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National Urbanscape?
David Morton ponders on just how much our towns and cities
have become indistinguishable from one another.
Sir Titus
Reading the Sainsbuiy’s Magazine re cently in the checkout queue, I noticed that one of the articles commented about an item on the East Midlands television news dealing specifically with Leicester but the interviews (supposedly with the local townsfolk) were actually filmed in a Nottingham street. The writer then went on to say that all our city centres look alike and the only difference between Nottingham and Leicester is the clock tower in Leicester. The comment suggests the writer at least considers that in Britain we have reached a situation where we have National Urbanscape.
The article implied that this is a recent phenomenon, but is it? Since Tudor times, there have been pattern books from which builders have taken ideas and the Palladian bridge at Stowe is said to be a copy of that at Wilton. The coming of the railways for the first time led to the easy transport of building materials across the country and the beginnings of National Urbanscape on a large scale. Welsh slate replaced Vale of York pantiles or Northamptonshire thatch, and brick became a national building material, eventually superseding even Pennine sandstone. There may be a slight difference in the colour of the brick but Victorian mass housing suburbs, some of which we now seek to preserve, were really the first-large scale examples of National Urbanscape. The railway companies also contributed to standardisation of styles across the country by building I similar workers’ houses, signal boxes etc. throughout their territory. If, for example, a railway had a major brick works close to the line, it made full use of it and in a town served by more than one company, the styles of the Midland, Great Northern or Lancashire and Yorkshire for example can still be identified.
By improving mobility, railways also began the breakdown of the close
relationship between place of residence and place of work. The distinctive settlements to suit the needs of different industries declined and Suburbia, including the Metroland of John Betjeman, was invented! Certain national house builders have followed the approach of the railways and are now proud to announce that they would build the same house types with the same layout in Penzance as in Thurso. They clearly welcome and champion the concept of National Urbanscape and it has undoubtedly reached saturation point in many parts of the country. The modern suburban parts of most of our towns are now largely indistinguishable and are good examples of National Urbanscape. The same comment can also be made about the ubiquitous ‘business park’.


Without labouring the point, there has obviously been a
massive amount of standardisation in many town centres over the last 150
years and at this level National
Urbanscape is well established

But has the disease really taken hold of our town centres as the original comment suggests? Clearly, building materials generally are no longer
locally based and shops, banks, building societies etc. like to adopt their national house style if they can. Like national housebuilders, to them familiarity doesn’t breed indifference, but recognition. Without labouring the point, there has obviously been a massive amount of standardisation in many town centres over the last 150 years and at this level National Urbanscape is well established.
But townscape is not just about individual shopfronts, although sadly many people don’t look up and around at town centres in a wider context. It concerns a whole range of factors the original topography of a place, its historic development, views, civic pride. The centre of Durham has an individual townscape character. The topography and historic development of the site obviously play a major part in this. Even though much of the postwar development has been carried out in materials similar to those found in other towns and many national traders have shops there, the underlying townscape quality of the Cathedral sitting on a sea of tumbling roofs has not been harmed because the form and massing of the modern development has been carefully planned to contribute to it. The setting of a place is a factor which is difficult for modern development to eradicate totally.
Obviously, if places such as Durham, Chichester, Salisbury or York don’t retain their distinctive townscape, the disease of National Urbanscape really is terminal. I actually think that the initial comment about Nottingham and Leicester is unfair on both towns. To take one example. In front of the town hail, Nottingham has the distinctive great civic and public space creãted in the inter-war period and used now for the successor to the Goosefair. Leicester, by contrast, has the equally distinctive but totally different New Walk. Most towns a.nd villages have
Context 55 September 1 997
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