Runcorn and Skelmersdale: Cities Designed for 1994

(The British New Towns movement, begun by the Labour Government after World War II, now includes some twenty-two cities in Wales, Scotland, and England. The success or failure of this movement is significant for the United States because America and England share many of the same urban problems--congestion, segregation, and rundown housing. Only a few private corporations have attempted pre-preplanned cities in the United States. If the English new towns are successful, the U.S. Government might undertake a comprehensive program of such towns.

The following article is a close-up view of two British new towns just now being consrtucted. The author worked in these two towns this summer on a grant from the International Comparative Culture Study Program financed by Ford Foundation.)

To the north and south of Liverpool, the English Government is building preplanned cities. These cities are intended to relieve the acute housing shortage in Liverpool and rejuvenate the surrounding depressed areas.

Skelmersdale--called Skelm--is the new town to the north. Skelm used to be a mining village. Small huts dot the side streets, soot stains mar the windows, and houses tip at crazy angles because of the mines below. Since World War II, the mines have been going out of business one-by-one. Unemployment has soared and wages fallen.

Skelm's poverty is reflected in its flat, treeless landscape so characteristic of Lancashire. The air is heavy with dust and the northern wind is harsh. The town's only landmark is the beacon on one of the few hills at the city limits. Visitors are always taken to the beacon to see the fine farmlands to the south and west, the motorway to the east, and the decaying city of Wigan to the north. There is no exit or entrance to the motorway at Skelmersdale.

Runcorn, the site of the new town to the south, is wealthier than Skelm. It has a fairly prosperous business district, a luxurious park surrounding the town hall, and the huge factories of the Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI).

Elfleda's Castle

In contrast to Skelm's flat terrain, Runcorn's landscape is hilly and varied. The Manchester ship canal runs deep nearby with ocean liners and oil tankers: the Bridgewater Canal rolls slowly through the city with motorboats and home-made craft. Runcorn's famous landmark is the castle of King Alfred's daughter, Elfleda, that now looks out upon the rich Cheshire farms to the south and the Liverpool-Runcorn Bridge to the north.

Within the last few years, an architectural revolution has been transforming Skelm and Runcorn. In Skelm, Sir Hugh Wilson designed a compact, low-rise city resembling a collection of garden apartments. The city will culminate in a two-tier center, according to Wilson's plan. A resident can walk almost any place in town in ten minutes. But a two center specialist took this general conception and went wild. He thought up a town center--with shops, community halls, and recreational facilities--that has a roof hung on girders, like a suspension bridge. Since the walls do not hold up anything, they can be moved around. A pub can become a gym and a store can be turned into a concert hall--just by rearranging the walls.

Professor Arthur Ling conceived the layout for the new Runcorn as a figure eight with the town center at the intersection. The town is broken by parks into distinct neighborhoods which are connected by a rapid transit of minibuses.


While the ideas of Wilson and Ling may seem far-fetched, they are actually part of a coherent concept of what urban life should be. Both towns seek to keep down the number of autos--Runcorn through its minibuses; Skelmersdale by pedestrian ways through the compact city. Both towns separate industry from housing, but keep jobs within ten minutes of home.

The two cities are designed to eliminate "suburban sprawl" which threatens to gobble up too much of the limited English farm acreage. New town homes are built in highdensity clusters. Parklands are placed between neighborhoods or on the outskirts of town.

But the cluster neighborhoods are to be aesthetically pleasing. All wires are underground. One large television aerial serves a nieghborhood. Factories must take measures against air pollution.

Finally, Skelm and Runcorn are to be socially balanced communities. People from different income groups are supposed to live side-by-side. A variety of industry will be encouraged to create a broad spectrum of working class types. Several housing clusters will share the same schools and community centers.