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Have you noticed something a bit odd about those computer-generated graphics that accompany plans for new developments? There aren’t any old people in them.

Neither are there people with disabilities. And if there are children or teenagers, they’re well-dressed and impeccably behaved.

As for the buildings themselves, they’re always bathed in bright sunshine with the occasional fluffy cloud, or seen reflecting stunning sunset colours in acres of glass, or viewed at night illuminated by state-of-the-art lighting (without drunks discarding their KFC containers on the doorstep). You can forgive architects and public relations people for wanting to put the best possible gloss on their work, but planners might make better decisions if it became compulsory for new developments to be portrayed in the much more likely context of a fine British drizzle.

Many a bland box has been approved with the help of a bit of digital dexterity. But even buildings whose merits need no pixelled propaganda stand or fall in the context of those who use them. It only takes a few years of pigeon infestation to turn a Victorian masterpiece into a guano-stained eyesore; it takes a graffiti tagger a couple of minutes to transform a spanking new office into a symbol of urban decay.

Our cities and towns succeed or fail more by the actions of their inhabitants than by the quality of their built environment, vital though that is. The real shock of last week’s devastation of New Orleans came not in the damage to bricks and mortar but in the revelations and rumours about the behaviour of a minority of the city’s residents. At the same time the hope for its future lies with the many who in the face of massive personal loss still had the humanity to perform thousands of unreported acts of heroism.

Whatever happens to New Orleans - and we might question the wisdom of rebuilding a metropolis below sea level - it will ultimately be the creation of the people, not just of the authorities and the engineers. The rebuilding of Manchester following the IRA bomb, though on a far smaller scale, shows it is possible to do more than simply salvage the past; so too does the reconstruction of Beirut after years of civil war.

In realising such visions, whether for a city or a neighbourhood, we store up the seeds of their destruction unless all have a stake in the future. Cities built for the affluent and influential are as deeply suspect as architects’ computer-generated graphics.

Julian Dobson, editor

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