Back up plans: what old ideas would you retrieve from the past?
The central part of Croydon Tramlink runs in a loop, from East Croydon to West Croydon via Church Street, then ending up back where it started. For trams in general, this is a familiar trajectory.
In the 50s and 60s, trams were ditched in favour of buses and cars. When the last tram trundled out of London on 4 July 1952, 20,000 cheering people turned out to watch it leave, in “a send-off the American President might envy,” as a contemporary documentary put it.
And that, it was fair to assume, was that. Except that 30 years later, trams made a comeback, often in the same places they had been removed from only a generation before. Today, Croydon’s Tramlink takes passengers on more than 30m journeys a year, while the national figure is over 200m.
As cities across the world struggle to deal with congestion and pollution, a light rail renaissance has seen France go from three tramways in 1985 to 25 today. Shanghai, Adelaide and New Delhi plan to rebuild old systems; and even car-loving America now has over 30 cities with tramways.
What’s the best way to move backward as a society? If the question needs clarification, that’s because it’s not often asked. We’re constantly urged to innovate and look forward, but looking back is positively discouraged – deemed dangerous and unsavoury.
Our resolve to learn from history is all but forgotten: with the pace of change accelerating all the time as innovations seem to render old models of thought and behaviour obsolete, even the recent past has barely any relevance to the present.
In this atmosphere, only the most reactionary conservatives waste precious seconds looking back for solutions. Type ‘bring back’ into Google and the auto-complete suggests ‘the death penalty,’ ‘corporal punishment’ and ‘national service’.
But despite the urgent moving on, our society is facing a set of distinctly retrograde problems and challenges. In Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Piketty uses new evidence of rising inequality to describe our time as a second Gilded Age, rivalling the late 19th century in terms of income inequality.
Furthermore, Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson's book The Second Machine Age suggests that advances in computing power could mean we are entering an era of ‘technological unemployment’ reminiscent of the early days of the industrial revolution.
Alongside that, the austerity of the 30s, the housing shortage of the 50s and the energy crises of the 70s are repeating themselves. If ever there was a time to look back and seek solutions from history, you’d think it would be now.
I asked a lot of people what they would bring back. Among the many suggestions were: old varieties of fruit and vegetables, midwives, small arable fields, co-operatives, comprehensive regulation of financial industries, youth culture, county cricket festivals, O-levels, handwriting, a preference for phone over email, Psion-style keyboards for smartphones, the study of rhetoric in schools, unisex toys and female pubic hair.
Also: manners, chivalry, trust, fatalism, honour and Christianity. (“Is it possible to revive it and slough off all its horrible Anglican associations, at least as a moral code?” asked the philosopher Robert Rowland Smith.)
Lacking a clear sense of who should do the bringing back, people found it difficult to propose revivals with conviction. Ideas came prefaced with disclaimers: “It’s impossible, but…” or “It wouldn’t happen now.”
In 2008, Paul Hocker, play development manager at the charity London Play, was researching street parties in the British Library. “I typed in the wrong word,” he says. “I put ‘play street’ instead of ‘street play’ and this stuff came up from the 30s and 40s about streets being shut to create temporary playgrounds.” The practice had died out, but the legislation still exists – and London Play have been able to use it to bring back play streets in 12 London boroughs.
Last year, the regeneration agency Spacemakers revived public space in the London suburb of Cricklewood by touring a tiny mobile town square round the area for a month, pausing on forgotten patches of land to reclaim them as public spaces.
“If you try to bring stuff back people just think you’re being nostalgic,” says Spacemakers director Matt Weston. “What we wanted to do is prove it works.”