Let us imagine a world where architects, planners, and property developers embraced beauty rather than brutalism. Would that not have a significant impact in easing resistance to the building of new homes?
The energetic think-tank, Create Streets, has already done a lot of work on that theme and has just produced another report, Heart in the Right Street, available for £10 here. While the general idea is simple, the detailed work to back it up is necessary. This is not a matter of sentimental nostalgia. Create Streets proclaim:
“This report is an attempt to summarise the sociological data for maximising wellbeing for the greatest number in the modern city or town.”
Just as brutalism is reinforcing, so is beauty. So often we hear the excuse that a new tower block is “appropriate” as there are already tower blocks in the vicinity. This argument applies the other way around. So if more street trees are planted, or ugly modernist lamp posts are replaced by the traditional lantern design, this raises the expectations for the appearance of buildings adjoining them.
Of course one essential rule is not to have tower blocks. But another is not to have slab blocks. The report calls for:
“Blocks that are neither too big nor too long. Buildings that appear to be buildings not entire blocks. Often narrow fronts with many doors and a strong ‘sense of the vertical’ to break up the scale of a terraced block. Clear fronts and backs with very clear internal private or communal gardens inside blocks. No deck access.”
There is much dispute about the economics of tower blocks in terms of density. But even if high rise were to be the way to achieve high density (which generally it isn’t) there are other costs to consider. Tower blocks mean more crime. They are bad for your health. They harm the educational outcomes for your children.
The pursuit of happiness is not just about becoming rich (although that generally helps). Also important is “that place, where you live, your daily physical experiences very definitely can and frequently do have a measurable impact on your happiness”. What follows on from this is that beauty matters:
“Environmental psychologists have shown that our brains respond positively to beauty, to green spaces, to gentle surprises and pleasant memories. We dislike sharp edges, darkness, sudden loud noises. Neuroscientists are also beginning to study why this is and how emotion and memory impacts our responses to our physical environments.”
Greenery matters but it needs to be the right kind. Even modestly sized private gardens make a big difference:
“There is some evidence that the actual experience of gardening, of physically engaging with the soil brings the most benefits of all. UK focus group research by MORI also shows that, given the choice, most people would rather have access to modest private gardens which they can use effortlessly every day and which seem to work better in managing family stress and wellbeing.”
The snobbish hostility to suburban life is at odds with the evidence:
“In a New Zealand study, suburban dwellers were eleven percentage points more likely to say they were happy with where they lived than central city dwellers (75 per cent vs. 64 per cent).”
There is also a thumbs up for steps up to the front door:
“Steps to the front door, and raised porches would also appear to be good for both your physical and mental health – certainly if you are elderly – based on recent research….steps up to the front door would encourage social interaction (a place to sit and talk like a front garden) while also providing for a socially-reassuring (and more private) raised ground floor from which to watch the world go by and interact with it.”
Traditional street patterns are also important.
To have a long as well as a happy life the evidence shows you should live in an old house:
“There is a significant and robust relation between older homes and greater life expectancy. At the very least this tells us that more prosperous people with a healthier lifestyle are attracted to older homes. Very possibly it tells us something more – that there is something inherent in the nature of older properties (their urban form, their more generous space, their arrangement of green space).”
But as this report shows, that success can be replicated. New houses can be traditional and beautiful. We just need the wishes of the people to triumph over the planners.