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“To save the countryside we have to save our cities”

Harley Sherlock (1927-2014)
Alice Roberts
By Harley Sherlock (1927-2014) & Alice Roberts
2nd March 2022

“‘To save the countryside we have to save our cities.’ This is the answer I invariably give to tiresome friends who want to know what on Earth the Campaign to Protect Rural England is doing in London.”

So said Harley Sherlock 1927-2014 (AAdip, RIBA, FRSA) in his foreword to our 2006 publication Compact Sustainable Communities: Making the case for well planned, higher density, mixed use urban development: meeting housing needs, improving quality of life and protecting the environment. Harley was president of CPRE London from 1996-2006 and author of Cities Are Good For Us: The Case for High Densities, Friendly Streets, Local Shops and Public Transport.

The foreword to our 2006 report still helps explain much of what we do today so we have republished it here as printed then.


‘To save the countryside we have to save our cities.’ This is the answer I invariably give to tiresome friends who want to know what on Earth the Campaign to Protect Rural England is doing in London. I then point out that the exodus from our towns and cities will continue for as long as they fail to provide the sort of environment and housing that people aspire to.

After the Second World War a massive house-building programme within London was initiated by the London County Council. Contrary to popular belief, however, the predominantly tower-block housing that resulted was generally built to no higher density of dwellings than the nineteenth-century streets which it replaced. But the understandable reaction against tower blocks led to an irrational reaction against urbanism itself, and to a tendency in the 1980s and 1990s to replace the tower blocks, not with a new form of our traditional urban streets, but with an attempt to spread the suburban way of living into
inner London. This led to a further shift of people to the suburbs and to increased pressure not only on London’s surviving open space but also on the dwindling countryside of South East England. It also led to a shrinking population in inner London which was increasingly unable to support the local shops, schools and other local facilities which one expects to be close at hand in urban areas.

This spreading-out of the population increased the need to travel which, in turn, increased traffic congestion and pollution. It is an unsustainable way forward for the twenty-first century. Instead we need to revitalise our capital city and reduce pressure on the countryside by encouraging people who work in London to live in London.

The essence of urban life has always depended on a concentration of people and a diversity of activities. But, although there is a case for tall buildings at important centres, the necessary concentration can be attained by establishing a modern equivalent of our historic four-storey Georgian streets and squares, which could provide us with local facilities (including open space) within walking distance of our front doors, thus reducing the need to travel and allowing our streets to become proper places rather than mere thoroughfares to somewhere else.

Five years ago [2001], CPRE London published the first edition of this report, thereby making an important contribution to the benefits of higher density urban housing becoming widely appreciated among land use planners and urban regeneration professionals. This second edition is published at a time when public policy embraces and promotes those benefits even more strongly than it did five years ago. Nevertheless, in many places, public misconceptions about higher density living continues to prevent the greatest public benefit from being gained through individual development schemes. The focus of this second edition, therefore, is on helping reassure planners and community representatives alike, and to help them ensure that new urban development brings with it lasting benefits for their communities.

The benefits of compact communities

Successful well designed, higher density mixed use developments will:

  • improve the range and quality of local facilities available to residents;
  • increase the viability of local businesses and amenities and the vitality of local centres;
  • restore to residential streets a sense of place where people meet and children play rather than being just thoroughfares to somewhere else;
  • promote a sense of community by facilitating casual social interaction and providing well-maintained public and private open space;
  • increase security by providing passive surveillance;
  • reduce journey lengths and the need to travel, particularly by car, and promote walking, cycling and public transport; and
  • meet housing needs while protecting countryside and valued urban open space.

Read the full report here.

See also 10 reasons higher density living is good for communities.