The decision of James Brokenshire, the Communities and Local Government Secretary, to peremptorily dismiss Sir Roger Scruton as chairman of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission was hugely ill-judged. We already know that Sir Roger’s comments in an interview with the New Statesman were deliberately and maliciously misrepresented. The least Brokenshire could do is to ask for a tape or full transcript of the interview to discover what Sir Roger actually said. Yet Brokenshire has not even done that. A really shabby episode – which has done far more to damage the reputation of the New Statesman and Brokenshire than of Sir Roger.
Unless and until an apology, and an offer of reinstatement, to Sir Roger is issued, the injustice of what has happened can not be ignored.
However, that is not to say that the cause the Commission was set up to champion should be abandoned. On the contrary we should resolve to pursue his mission. The Commission was never going to able to win the battle on its own. Its principles need to be applied by those in positions of power when decisions on planning and development are made. This is not just a challenge for Ministers, but for local councillors, including Conservative councillors, who too often have presided over the areas they represent being spoilt by approving ugly new buildings.
Usually, Tory councillors, like the rest of us, will prefer beautiful traditional design to the offensive modernist alternative. But when a planning officer or architect mutters the word “pastiche” the forces of beauty beat a retreat. I have known those who will be bold at dinner parties denouncing “hideous” proposed building, but then by cowed by “experts” in the Council offices the next day when it comes to a decision on what to do about it. Thus the guilty hypocrisy continues of those who find attractive homes for themselves, while choosing to provide concrete blocks for other people to live in.
If there was ever an excuse for this there certainly isn’t now. A social enterprise called Create Streets provides abundant material to refute the claims of the architectural establishment. Their most recent paper, Of Streets and Squares, is sponsored by Cadogan Estates. It is concerns with public spaces:
“What turns space that is public into a public space? Why are some streets and squares valued, yet others shunned? Why do people tend to prefer some places rather than others? How does this affect their behaviour? This study summarises existing research into why people like some squares and streets and avoid others.”
After a review of 18,966 streets and squares in six British cities – London, Manchester, Birmingham, Milton Keynes, Canterbury and Cambridge – it came up with some useful guidance. It proposed the following recommendations to developers:
- Gentle density is your friend – but ‘fine grain’ it! The best and most beautiful streets and squares are typically in areas of ‘gentle density’, half way between the extremes of tower block and extended suburbia They are rarely more than three to seven storeys high, with a land-use coverage between 45 and 65 per cent and dwelling density of between 50 and 150 homes per hectare. Squares between 80 and 100 metres wide and blocks between 50 and 150 metres long (depending on centrality) are normally best.
- When it comes to greenery, little and often is normally best. People like being in green places. Urban greenery is associated with increased physical and mental wellbeing, as long as it is used. You can maximise this by ‘spreading it around’, with frequent green spaces inter-weaved into streets and squares. Street trees are normally a no-brainer. However, greenery on its own does not normally ‘do it’, if most other things are wrong.
- Benches and statues should be structured, not randomised. Where seating is matters. Horizontal infrastructure, with a bit of structure, helps humans play the right roles: benches that face a fountain; an arcade that faces a square, with a statue or a podium in it. Brownian motion should not apply to the horizontal infrastructure. You cannot put ‘bench wash’ on an ugly and windy chasm or art wash on a traffic island. Or, you can, but most people will still avoid them. The best squares typically have an average of sitting area of between six and 10 per cent of the total open space.
- Beauty really really matters. The most popular places with a predictable 70-90 per cent of the population have a strong sense of place and ‘could not be anywhere.’ They have ‘active facades’ that ‘live’ and have variety in a pattern. They have streets that bend and flex with the contours of the landscape. They are not designed by committee. More finely-grained developments also tend to be more long-lasting and resilient, better able to adapt to changing needs. Their organised complexity attracts, interests and reassures at different scales. A square or street, with many plots, can see its buildings upgraded, enlarged, improved, even replaced, but still somehow remain the same, or at any rate a similar, place. Most beautiful cities are intense, coherent and rich in architectural detail. Health correlates more with ‘scenic-ness’ than greenery.
- Mix it up! Places with a textured mix of different land uses, and active façades, are nearly always more successful. They attract more people and generate more diverse and engaging environments. They can work for longer portions of the day, by mixing people at work, people at lunch, people at home and people at play. Mixed land use is also more walkable and is associated with lower car use, as it is possible to combine trips more easily. In King County, Washington, residents in mixed-use neighbourhoods don’t use their car 12 per cent of the time, compared to 4 per cent of trips in single-use areas.
- Edges attract and protect. The edges of streets and squares attract us. This is partly-lived experience. (It is where we are used to pavements going, even when a street is pedestrianised). But it is also sensory. There is more to look at (shop fronts, cafés) and (in a square) edges allow us to step back and either watch the world go past, or sample the space.
- People like to feel enclosed… up to a point. Most people like to spend time in places that are enclosed and human scale, without feeling too claustrophobic. There is a necessary moment for views that open up as you round a corner, for grand vistas, for open parks, but many of the most popular streets surrounding and linking such views and vistas are surprisingly human-scale. Few of the most popular streets are wider than 30 metres or narrower than 11 metres. Popular wider streets (Paseo de Gracia or Champs-Elysees) normally ‘break up’ their width with avenues of trees.
- It’s not what you spend, it’s where and how you spend it. Investing money in improving carriageways, pavements and horizontal infrastructure often works. Our Place Beauty Analysis found that investment in public realm was associated with increasing ‘scenic-ness.’ Normally, you should invest in places where the ‘intrinsic’ quality of urban form and design are good, but poor maintenance, or poor quality public realm, is needlessly letting them down. Also find tactical ways of improving streets, without big budget expenditure, and support community-led initiatives wherever possible.
- Walkability works but does not quite mean maximising space to walk. Compact, walkable and ‘bikeable’ environments are good for you. People walk in them more and are healthier and happier. This in turn drives higher values for investors. A complex array of elements encourages or discourages people walking or cycling rather than jumping in the car. More walking is encouraged by beautiful engaging façades, regularly spaced trees, and frequent small parks, the presence of resting places, arcades or colonnades at the edge of busy squares, outside cafes, sufficiently wide pavements and cycling lanes. Huge pavements with everything else wrong won’t necessarily be very attractive.
- Do people say they like it? And do they mean it? Design is not rocket science. We all spend time in towns, in streets and squares. People are very good at judging what they like and where they want to be. And it is increasingly easy to use technology to map where people do spend time, or to understand this not by asking simplistic questions, but by performing proper visual preference surveys. Doing this can correct for the ‘design disconnect’ (the measurable difference between the design preferences of design professionals and everyone else) and help crowdsource making better places, which people really like.
The fire at Notre-Dame Cathedral reminded us of the historian Kenneth Clark turning to it and saying:
“What is civilisation? I don’t know. I can’t define it in abstract terms, yet. But I think I can recognise it when I see it. And I’m looking at it now.”
Surely we should have the self-confidence to recognise beauty when we see it in the designs proposed for new buildings. We could all think of points to add or subtract from the Create Streets list. What is needed is the determination to pursue the ideals that encompass that approach.