Commander Brian Paddick, the much-maligned Lambeth police chief, is not altogether wrong in his qualified support for "anarchy". Few people want the old London mob, or its equivalent elsewhere in the country, rampaging through the streets of our towns and cities. But the way in which we have depopulated so many of our streets, the ways in which we have tried to make them apparently squeaky clean by driving people from them, has made them more dangerous than they used to be. Busy streets that might look anarchic are often safe; they police themselves, more or less, while lifeless streets in towns and cities, especially after sunset, can be havens for muggers and yobs.

Since the 1950s, there has been an ill thought-out, yet commonly approved, attempt by town planners, local politicians, major retailers and property developers to strip life from British streets. The way in which we allow our cities to be rebuilt according to the whims of the property market rather than by civilised planning, or in contemporary political jargon "joined-up thinking", means that we have pushed people on low incomes from our city centres into ghetto-like estates.

We have replaced our busy streets with hermetic office blocks, gated shopping precincts and bland chain stores that belong to councils and corporations but not to the people. At the same time we have tended to strip our town and city centres of old street markets and family-run businesses and to pedestrianise what were once lively shopping streets, creating urban deserts, especially after dark.

It is not much fun to walk around the centres of Lewisham, Liverpool, Woking, Hereford, Stoke-on-Trent or even King's Lynn in the evening, all of which I have done recently. It seems astonishing that a small and seemingly charming seaside town like King's Lynn should be so eerily bereft of life as soon as the shops shut. These towns and cities all boast banal pedestrian precincts, with their ugly herring-bone brick pavements and concrete flower boxes riddled with sticky cans and stinking junk-food wrappers. After dark, they can be as dead as mortuaries. Few people feel comfortable walking down them alone.

In addition, each boasts its grim bus station reeking of vomit, its dark, pissed-in subways and its own special sordid public places that encourage anyone who wants to live a life more hygienic and nobler than that of a sewer rat to head out to the suburbs safe inside their gleaming car before darkness descends.

Many of our town centres, grim legacies of an unhealthy marriage between unimaginative town planning and fast-buck property development over the past 50 years, are discouraging places. What they do encourage is mistreatment by vandals and drunks. They are all too rarely the stuff of our dream Italian town and city centres. Where were the families parading, passegiata-style, up and down the streets of King's Lynn in the evening? It is not simply a question of climate: have you been to Copenhagen or St Petersburg in winter? Their streets are very much alive. People wrap up and go out to enjoy themselves.

Only a few years ago, Kensington and Chelsea council was trying to get rid of the fruit and vegetable market in London's Portobello Road. The councillors found the sight of a bit of veg on the streets during the day, and doubtless the sight of poor people for whom the market was a godsend, offensive. Tourists in search of a shiny antique might be put off, they thought. What they wanted, the council believed, was a Mary-Poppins-style street smelling of lemon-scented Toilet Duck rather than spinach and lemons, with a nice stretch of obligatory herring-bone red-brick paving to walk on. The result would have been a nail in the coffin of a London street that had, miraculously, retained and even developed its character.

We need to make our streets more alive than they have been for the past 50 years. We need to have people living in them, to encourage mixed-used development so that we have homes woven through shops and offices. We need more, not fewer, street markets. We need more, not fewer, street traders and entertainers. People need to feel they can police themselves and teenagers have to be involved with city life, not kept apart from it. If we continue to exclude life from our city centres in a vain attempt to control the anarchy we fear, we will only encourage more boredom, contempt and crime.

· Jonathan Glancey is the Guardian's architecture critic.
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