New neighbourhoods should be socially, as well as physically, constructed. Isabel Allen argues that the eccentricity and evangelism of determined visionaries trumps public sector policy every time
‘If you build it, they will come.’ President Roosevelt’s prediction for the Panama Canal has become the mantra for all manner of grands projets and crackpot schemes, from Kevin Costner’s baseball diamond in the 1989 film Field of Dreams to former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s plans − unveiled in 2007 − to build a string of eco-towns across the UK.
But canals and baseball fields are one thing; new neighbourhoods quite another. While it has distanced itself from the term ‘eco-town’, the British coalition government has pledged to speed up large-scale residential developments. But who are they actually for? The stock answer is a democratically inclusive ‘anyone’. How do we know they’ll come? We’ll ask them what they want. Consultation is king.
But consulting ‘anyone’ is pretty much the same as consulting no one. In the absence of a clearly defined constituency, ‘visioning’ is left to hastily-assembled task forces and think tanks. Energy is channelled into courting those who might be able to access the obscene amounts of money required to launch such projects. And so begins a process which is the polar opposite of thinking, dreaming, exploring possibilities, of conjuring up a blueprint for a Brave New World. The frenzied hunt for project finance implies an inevitable slide towards conservatism. Investment decisions are based on ‘official’ and ‘objective’ predictions as to the value of the finished product. This magic number decreed by estate agents and marketeers.
But agents are programmed to sell − and so to value − properties as opposed to neighbourhoods. They trade in one-off transactions with individual clients. Property particulars present the house as a self-contained fiefdom: the Englishman’s pint-sized castle. The neighbourhood is reduced to a footnote: Ofsted’s assessment of the local school, the proximity of the local railway station and the standard insistence that leisure, retail and open space are reassuringly close at hand. They are not equipped − or inclined − to ascribe a value to that which they cannot sell. To communal facilities or public space, let alone to collective aspirations or societal change.
Big − shared − ideas take root in people, and conversation, in common purpose and shared dreams. As Lucy Musgrave points out in her article, the most successful contemporary large-scale regeneration projects are shaped by consensus and community engagement. Post-earthquake Christchurch, while devastated, was also driven by a united populace armed with a shared repository of memories, cultural references, values and, perhaps most important of all, the ‘war-time spirit’ that thrives in the face of shared adversity. But what if the community has yet to be defined? How do you establish a collective consciousness where none of these bonds exists?
History suggests that you need a vision − an idea − that is strong enough to take root in the public imagination. That is sufficiently idiosyncratic to be anathema to some people, yet rich with promise to others. In his book Garden Cities of Tomorrow (originally published in 1898 as To-Morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform), Ebenezer Howard communicated a vision that was so compelling and clear that it spawned Letchworth Garden City and a host of subsequent urban experiments from Hampstead Garden Suburb to Canberra, Australia’s capital city.
Tribal instincts and caricatures
Now a byword for respectable suburbia, Letchworth attracted a very particular population − pithily characterised by George Orwell as ‘every fruit juice drinker, nudist, sandal wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, nature cure quack, pacifist and feminist in England’. Orwell was not alone in voicing derision: its detractors included John Betjeman who devoted two poems − Group Life: Letchworth and Huxley Hall − to poking fun at the community’s earnest utopianism.
Democratically elected governments cannot risk derision and scorn. Unlike, say, the Prince of Wales, who unapologetically threw his weight behind Poundbury’s stylistic nostalgia, or Bill Dunster, who bullishly champions ZEDsquared (his design for a zero-carbon city block that can be replicated ad infinitum to produce a self-sufficient neighbourhood of any size required), our elected leaders sidestep issues of lifestyle or style. They paint a picture so nebulous and indistinct that nobody is offended − but nobody really cares.
They define their ‘vision’ in terms of quantifiable ambitions − carbon emissions, waste targets and so on. When pressed, they speak of families with children, the essential building block of respectable Middle England. But respectability doesn’t lend itself to radical urban change. Orwell’s motley assortment of misfits finds its modern-day equivalent in the ‘pioneer’ demographic that has transformed Totnes from a sleepy backwater into an exemplar Transition Town.1 Or indeed the writers, designers, film-makers, squatters and students that occupied the London slumlands of Camden, Clerkenwell and Shoreditch, turningthem not into lawless urban jungles, but rather hotbeds of creativity, functioning neighbourhoods − and highly desirable real estate.
These newly-invented neighbourhoods have been shaped and honed by a populace that has the restless energy, the maverick spirit, to inhabit, invigorate and eventually reinvent places that have fallen on hard times; that works flexibly and livessociably, bringing life to bars, cafés and streets; that deals in ideas and stories; that is driven to make sense of their surroundings, to tell stories, to communicate. Or to put it in the stultifying parlance of urban design, that creates the narrative of the neighbourhood and establishes a sense of place.
New neighbourhoods are viewed primarily as a means of supplementing the UK’s housing stock − understandable given that we need to build an estimated 230,000 houses a year to keep pace with demand. This focus on the residential quarter − the suburb − views home-ownership as an end in itself. But our ‘pioneers’ want more than a ring-fenced place to live. They want a quality of life and a livelihood. They gravitate towards cheap, flexible working space; towards spaces that offer potential for a fluid relationship between work and play, and freedom from the shackles of nine-to-five employment and the daily commute.
