The year may have changed but housing remains the greatest political challenge of our times (Brexit is a bit of a doddle by comparison). I have stressed the importance of attractive, traditional design – so despised by planning officers but loved by most of the rest of us. If that became the norm then many of the other obstacles would melt away. Opposition to building on the Green Belt (much of which includes land which is pretty scuzzy) would be forgotten. Regeneration schemes on council estates would became less controversial as residents embraced the proposals – one can hardly wonder at the protests when the deal is to be “decanted” from an existing tower block into a temporary tower block and then plonked back into a new tower block on the original site a couple of years later.
So beauty is crucial. Yet it is not enough. Urban form also matters – the configuration of the new homes. How do they fit in with each other and existing buildings? Of course the beauty of a particular building and its context with it surroundings are linked. Consider front steps, for example. This is an attractive traditional feature of a house. But as Clive Aslet puts it, the front step also provides a “demarcation between the private space of the home and the public street”.
The social enterprise, Create Streets, included the following points in their publication Love Thy Neighbourhood.
“Greenery. Frequent green spaces inter-woven into the city either as private gardens, communal gardens or well-overlooked public spaces between blocks and where people really need them and frequent them. Large parks are necessary but need not be ubiquitous. Lots of street trees;
Homes. Somewhere between the very real and valued advantages of suburban living but at greater densities (think terraces of houses with some flats) and without the long commutes and consequent isolation. Children preferably in houses not flats. As many houses as possible;
Connectivity and streets. Streets that ‘plug into’ the surrounding city. A well-connected, highly walkable, traditional street pattern of differing types and sizes with multiple junctions and route choices. Some pedestrian or bicycle only streets, but mostly mixed with generous pavements.
Land use. Mixed use of residential, commercial and retail wherever possible and where traffic implications can be managed. Retail nearly always interspaced with commercial and dotted around primarily residential as far as density permits;
Space. Minimal internal semi-private space. No residential corridors. As few doors as possible off the same ‘core.’ External open space normally less than about 90m in breadth;
Facades. No long blank walls but frequent front doors (ideally with modest front gardens) or shop fronts. ‘Walking architecture’ is more popular, more complex and more valuable than ‘driving architecture.’ Some front doors should have steps for social and public health reasons.”
Part of beauty is about variety – some quirkiness, individual character. Green space is important but it is not about a box-ticking mathematical requirement. A small park in walking distance might be of greater value than a large park further away. Council estates often have quite a bit of green space – but it is unloved when it is overwhelmed by the sea of concrete. We do not need high rise to achieve high density. Enough density is important for a viable community – where the shop, pub, cafe, school, GP, and church are in walking distance. But not too much density as to be overcrowded.
There is a lot of common sense in all this. It is really a matter of reflecting public preferences. This is not something that the planning system tends to achieve. Generally it is better for buildings to be muddled up a bit. The creation of a town from a master plan does not work. Milton Keynes is the obvious example. Zoning caused it to be virtually impossible to walk anywhere but instead rely on a soulless grid of roads. Villages were destroyed to be replaced by roundabouts and concrete cows.
The new garden villages, towns and cities can succeed if they are developed with the grain of human nature. Beautiful buildings are essential to that mission – but how they are placed in relation to each other is also key.