Who was it that asked why we admire one kind of place but consistently build something very different? Well, I think it was Prince Charles, but it is still a good question. There is no lack of guidance about what good urbanism should look like. We recognise it and like it when we see it, but most of what we build is still poor. It’s depressing really because in the UK we lived through a period under the New Labour government when there was an unprecedented national policy focus on promoting good design. We had CABE (and still have Architecture & Design Scotland) and produced reams of design guidance toolkits and quality standards, and yet still most the urban environments we created were not particularly good.
And now no one is interested, the moment has passed and government has other priorities. Which is why The Academy of Urbanism has been thinking a lot about housing recently. Housing is the only game in town if you talk to government and the focus is on numbers rather than quality or design. We can see this narrowing of focus in the progression from English Partnerships to the Homes and Communities Agency and soon to just Homes England. The approach seems to be ‘yes, it would be nice if the housing looks alright and creates good neighbourhoods, but let’s not allow design sensibilities get in the way of achieving the numbers’.
Following the housing is not necessarily a bad idea if you want to promote good urbanism. If the city were a body then the vast majority of the cells would be individual homes. If we could work out how to create good quality residential neighbourhoods we would have gone a long way to creating good urbanism. So at the Academy we have been doing just that, working with our members who are involved in housing and engaging with the government through Lord Taylor of Goss Moor. As part of this we have been looking back at the 180 places that we have visited and assessed as part of our awards scheme to see what we might learn about creating good residential neighbourhoods.
Most of these places are old and were created before the modern planning era. There is much we can learn from the way that they were designed, but the magic ingredient is often little more than the passage of time and the mellowing of age. If we focus on the new places, and particularly the new housing neighbourhoods, what we find are a series of stories of exceptional effort. In each case from Accordia in Cambridge to Newhall in Harlow, Hulme in Manchester to Coin Street in London we find a story of an architect or planner, developer, community group or local authority pulling out all the stops to battle against mediocrity – and even sometimes against their own best commercial interests – to create something really special.
Our response tends to be to urge everyone to emulate these exceptional examples. We go on study tours to the Netherlands and Scandinavia and come back wringing our hands in frustration that our planners and architects can’t produce the same sort of quality. We bemoan the lack of skills in local authorities and the poor training in planning and architecture school. We write more design toolkits and urban codes to try and mandate quality, and still what we build is poor.
It shouldn’t be this difficult. Indeed it wasn’t so when most of the older neighbourhoods recognised in the Academy’s Urbanism Awards were built. A land owner – often a city, one of the great estates or an industrial philanthropist – commissioned a masterplan, constructed the roads, delineated building plots, wrote a few rules that were incorporated into the deeds of each plot and sold them off. It didn’t always work but more often than not it did, even when the people involved were, like most of us, unexceptional. The problem today is that we work within a system, whether it be the housing market, the housebuilding industry or the planning system, that makes mediocrity and worse the norm and our response is to urge people to be exceptional so that they can overcome this system. I realise now that I have argued myself into a corner by suggesting that the only way to get better design is to overthrow the system. This may not be the most practical way forward but there is a growing sense that the system does need wholesale reform. This is not because of a recognition that it creates bad places, even though it does, but because it doesn’t produce the housing numbers.
But in the meantime what’s to be done? Once the government does succeed in increasing housing numbers (and there are signs that it is succeeding) how do we ensure that we don’t end up with a million new homes by 2022 that are mostly poor? We should of course work to improve the 120-150,000 homes a year that will be produced within the existing system, by the volume housebuilders. However, a significant slice of the new housing that will come forward will be promoted much more directly by the public sector, through garden cities, sustainable urban extensions and urban regeneration schemes. This is where we should focus if we are going to create a model for housebuilding, maybe even where we can create a new system. So at The Academy of Urbanism we have been exploring what this might look like.
My personal preference is a cook book. If you want someone to be a good cook, you don’t simply take them to the best restaurant as an example of ‘best practice’ and then make them feel bad about falling short of these standards. You don’t write design guides outlining the characteristics of a good meal, or set up tasting panels to assess the quality of their efforts. You write a cook book, which enables even mediocre cooks to produce quality meals. What if we could set out a recipe that, if followed, would create good places as the norm rather than the exception? Then we might no longer need to go to the Netherlands to see examples of good housing.
David Rudlin is chair of The Academy of Urbanism