Upside down and inside out
Every enlightened approach to development - from Smart Growth2 to One Planet Living3 - embraces the notion that residents should ideally be able to walk to work. At Hab,4 we are looking at models that go further still; that offer the potential for work to be interwoven with leisure time and family life. We are familiar with the notion of progressive employers providing crèche facilities for employees. But what if we turn this model on its head? What if you build a school that offers flexible workspace too? Parents − even primary carers − could put in the same working days as their children. The school run and the work commute would be one and the same.
Perhaps, too, it’s time to revisit, or reverse, conventions about working from home. Technology has liberated us from the workplace but, in so doing, condemned droves of workers to spend their days deprived of company and hidden from view. Could we build a neighbourhood that reasserts the social dimension of professional life?
What if we stop designing buildings that are either houses, or shops or commercial space, and start designing buildings that are either or both? What if we stop relegating the home-office to a space where filing cabinet and desk jockey for position with the sofa bed and celebrate it as the interface between the private dwelling and the public realm? Alison Brooks’ housing at Newhall in Essex starts to explore the potential for housing with a more active, open and dynamic ground floor establishing a more fluid relationship with the street. At Hab, we are exploring models that incorporate a ‘shop window’ at ground floor level − a move that offers the potential for home-working to have a public face, and that might just act as a prompt to would-be entrepreneurs. How many of us would open a shop, a restaurant, a bar, if the premises were immediately to hand?
A neighbourhood of shopkeepers
There is, of course, a long-established precedent: the flat above the shop − a building type that is currently regarded as the bête noire of urban life. Images of battered high-streets with boarded-up ground floors have become the leitmotif of Broken Britain. Prime Minister David Cameron has famously drafted in Mary Portas, television’s ‘Queen of Shops’, to help reverse the trend. Despite Portas’s best efforts, somewhere between 20 and 30 British shops are closing down every day.
In fairness, the underlying causes are somewhat beyond her remit. Some − global recession, the rise of internet shopping − are beyond the place-makers’ remit too. But others are intrinsic to the way existing neighbourhoods work: high parking fees that discourage shoppers; supermarkets offering cut-price competition; the tendency of boarded-up shops to trigger a downward spiral of abandonment and despair. If we design our neighbourhoods in accordance with the ‘five minute model’ whereby residents can shop, work, learn and play without getting into a car, parking fees cease to act as a deterrent.
If we design for small enterprise but expressly preclude the super-scale, the supermarket threat disappears. If the resident of the living space owns the commercial space too they have a vested interest in keeping the entire premises respectable. There is no reason for boarded-up shop space: if it isn’t needed for commercial activity it is simply reclaimed as part of the house.
For this to work − for the ground floor of residential streets to have the capacity to become part of the public realm − we need to revisit assumptions about parking. The perceived wisdom that every self-respecting householder needs to be able to watch over the car − or cars − poses a natural barrier of vehicles between dwellings and the street. Our early proposals for Pickard’s Small Field in Swindon, were for a car-free residential zone with narrow pedestrian streets surrounded by much wider boulevards with ample parking either side. ‘Official’ advice, from agents and funders, argued that individual households need demarcated parking space outside their front door.
But is this really so? The success − and appeal − of Freiburg in south-west Germany (winner of the Academy of Urbanism’s European City of the Year award in 2010) is widely attributed to the foresight of the postwar planning director Joseph Schlippe who resisted pressure to rebuild his war-ravaged city centre as a ‘progressive’ car-friendly grid and instead reinstated its medieval, walkable, street pattern. While Schlippe was derided, and ultimately ousted, for his conservatism, his legacy is an effective eco-city where trams serve a dense network of people-friendly spaces and streets. That modern-day Freiburg boasts two of the world’s most successful eco-suburbs and a Green Party mayor may reflect the fact that its population understands that neighbourhoods work best when cars are relegated to a supporting role.
A framework for fertile ground
Perhaps we need to approach these new developments less as an exercise in volume house-building and more as an opportunity to cultivate fertile ground for neighbourhoods to flourish. We need to focus on the big moves − green infrastructure, public transport, the provision (or otherwise) for private cars − and establish a physical and policy framework that supports small-scale grass roots enterprise and disregards conventional distinctions between domestic and commercial space. Perhaps we need to stop worrying about design codes and accept that a strong framework based on green infrastructure and strong masterplanning should be able to accommodate a degree of architectural anarchy. (Even Letchworth has its architectural anomalies, including The Cloisters, an eccentric open-air school where students slept on hammocks and studied theosophical meditation. As if to demonstrate just how far the town has travelled from its Bohemian roots, the building is now a masonic lodge.)
We need to focus less on individual house sales and more on attracting those with an interest in building a community: self-builders, co-housing groups, Community Land Trusts. This is a different kind of offer.
The opportunity to buy a pre-packaged chunk of a ready-made milieu is replaced with an invitation to invest in a community, to fashion a different way of life; not just to invest in a house but to shape a place. It’s an approach that turns Roosevelt’s mantra on its head: if you persuade people to come, the neighbourhood might just build itself.