In The Times recently, Clare Foges wrote(£):
“There is a kind of inequality that few mention in this country — an inequality that is as stark and dispiriting as the rest. Let’s call it aesthetic inequality. Many deprived areas are horribly ugly — and we should take more seriously the effect this has on people’s spirits and lives.
“In the debate on poverty, all energy is expended on weighty issues such as welfare, education and housing. The views that frame our lives don’t get a look in. Yet how does it corrode aspirations and limit horizons if everything around you is grey, decrepit, rubbish?”
The rich also “have to scuttle through bleak townscapes every now and then”. But the rich are more likely to live in terraced streets than tower blocks – and, anyway, can afford the respite from urban brutalism by going on holiday.
A report that has just been published by ResPublica stresses the importance of “putting communities at the heart” of estate redevelopment. That is quite right. The problem is that it doesn’t really focus on the urban design elements. But the latter is the biggest opportunity to win community support for redevelopment. There needs to be a prize that is worth all the disruption and uncertainty of existing homes being bulldozed. However much effort is put into the consultation process, if the only choices are different concrete blocks then that is pretty hopeless. Even that level of decision-making is often aspirational. More often the choice is about small fiddly changes to concrete blocks of prescribed shape and number.
I am not claiming that providing beautiful homes in the place of ugly ones is enough. The “deal” for existing residents – right to return, future rents and so on – will be the most pressing concern. But there will always be a financial limit to how much extra money can be provided. Ultimately there needs to be a prospect of ending up with a better home – not just as measured by square feet but a more attractive home in more attractive surroundings. Just planting a couple of trees around new tower blocks isn’t enough. The replacement buildings need to be neo-classical – and thus to be regarded by most residents as beautiful – for the whole process to be worth the hassle.
The ResPublica report praises a scheme where:
“The local community, including the local residents’ association, have been directly engaged in the process of delivering the new community hub, a new outdoor gym, landscaping and a sensory garden…”
That is not enough if the vital design elements for the main buildings are deficient. The problem is that in the relevant example (Mountearl Estate in Lambeth) what has been done is hideous.
The report talks of “giving communities power over regeneration schemes where they are planned”. But it doesn’t say what kinds of power. It doesn’t include the power over what the scheme will look like, the fundamental design. There is praise for “extensive community discussions, engagement and ongoing communication” – residents are right to be cynical of this sort of blather. Real power would would include “charrettes” – where resident workshops work through the choice of design. The report mentions them in passing as a possible option.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be disappointed. The acknowledgements at the start of the report mention the involvement of the Royal Institute of British Architects. Enough said. Of course the last thing RIBA wants is “interference” from ordinary people giving opinions on what buildings should look like.