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The Daily Telegraph: Now let’s protect our favourite urban views

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Individual buildings are preserved by listing, but we need a similar set of rules to ensure the best city and townscapes are saved, too.



Fancy a walk after all that lovely festive nosh? Something to burn off a few of those calories? Most of us do, and, whether it’s in a local park or market square, there’s usually a spot where the view is perfect. You know, the place where you stop, look up and hold your breath in the crisp, cold air while you take it all in. But where do you go? What’s your favourite? Not a landscape, please: most of us live in towns and cities, so no dreamy sighs about snow-clad Yorkshire moors or wind-whipped Cornish coasts allowed. I’m looking for everyday beauty that’s closer to home. Britain’s townscapes. Our urban views.

Do you go for formal perfection, like Bath’s Royal Crescent or London’s Mall? Or the chaotic, bright lights and bustle of Broad Street in Birmingham or Liverpool’s Concert Square after dark? Did Canaletto get it right with his soft-focus takes on London’s skyline and the Thames, or did the Kinks capture the gritty bustle of Waterloo Sunset perfectly instead? Even Wordsworth, when he wasn’t mooning over clumps of daffodils, thought the view from Westminster Bridge was pretty special. So there’s plenty to choose from. But as you look out across your favourite, frosty view, how do you know that it’s safe? After all, our towns and cities don’t stand still. They change constantly.

Everywhere, all the time, buildings are being put up, torn down or modernised in ways that transform the look of our urban spaces. So your favourite view, or mine, will be built up from successive layers of old and new construction, telling the history of each place through centuries of wood, stone, concrete and glass. Most have absorbed and blended dozens of different building styles and types, and have done so accidentally, rather than because of any overarching plan. As you’d expect, sometimes the combinations are beautiful – and sometimes, well, it’d take a year-round blanket of snow to make them look good.

How, then, do we decide which of these constantly changing city and townscapes are worth keeping? How can we wrap them up as presents for future generations, to delight our grandchildren’s grandchildren in the same way as they do us?

After all, we already preserve the best individual historic buildings by “listing” them, so why can’t we do the same to protect the look of an entire street or neighbourhood, too?

Well, of course, we do try. Local councils designate protected views and create conservation areas for precisely this reason. But rules to make sure that you can see a local landmark from the other side of town, or protect a row of Victorian house facades from being mangled, wouldn’t be enough to save Wordsworth’s view from Westminster Bridge if it still existed.

So we compensate by imposing extra conditions on planning permission instead. But developers feel ambushed when they’re suddenly told to preserve a view that isn’t officially designated on any map, of a building that’s nowhere near their site. If you’re investing millions to regenerate a rundown urban area, it’s hard to stomach unpredictable bureaucracy that slathers on costs and delays. The project to redevelop Liverpool’s derelict former docks stalled when heritage experts said it would spoil the panorama of the old dock frontage. London’s new Shard nearly didn’t happen because it changes the view of, and from, the Tower of London. And there are any number of big new buildings planned near Parliament where developers aren’t sure if it’s safe to start construction or not.

Now at this point, if you’re the sort of person who thinks architects abandoned all taste and decency at the end of the Regency era, you’re probably thinking “these rules don’t sound so bad. They may be opaque, expensive, unpredictable and slow, but if they stop ghastly modern carbuncles then sign me up.” But I’m not arguing for or against any particular architectural style here. The urban regeneration projects that are being hobbled by these rules could be modernist temples of concrete and glass or high gothic revival for all I care. The point is that without new, clear, transparent rules, historic urban sites are more likely to stay derelict. And, whether they’re clad in a delicate rime of frost or not, that’s the worst kind of architectural style in the world.

What, then, is needed instead? At the moment, when we protect single buildings by listing them, we know what we’re looking for. English Heritage publish the Principles of Selection, which lays out what makes a building special, and sets the quality bar at the right height so that we don’t protect tat. But there’s no fully developed equivalent for selecting the best views of our city and townscapes. And, as a result, no one really knows what’s worth keeping and what’s not.

In that case, couldn’t we just give English Heritage a New Year’s resolution to get on with it? It has lots of clever people and, given a bit of time, surely they could cobble something together? Well, possibly. But they aren’t the only ones who matter here. Like the aunt you can’t avoid inviting for Christmas every year, Unesco has to be involved, too. Because the common thread in all those examples I just gave – the Tower of London, Parliament and Liverpool Docks – is that they’re all Unesco World Heritage Sites.

But that needn’t stop us. English Heritage, together with its opposite numbers in other countries, plus Unesco and a lot of strong coffee, should be able to come up with something that does the trick. If it dispels the fog of risk and uncertainty around big, historic urban building sites, then it should be quicker, cheaper and easier to regenerate run-down parts of British towns and cities in future. And by protecting the best bits – your favourite winter walks, and mine – from being casually destroyed today, we will make them better places to live and work tomorrow as well.

This article is reproduced from The Daily Telegraph, originally published on 02/01/2013.

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