A Utopian City

Chris Wilkinson

My utopian city would be set around a meandering river. There would be many beautiful bridges linking areas of different character, with elegant squares and public spaces of different shapes and sizes, enclosed by interesting buildings of varying ages and appearance, linked by lively streets bustling with people. I would be filled with wonder at the architectural quality of the buildings, the inventiveness of the geometry and proportions of spatial arrangements.

Landmark buildings of special interest would define key locations and glorious vistas would lead the eye on from one space to the next. Subtle curves and changes in angle would stray from the ordered grid. The articulation and massing of the fine buildings would be highlighted by light and shade, enriched by surface texture and exciting colour, with subtle reflections to catch the eye in places where one least expects it.

Vehicular traffic would be unobtrusive and confined to defined zones, with innovative new transport systems offering clean and speedy means of travelling from place to place. The air would be fresh but tinged with the tantalising fragrance of the country, interspersed with appetising smells of aromatic herbs and spices from a local market stall. So with my senses suitably assuaged my emotions would be lifted by an overall feeling of comfort and wellbeing in harmony with my fellow people in an Arcadian community.

Yes, this is a romantic dream and apologies to Italo Calvino but what has happened to man's desire to create the Ideal City? When one thinks of the 15th-century painting with that same title by Luciano Laurana: depicting an imaginary Renaissance city, it immediately strikes a chord, but since then, the many dreams of sociologists, philosophers and architects have fallen by the wayside. These days, visions of the future are often gloomy. Perhaps the strongest images come from films such as Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, whose impression of the world in 2019 is desperately bleak, with constantly dark, rainy skies. There the city is marked by strong contrasts. Huge structures rise from crowded streets filled with outcast market traders dealing in cloned animals. There is a sense of depravity in the public spaces, which are littered with rubbish and lined with vacant, decaying historic buildings. The apparently 'normal' people are confined to slightly fascistic looking modern corporate buildings with strong security and overbearing policing.

These images are even more frightening because we all know places a bit like this. Our cities often have fringe areas where decaying backstreets are overshadowed by towering new developments with strongly enforced security systems. We have homeless people living on the streets and the lucky people with wealth and security are plagued with fear of crime and violence. On bad days our cities seem congested with traffic, suffocated by pollution and run down by crime and social problems – but then on those good days when the sun is shining and the streets are filled with happy people going about their business, there is a warm sense of community and love of urbanism. Let's face it, we all love cities.

Currently over half of the world's population live in cities and this figure is rapidly increasing. This means that most of us are becoming more remote from nature and are dependent on the built environment for the quality of our lives. It is of the utmost importance that we improve this environment in order to sustain the wellbeing of the population. And yet, in many ways we still live in impoverished times: in civic terms we are looking to patch up the status quo where we should be working on creative visions for the future. It is time for a comprehensive review of our cities to be undertaken and measures put in place for constructive changes and substantial improvements.

The first issue to be addressed is character and identity. In the UK we have a long history of urbanisation and most of our cities have evolved over decades, even centuries. They have strong historic backgrounds, which give them a powerful individual character that has all too often been ignored. Although not a conservationist at heart, I believe strongly in the need to preserve and strengthen the individual character of our towns and cities – wouldn't it be just awful to travel from Manchester to Newcastle and not notice the difference?

It is essential to establish the particular characteristics of each city and to determine which aspects fundamentally have to be retained. This may relate to a layout of streets and public spaces or it may be more specific in terms of architecture and the relationship of key buildings to each other. From this it will be possible to identify areas for potential change and development.

In central areas we should be looking for high-density development with mixed use taller buildings, but with the street patterns maintained and generous provision of public open spaces. In my dreams I am transported through the narrow streets of Tuscan hill towns and the grand piazzi of Venice, Florence and Rome, taking in parts of London, Paris, Chicago and New York. We can learn from the past, but the lessons have to be translated into modern needs.

Outer areas can be less dense but there is a need to retain the sense of urbanity and identity of district. The character of Islington in north London is very different from that of Brixton in south London but they have a similar scale and density. Traditionally these districts within a city were connected by streets that linked up the squares and public spaces; over the years, however, the streets have now become roads congested by traffic, so the spatial connectivity has been lost. This should be revisited by making stronger links between our parks and public open spaces. We need green routes for people, away from traffic, that will help us connect with nature. In London, I have always been impressed that Hyde Park connects to Green Park and St James Park, which means that you can walk from Victoria to Trafalgar Square or from Parliament Square to Notting Hill in parkland. It would be great if a similar effect could be achieved elsewhere: there are opportunities to incorporate public parks and squares within new developments and I would like to see "green lungs" or swathes of green designed into the centres of all our cities.

This leads to two related, equally vital issues for consideration, those of transport and sustainability. Traffic congestion is a serious problem in terms of health and quality of life, and needs to be addressed in a number of ways. There is no doubt that congestion charging helps to reduce unnecessary car journeys but this needs to be complemented by better public transport and the encouragement of new forms of clean personal travel for short journeys. It is surprising that we have not started to investigate the possibilities afforded by overhead cable car systems and Segway-type electric scooters and even Clive Sinclair's C5's. These could work well in green zones where people would be more inclined to walk if the vehicular traffic was confined to particular zones.

Improved transport systems will help to reduce pollution and energy use but we still have much further to go. Accordingly to Herbert Giradet's Schumacher Briefings, cities occupy only 2% of the world's land surface but consume 75% of the worlds energy and cause 75% of global pollution. It is time for city authorities to be looking at new ways of reducing car traffic, lowering levels of pollution, developing renewable energy systems and introducing more green areas.

However, the best way of reducing traffic is to reduce commuter journeys by housing more people in the central city areas. This has been a government initiative and it certainly makes sense in almost every respect because it also brings life and activity to the centre over a longer period of the day and evening.

The priority for city authorities and architects alike must be to create beautiful places for people to live, work and play. I cannot accept the normal poor standards of development in our cities. We must place a higher emphasis on quality of layout, architecture and landscaping, which adds up to quality of environment. We know that good architecture can help regenerate rundown areas of our cities, so why should we accept second-rate schemes that fail to deliver any benefits?

The challenge is then to put together a three-dimensional masterplan for the city which defines movement patterns, layouts and densities as well as scale and massing. All too often we see conventional masterplans taking the form of simple patterns and grids, but this is not good enough. Planning the future of our cities requires 3-D vision. But perhaps more than anything else it requires pride and idealism. We must allow time to dream and nurture the desire to create beautiful cities with lively streets, enjoyable public spaces and exciting architecture.

This unpublished piece was originally written for The Guardian in 2006.