The chapter on design in London Mayor Boris Johnson’s draft Housing Design Guidelines begins with the deeply depressing statement “We have to make flats work as well for families as they do for individuals”.
All the evidence of the last fifty years suggests that despite the dreams of architects and best intentions of planners and politicians, flats have not worked for families and because they have not worked for families, they have not worked for individuals either.
The destruction of traditional streets of terraced housing in the name of slum clearance, swept away far more than just bricks and mortar. Often, what disappeared was the extended family, to whom you might turn if you needed help with shopping, or the neighbour, who would take your child after school one week in return for you doing the same the next.
And what was the effect of losing those intangible networks? And of building so many social homes on the model of the flat or maisonette? Or building all those homes in the same place and, finally, of a policy of allocating those homes to those with the least chance of being in work?
In the words of James Gregory of the Fabian Society in his recent book, In The Mix, “It has been a history of poor planning and poor supply, an allocations system that compounds the problems of poverty and public housing and a system of beliefs and prejudices that condemns a large portion of our fellow citizens to the category of second class citizen.”
Now, with rising housing waiting lists and under the dictats of the regional planners working to central Government targets, we again face pressure to build ever more apartments to achieve “higher density” to meet this supposed need. We could well be in danger of repeating the mistakes of the past and building the slums of the future if we do. Yet it need not be like this.
A neighbourhood needs a balance of home types and tenures. People need to be able to move around an area as their circumstances change and the stability created by families putting down roots and becoming part of the “community” is an intangible benefit which is has only come to be recognised and valued now that it has, in so many cases, been lost.
So look at what works. Look at the places which do not need “regenerating”. You will find about half the stock – in a major city, more in the suburbs and smaller towns – will be family houses with gardens. You will find apartments, but they will not dominate, and you will find that there is a range of homes and people living in them, from individual young adults to elderly singles and all stages of life in between. That is what needs to be accommodated and that is what needs to be recreated if we are to lay, literally, the building blocks of fixing our broken neighbourhoods.
And “high density” does not have to mean “high rise”. Indeed, in many cases “high rise” was not even very high density in the first place. Many tower blocks sit amidst a sea of green space. Nobody knows who owns that green space, few care about it and it becomes the meeting place for gangs and the dumping ground for abandoned shopping trolleys. But it is potentially the key to building the community back in to our neighbourhoods.
A traditional street of terraced houses will be built at a density of about 3-400 habitable rooms per hectare (HR/Ha). Make those homes three and four stories high – providing larger family accommodation perhaps – add some four to six storey apartments on the ends and corners of grids of streets and you raise this figure to 5-600 HR/Ha. Clever design can make what looks like a pair of five storey terraced houses in fact provide two houses on the lower two floors and six flats above them.
Provide your open space as courtyard gardens for the houses, opening out on to semi-private gardens shared between the houses and apartments on the corners. You keep the open space, but give residents a sense of ownership and responsibility. Add some more flats, perhaps extra care homes for elderly people over shops at the “village” centre and handy for public transport, and you can easily build the range of homes which makes a neighbourhood work.
If you want to see how this can be done, I recommend research by the Essex Design Initiative and the Stirling Prize winning Accordia development in Cambridge, which is a fantastic example of modern housing design at around 400 HR/Ha. I do not recommend the Athlete’s Village for the Olympics in London. There, because the original developer can’t raise the money, you, the taxpayer, are paying for the building of high-rise and high-density apartments at over 1,100HR/Ha with nine flats for every house. Complete with the seas of green on which so much more could have been achieved.
Finally, I want to highlight a study by Richard Macormac of MJP Architects, to show what an alternative vision could look like. Richard proposed what he termed a “sustainable suburb” which would accommodate a community of 13-15,000 people.
In a circle with a radius of just 600m, (a land area of 113 hectares), which he assumed to be around a village centre and/or transport hub to encourage walking not driving, he laid out: a health centre; primary schools; a secondary school; nursery schools; a library; a leisure centre with 2ha of playing fields; local shops and all the access roads and cycleways for the scheme, plus 4Ha of public open space.
That left 100 hectares on which he proposed 3,500 family houses with gardens and 1,500 apartments. The houses, with their gardens, took up 70 hectares, the apartments, a further ten hectares. That left another 20 hectares for other uses, sports clubs, more open space, shared gardens etc.
Assuming the following mix of house types: 500 six bedroom houses, 1,500 four bedroom houses and 1,500 three bedroom houses, plus 250 three bedroom apartments, 500 two bedroom apartments and 750 one bedroom apartments. The “density” of the housing on 80 hectares was 312HR/Ha. Across the whole 113 hectares of the hypothetical scheme, the ratio is just 221HR/Ha.
In London or other major cities, you could adopt a design closer to the “city square” described above and you could almost double the number of homes, yet still do it with more than 50% family houses with gardens, built around streets, not estates.
By contrast, the re-building of the Ferrier Estate in Greenwich will provide 4,800 homes on 109 hectares. Phase one has 379 apartments and just 80 houses with gardens and there are fewer houses in later
So the key messages from this are:
A family home should be a house with a garden, not a flat.
Don’t believe any developer, architect or planner who says you can’t build houses with gardens and still meet the need.
Because we can – and we should – build families back in to our cities.