Philip Waller, ed. The English Urban Landscape. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. 352 pp. #30.00/$45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-860117-3.
Reviewed by Stephen V. Ward (School of Planning, Oxford Brookes University, Headington, Oxford OX3 OBP, UK)
Published on H-Urban (December, 2000)
This book will be an attractive and fairly useful addition to the bookshelf of any urban historian with an interest in England. There is little here that would challenge or extend the existing dominant understandings of the evolution of England worthwhile digest of the fruits of recent work in a highly readable and attractive form. Its form is collective, representing the work of fifteen authors, all of them English-based and acknowledged experts in the urban history field. There is an extensive introduction by the editor, twelve substantive chapters and eleven detailed "cameos" inserted into the text to highlight particular places or themes. Throughout it is well illustrated, including a large number of excellent and (mainly) well-captioned contemporary photographs. (An exception is on p. 238 where an aerial view of Tyneside flats is wrongly attributed to South London). The standard of design and production is consistently good.
Like all collective works, The English Urban Landscape can be read both for its individual contributions and as a whole. However, like many collective works, it is much better in its individual parts than it is as a whole. The standard of each chapter is, in fact, consistently high. All are lucidly written, showing deep knowledge of the topics under discussion. They avoid overburdening the reader with detail while spelling out important developments and illustrating them with telling examples. Some readers might well be irritated by the absence of references, however. It is significant that the illustrations are far more carefully referenced than the sources for the text. The rather brief advice for further reading and guidance that appears in the narrative of the chapters is not an adequate substitute for those who wish to follow up the issues raised. Only one chapter author (of chapter four) makes the best of this by ensuring that the further reading advice actually ties up with the in-text references. It is a pity that this fairly simple but useful approach, which takes up little space, was not followed by other authors.
For a study of urban history, the work opens in rather surprising fashion with an essay by the editor that focuses almost entirely on the late 1990s, together with various speculations about the future. There is a well-informed discussion about the recent Urban Task Force Report headed by Lord (Richard) Rogers of Riverside, Towards an Urban Renaissance (1999), which has lambasted the poor physical quality of British towns and cities. Yet although all this is interesting enough in itself, the reader is bound to wonder whether it is really the best way of introducing the book. Of the organizing principles that hold the whole work together, we learn nothing, other than a couple of sentences on the rear dust jacket. The reader is left assuming that the theme of the book and the understandings on which it is based are so self-evident as to be able to be left implicit. Rather than being given a vision of the book as a whole, we leave the introduction uncertain about what it to follow.
To those familiar with the pattern of English urban historiography, the chosen themes for the chapters that follow are sensible but unremarkable. The first four follow an essentially chronological pattern, together giving a succinct overview of human settlements to 1800. David Shotter writes on the Roman contribution to England landscape. David A. Hinton then writes about decay and revival in early medieval landscapes, which examines the post-Roman period (that which used to be called the Dark Ages). Derek Keene takes up the story about the mediaeval urban landscape (900-1540), followed by Peter Borsay, who writes about the early modern urban landscape to 1800. Only in the last case, where the author is limited to a comparatively short period of 260 years, is there sufficient opportunity to explore the different perceptions and understandings of landscape.
The next seven chapters are structured thematically, though with no apparent logic to their order. All show a broad focus on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, though their chronological emphases vary very substantially. While most authors show the broad pre-1914 bias long familiar in English urban history, several write at length about developments after the First World War and beyond. In a few cases, though, the twentieth century is treated in very perfunctory fashion, leaving this reader at least wanting much more. Even in those chapters that give fullest treatment to the twentieth century, recent decades are not usually dealt with in any detail. This general impression is heavily reinforced by the illustrations that overwhelmingly show a pre-1914 landscape. None of this is to imply that there is anything wrong with the individual chapters when judged on their own terms. It is difficult not to sympathize with authors obviously struggling to compress in a meaningful way the amount of potential material into the space available. Yet this begs some important questions about the overall conception of the book, which will be addressed later in this review.
In chapter five, John Davis writes about the growth and reconstruction of modern London. This is followed by Michael Winstanley on "Temples of Commerce: Revolutions in Shopping and Banking." Both these chapters attempt to do reasonable justice to the enormous changes wrought by the twentieth century. This is not, however, the case in the following chapter by R. J. Morris, writing about the nineteenth century industrial town, with only the merest glances at the twentieth century. John Armstrong contributes a chapter on transport, which says remarkably little about the motor vehicle second half of the twentieth century. In chapter nine, "Slums and Suburbia: The Persistence of Residential Apartheid" Richard Rodger gives a much fuller account of twentieth century developments, at least in state housing provision. John Walton returns to a largely pre-1914 time frame when he describes the pleasures of urbanity. Geoff Tyack, on public buildings and spaces, manages to give broadly similar emphasis to both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
The final chapter, by Stana Nenadic is quite different in that it moves from the material world of buildings and spaces to the perceived landscape of the creative imagination. It focuses on landscape in art, literature, film, and other media, covering the period from the early eighteenth century to the present. This allows Nenadic to comment on the totality of the English experience of industrialism and modernity. Her final words form a familiar conclusion for the book: "In the popular psyche, England is still a rural place; our towns and cities are intrusions in the Garden of Eden" (p. 341). In many senses, this same point is made in another way by the recent Rogers Report, which the editor of this present work quotes so approvingly in his introduction. One of the most powerful pressure groups in England is, in fact, the Council for the Protection of Rural England. Tellingly, Lord Rogers has recently called for a Council for the Protection of Urban England to counterbalance its influence. Here at last, the reader (fleetingly) thinks, is laid bare the hidden larger theme of the book: the fundamental English distaste for the urban, the consequences of which still make most English towns and cities the most unprepossessing in Western Europe.
Unfortunately, as one looks back through the book, there is little to support the conjecture that this is the hidden big theme. The disappointing truth remains that no larger theme is pursued sufficiently to make the whole book worth more than the sum of its (extremely impressive and well polished) parts. Problems that could provide overall themes are largely ignored or treated only in passing. Thus the critically important issue as to whether "English" signifies something distinctive that has been generated in England or is merely that which happens within its territorial bounds is ducked. Yet it is a question that has major significance for understanding the twentieth century, when the distinctive Englishness of the urban landscape eroded. (It would have been interesting, for example, to see a chapter on the American contribution to the English urban landscape).
Similarly the changing meaning of "urban" is also left tantalizingly vague in this collection. Again the changes wrought by the twentieth century have strained traditional notions. Quite simply, there has been an increasing lack of congruence between the functional and the spatial city. The reality is that almost the whole of England now functions, to borrow Jean Gottmann Yet this reality is easy to overlook because most of it is still disguised as countryside. It often seems that one of the principal aims of the English planning system is to perpetuate this disguise. What then, in these circumstances, is the "urban" landscape? The problem is briefly acknowledged in the introduction but not followed through in the main body of the book.
Two related characteristics that are often attributed to the English (not least by themselves) are their empiricism and their mistrust of anything that is too conceptual or theoretical. These traits are the source of both great strengths and weaknesses. And truly, this is a very "English" book.
. Towards and Urban Renaissance Final Report of the Urban Task Force Chaired by Lord Rogers of Riverside_, London: E & F. Spon, 1999.
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Stephen V. Ward. Review of Waller, Philip, ed., The English Urban Landscape.
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