is almost exclusively domestic space and that common public space is a thing of the past. A creative use of educational buildings (which are bound to be on a certain scale) is one of the simplest ways of restoring something of a public square.
(iv) You won't be surprised to hear me adding something on the significance of religious provision in the planning of communities. This is partly because, despite the never very large statistics for religious practice, two facts have to be clearly kept in view. First, the majority of the population, whatever their practice, continue to affirm some sort of religious belief, and to be sympathetic to the visible presence of religious institutions among them – not least in church schools, but also in the availability of church buildings of some kind. Second, in an increasingly culturally varied society, the visibility of communities of faith becomes significant in a new way. If this cultural variety is more than a faint background to what is essentially a unified body of secular consumers, it must leave space for faith to be a tangible aspect of variety; after all, for non-Western believers (Christian and non-Christian), faith is not a picturesque extra to the essentials of life, whose proper place is domestic or at least behind locked doors. The ultimate denial of real cultural plurality is this insistence on religious invisibility. It may be argued – indeed, it is argued – that only a rigorously neutral public space can prevent us from falling into violent tribal rivalries between faith groups. But this is anything but uncontroversial as an assumption, and it seems to take it for granted that constructive statements of honest difference cannot be contained in a single society. The evidence is not exactly clear on that. And it is often in the very process of working at common belonging, civic and civil space, which we have been thinking about that constructive and co-operative variety can appear. People who have a sense that the deepest roots of their motivation can be stated and respected in public are more likely to want to engage in civic and civil labour. Tell them that their contributions are welcome but only if they rigorously censor the expression of their most serious commitments, and some will not be eager to close on the bargain.
(v) Planning, then, should look seriously at how the reality of faith becomes part of the landscape – how religious buildings figure among the landmarks of a community. But this is not only a question of attending to the pragmatic needs of religious groups. Like it or not, there are unsought experiences that communities share, trauma and celebration which call out for the kind of space that carries no political or sectional agenda, that is not for anything but the expression of certain serious and complex emotions. I recall an incident during my time in South Wales, when a teenager had been murdered on the way home from school on the edge of a large modern estate. The local curate had talked to some of the girl's classmates and as a result had opened the church on a Friday evening for a few hours, for anyone who wanted to drop in. The small building was packed; something could be said, felt, expressed there that did not have a home anywhere else. And whether we are thinking about personal trauma or collective (marking the anniversary of a fire or disaster, responding to a national crisis or an international challenge such as the tsunami), it is emphatically true that a very large number of people, far larger than the statistics of regular worshippers, urgently need a place for certain things to be voiced. What is offered by a space dedicated to worship is essential – somewhere where events may occur that belong to a whole locality, where solidarities of a mysterious but very important kind can be reinforced.
This is only a sketch of the sort of considerations that might arise for planners and funders if they believed that people needed more than a determined block of living space within a flattened landscape. And as my last point implies, and as I hinted earlier, the problem is one of undifferentiated time as well as undifferentiated space. Communities are rendered unsustainable not only by flattened space but by 'flattened time'. Our age is one in which a mixture of aggressive commercialism and unbroken global communication technology have between them ironed out for many people what once seemed obvious rhythms in our lives – day and night, work and rest. Communities that work well, I suggest, need differentiated time as well as differentiated space – that is, they need some sort of calendar. The round of religious festivals has shrunk to a very residual awareness of Christmas and Easter, and neither could be said to be observances for a whole community. Religious practitioners of all backgrounds will of course maintain their own calendars, but they will not represent a rhythm that is natural and taken for granted in the wider society. It is not strictly a question for planners; but it is worth asking, if we are interested in a community's health and survival capacity, how we break up time into significant units, how we punctuate the simple duration of our days with events that locate us in more than the space immediately under our eyes. We have some guidelines nationally when major events are constructed for anniversaries – commemorating the end of the last war, or the Holocaust, or 9/11. How do smaller local communities do something similar? The remarkable persistence in some places of Remembrance Sunday, and the creation or revival of quite large scale corporate acts of remembrance speak of a need for public 'liturgy', acknowledging (however vaguely) something overwhelmingly costly behind the apparent securities of the present. Local observation of such global traumas or of the date of some purely local event that has deeply marked the history of an area are obvious ways of affirming some common roots for the present social settlement that go beyond current solidarities of ideas or interests.
Ultimately, questions about belonging lead us either to a view of solidarity and identity based on tightly negotiated interests in common and often therefore to a highly anxious and adversarial stance towards other communities – or to a view in which solidarity comes from a sense of living in a landscape that has its own solidity, its own dimensions in time and space, independent of the current interests of the particular group that happens to live there at the moment. Solidarity of the second kind is perhaps less likely to be easily manipulated into artificial rivalry with other communities. The most mindless and most passionate conflicts are often – not by any means always, but often enough to be worth remarking - between groups that are very similar in their practice and culture, because it is then easy to argue that a very similar group must be a threat to your own uniqueness and to the security of your territory. Communities and societies that have a sense of who and where they are that is positive and internal to themselves will not need to reinforce themselves in the way that virtually indistinguishable groups have to, by stressing who they are not. So a community that is committed to replenishing and not depleting human capital is one that is aware of being in a real place that has its own integrity and character and memory. Memory cannot be manufactured; but any new development needs to build, metaphorically as well as literally, on genuinely local ground, on an area and its history and human geography.
There are no infallible recipes for sustainable communities. But there are ways of identifying what depletes our resources and of combating those factors with some urgency and energy. It has taken time to spot some of the worst offenders; but I hope that after a longish period of what was in many ways a deeply anti-human set of assumptions about living environments we have acquired a few skills. Little I have said this evening will be new, and I am well aware of the way in which many of the points I have been making are being taken on board by developers, planners and builders. Round the corner from us at Lambeth, you can see some of the work of Coin Street Community Builders – a development trust originally set up in the early eighties to offer alternatives to the building of more office blocks along the South Bank. It has sponsored business development and social housing, leisure space, improved facilities for public transport, intensive management of parks and walkways, an important community arts festival, multi-purpose neighbourhood centres, incorporating space for educational, play and meeting opportunities; and it has fostered co-operative management of its housing projects, with training in the requisite skills. There are plenty more examples of this kind of social enterprise. If there are no infallible recipes, at least there is abundant good practice.
But the more we continue to set this against a backdrop of serious thinking about what human beings need space for (and thus about what human beings are for), the more committed we shall be to resisting that shrinkage of human space that has so often blighted urban and suburban development in the past century (and more). There are things we can do to give new development 'a local habitation and a name', to build as though we understood how human beings become themselves in loyalty to a set of local landmarks and stories and idioms, how they need space for deep conviction to become visible and deep emotion to be allowed expression. If we can act in this way, we shall be planning for communities that can in turn act and plan for a shared future. We shall have shaped a human environment that nourishes imagination – and in the widest sense, nourishes faith.
© Rowan Williams 2005